“Disconnecting from the part of self carrying our emotional pain is a recipe for creating a ‘soul injury’,” says hospice nurse Pat McGuire. She would know. She took care of more than 10,000 dying veterans in her 20-year career at the VA.
“Dying, combat veterans have taught me that boxing up emotional pain causes their vitality to get boxed up as well. This can lead to a passionless life.” But McGuire also notes a wisdom that often emerges at the end of life: “Dying veterans have taught me that grieving is the way to retrieve that life.”
If grief restores vitality, why is it such a well-kept secret?
McGuire, who is also a certified trauma-bereavement counselor explains that people have not been taught to value grief nor been taught how to grieve, especially within stoic military cultures.
“Grief is the normal, natural, human response to loss,” McGuire says.
This is emphasized in a famous saying: “Those who grieve well, heal well.”
She also says that grieving is the secret for living in the present moment, “Grieving helps people LET GO of what was and OPEN UP to what is.” People who have been traumatized have a hard time being in the present moment because unmourned loss unconsciously keeps them stuck in the past, always on guard, and fearful of disarming their heart lest it be traumatized again.”
When veterans are dying, they often reveal the unmourned loss they have carried. Like a stone in the pocket of their heart, unmourned loss gets stored in their bodies – stored in their souls, subtly and not-so-subtly sabotaging their lives. Locking up the grief creates an inner hurricane of bitterness or addictions that squeezes the life from their traumatized souls until they become shells, hardened and lifeless, dead in bodies that are alive. Covering up grief with anger also unconsciously unleashes hurricane force winds on others, undermining loving relationships.
There’s a stone of unmourned loss in the pocket of the hearts of many veterans.
Vietnam veteran, Tommy Bills shares, “On a military base, everyone says ‘It don’t mean nothin’. I call it ‘puttin’ on the face and I became very good at it. I built a stoic wall like Ft. Knox. It was easy to make deposits but hard to retrieve anything from behind it. It would be years before I could get up closer to look at the pain I was carrying. I could always find a reason to run and hide from myself. A part of me thanks God I had the early training to block out the bad stuff…and a part of me is terribly sad that I missed all of those opportunities to be real.”
There’s also a stone of unmourned loss in the pocket of the hearts of families of veterans.
After dangerous-duty military assignments, a soldier is forever changed. The person who returns from war is not the same person who left for war, yet family and friends expect the person to remain the same. Friends and family must grieve the loss of the person they used to know. If they fail to grieve, conflicts will continually arise to “go back to the way you used to be.” This only adds pressure and guilt onto the veteran.
There’s also a stone of unmourned loss in the pocket of the hearts of children of veterans:
“Do you know how hard it was for a little boy to say good-bye to his daddy every time there was a skirmish in the world?” an adult man told McGuire. Tears came to his eyes as he said it – decades of unmourned loss still with him. Tearfully, he went on to ask her, “Do you know how much it hurt every time Daddy left and the adults turned to me and said, ‘You’re the man of the house now’?”
Well-meaning civilians try to help but they cannot stand to see a veteran’s pain – or the pain in the hearts of their families. “Thank you for your service” is not enough. Safe havens need to be created for the grief veterans hold behind the silent, stoic wall that is often imprisoning their pain.
Bringing emotional pain out of the dark into the light is an important, often neglected, step in healing that has been overlooked for too long. This can change, however, if civilians and healthcare providers of veterans adopt a few guidelines that include:
- Don’t reinforce stoicism and keeping a “stiff upper lip”
- Don’t try to take veterans’ pain away. Instead, help them connect with the part of themselves that is carrying their pain. Encourage them to grieve.
- Instead of chiding them for their anger, say: “Tell me how you are hurting right now.” To do that, you will have to cultivate the courage to re-home your own pain. In the process, you will both discover the vitality of your souls.
- Be a safe sanctuary for their stories. Encourage them to tell their stories, including the losses they have sustained.
By: Deborah Grassman
ARNP, CEO Opus Peace