Friday, March 1, 2013

When Grief Goes On and On

Not all veterans are men
I recently visited the Westside VA Medical Center in Los Angeles and spoke to people in their palliative care division. These are professionals who counsel veterans of all ages. I learned a lot from them, and frankly, not much of it was good.

We talked about survivor guilt and grief, and how they are factors in post-deployment mental health issues (PTSD, substance abuse, suicide).

My research lately has focused on recent vets, and the suicide epidemic affecting active duty troops. But I learned that grief for comrades – and complicating guilt – lasts for decades.

One person I spoke to works with Vietnam and WW2 vets. Both aging populations, as they near the end of their lives they feel the need to talk. Often for the first time, they describe their time in war: what they saw, what they did, who they lost. They talk about guilt for what they had to do and who they couldn’t save.

They kept their experiences from their families, to protect them from the truth and to avoid judgment. Now, only after a terminal diagnosis, were they able to get it off their chests, the grief and guilt that had weighed them down for decades.

The vets returning now have even more complications to deal with: multiple deployments, traumatic brain injuries, instant re-entry. The last point was something I hadn’t considered. In previous wars, there was time to decompress on the way home: on a train, a ship, a series of flights. Now they travel from battlefield to home in less than 24 hours, with no time to process what’s happened to them. It’s hard to imagine a tougher transition.

This is not the time or place to critique active duty or veteran mental health services. There is much that is being done and much more that needs to be done for our military.

No one “gets over” grief or guilt. The best we can hope for is that these brave men and women have the help they need.


Anonymous said...

I can't imagine going from a war region to seeing family and the pet dog within 24 hours. There are so many variables to "going home".

Extremes, that cause surrealism, must be even more difficult to cope with: It isn't just going from one place to another: it is one temperature to another (sand to snow, perhaps); In a war region, there is fear of violence but you know you have backup. Going home to your family, there you may retain that fear of violence ... but there is no backup; There is loss of routine combined with the additional problem about worrying about your mates still in the war region. And, there are the weird "Hmm, I never would have thought I'd have this problem" kind of thing: For example, I worked in Thailand (3 villages away from a big town) for awhile (non-military). When I moved back to the US, it took me probably 5 years to trust that walking on the grass was safe (that I wouldn't tread on or come up close and personal with a snake). And, over 25 years later, I still scan grass as I walk, even while on a sidewalk.

I can understand how fears are created to protect us and then get out of hand ... However, there are also fears that no one would expect to happen to them or anyone else. No one should judge another if the fear gets locked into someone's Being. It doesn't make you less or more of a man/woman to admit a problem.

My father was in China, at age 17, in the USMC. He was a Marine for 30 years. He was in Vietnam twice. I grew up with him flying off and being gone for 2 weeks to a year without us really knowing where he was. He would return, as my Dad, yet someone new, as well. If we were asked to wake Dad up for supper, we had to stand across the room from him if he had fallen asleep in an armchair. Any closer when he jumped up out of the chair, in fighting mode, we might be hit. To fear the one you love and not understand why is difficult. He is 85 years old and still does it. He was born of the generation that wouldn't admit "I have a problem". Plus, the military back then did not acknowledge emotions.

How I wish that Dad could have received help years ago so that my brothers and I could have grown up without fearing him. We never understood why each time he returned he was more distant. We truly thought it was because we were lacking! So, it is important to get help for yourself and for your family. Don't just let it go.

Damaged and bruised, emotionally, I love my Dad so very much. Don't think that your loved ones will love you less, but don't make their life hell if you can try to make things better for yourselves and them.

Being able to get tips and help on treating emotional problems is no longer a taboo, in the military. Please take advantage of the programs offered. There are Apps that help you with Biofeedback and EMDR treatment so that you can help yourself while being linked to someone who will monitor your interactions. How cool is that? hugs to all those who have served, are serving ... and to the family members who love them dearly.

Friend Grief said...

A belated thank you for sharing such a powerful story. You've touched upon another sad casualty of all this pain: families.

Hopefully, with so much attention now being paid to the mental and emotional health of our returning military, they can get the help they need.