Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
My 23 year old daughter lost her husband two years ago. He was a soldier and her high school sweetheart. He was killed in a car accident on a military base. She is so lost and devastated. She feels like she has lost her identity and has questioned everything in life now. She has started to self-medicate and is so angry at everyone. I love her much and want to help. What do I do? How can I help her? Feel like I’m walking on eggshells. Any advice or resources would be appreciated.
Thanks for reaching out on behalf of a daughter whose sudden and traumatic loss clearly turned her world upside down, and who apparently has been struggling to find her orientation ever since. Military losses can have many distinctive features in common, whatever the cause of death, as they are nearly always premature, without warning, violent and distant, denying family an opportunity to play the caring role that is possible, for example, with deaths from progressive illness that take place in our presence. Moreover, because the military is a special community whose families are joined in a common lifestyle, and often one of high purpose and meaning, the loss of a loved one is all the more jarring when that entire community is lost along with the service member. Just as your daughter says, such loss entails not only the death of a beloved partner, but also the death of one’s own identity linked to participation in a network of other military families. The loss of these connections, understandable as this may be, can greatly compound the sense of isolation and anger in one’s bereavement.
So what might your daughter do? Here are three general suggestions.
Reach in. First, she might reach deeply into herself, taking the “Who Am I?” test. That is, she could find it valuable to begin by writing down four responses to the question: “Who was I before my husband died?” The answers might focus on her beliefs, values, characteristics, things she did, or people who were important to her. For example, she might say she believed in working hard to get ahead, valued caring for others, was a runner and regularly spent time with family and friends. Then repeat the exercise focusing on the questions “Who am I now?” and “Who do I want to be in the future?” This can help us reconnect with core, enduring purposes in our lives, to find strands of consistency, and also consider what needs to receive more attention for us to find a way back to a life and identity that have meaning for us.
Reach out. Because military loss is unique, it can help to “tap into” the special services that are available for those who suffer it. To explore this, check out TAPS–the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors [http://www.taps.org] for military families, which offers a variety of services, from grief counseling, to help with benefits, to a national helpline, to access to care and support groups. Moreover, TAPS offers many ways to connect with others, whether in a one-on-one, community-based, online or peer mentor fashion. Survivor resource kits and a library of materials are likewise available. Connecting with this community of others whose losses share many features with her own could represent a big step forward.
Reach beyond. Finally, you might suggest to your daughter that she explore the resources also offered by the AfterTalk website. Writing to her husband, and perhaps writing a letter back from him to affirm what he found special about her, and to clarify and support how she might now live into a changed future in a way he would fully support might be as relevant as the care and encouragement she receives from living people in her life. Tragic as her husband’s dying was, it need not end your daughter’s life as well.