We went to dinner at our local small-town golf club. As I walk in I realize what is going on around us, and a lump forms in my throat. I wonder if we should turn around and walk away before my kids understand the gravity of the fundraiser we have walked into.
I saw his widow outside taking hug after hug as fellow Navy sailors, I would imagine, were sharing little stories and tidbits of information about the chief whose life they were celebrating. I know how she feels. She is so grateful for the love and the distraction of the pit she wants to crawl into. The one she only escapes for the sake of her children. It’s an odd feeling, smiling despite the pain. These people, at least for now, will walk with her as she figures out a new life. Stranger still, it’s a life she likely prepared for at each deployment but never saw coming. It takes everything I have not to walk over and tell her we are in the same club. A club we knew existed but never wanted to be a part of. We are Gold Star wives.
Their Loss Brought Back Our Own in a Very Real Way
My son was very subdued once I told him what was going on around us. While we waited for our food, he asked if we could take a walk out to the driving range. He could immediately tell which were active duty sailors. He reached for my hand and asked how this particular sailor died. He asked about the kids. He asked if there was cash in my wallet that he could take to the donation jar. He saw the posters full of photos. He knows this feeling far too well. He stole glances of the family all night. Instead of picking a fight with his brother like he normally would, he watched the family while thinking—I’m sure—about his own very similar night celebrating his dad’s life less than a year ago.
The next day he brought it up again. He told me to contact the wife and tell her that we understood what they were going through. He remembers the night that two uniforms showed up on the porch and then sat with me at the dining room table while we talked in hushed voices. He wants to hug her and meet the kids. In part, I’m sure he also wants someone to understand his grief.
I thought for sure I’d send her a message and not hear back. I know this stage. Messages and texts and calls fly in at an alarming rate. They all want you to know how sorry they are, how much they want to help. But your brain can’t process anything but getting out of bed and taking care of your children. If you’re lucky, you eat. Surprisingly, I heard back from her. I will have coffee with her, hold her, cry with her the way only another Gold Star wife can. I’ll hold her hand, help her with paperwork or military processes, or just show up with wine. Eventually, though, things will start to turn a corner.
From one Gold Star wife to another, it does get easier. Some days it is hard to see that. No matter how you begin to move on with your life, sometimes the grief hits you. Just the other day as we drove to school in the rain, my mind somehow focused back on Arlington and all the things I wish I could say to my late husband. I wish I could tell him one more time that I loved him–because I always will. The boys bring up memories all the time that keep him alive in our home and in their hearts. Sometimes you can recall things and just smile and keep going; other times those memories catch in your throat. I wish I could tell him that we were okay—better than okay actually. I wish he could see the new life I have built for myself. I think he would be proud of the way I have taken the situation and turned it around and provided an amazing life for us. I wish he could meet the amazing man that has come into our lives and is giving us so much joy.
Yes, We Have Grieved, but We Have Also Found Hope, Joy, and Growth
As time continues, you can go days or even weeks without the pain of grief interrupting your thoughts. Grief is an odd thing. Sometimes I worry that thinking of him, even though I have found love again, is disrespectful to my fiancé. I worry that by expressing my feelings I will hurt my fiancé, because the truth is I could not do this without him. He came into my life at a low point and helped put us back together. He showed us that we were still lovable, even while we were broken and grieving. He really is everything I prayed for. Sometimes, the guilt over moving on can be as suffocating. Both of my boys have expressed that they also feel guilty for loving their soon-to-be step-dad and the life that they have. I tell them that their Daddy wants them to be happy, and sometimes I have to give myself permission to be happy, too.
The wife I saw tonight is in a much different situation. While both of us have experienced tragedies, they are drastically different. I wonder if I won’t be able to support her in the way that she needs, due to our differences. I’ve said many times that my heart is in helping others through military loss because so few understand it. We don’t just lose a spouse. We lose a community, a culture, a way of life. That is something I am still trying to figure out myself. Out of nowhere, the place we used to fit no longer fits. We seem to lose it all when we lose a military spouse. But as in most things, it gets easier. Somehow, explaining your not-active-but-also-not-retired military status will happen without tears. Somehow, seeing a homecoming on the local news won’t feel like a sucker-punch. Somehow, Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day won’t want to make you avoid social media. Somehow, the guilt of moving on will subside. Somehow, the severe pain does dull.
Gold Star Wives Possess Unmatched Grit and Grace
I told the boys she responded when I sent her that message and we are going to meet up one of these days—and I can’t wait. It’s a strange bond we share. My youngest son keeps asking about her. He has point-blank told me that it is our job to help take care of her because people have taken care of us. He is so right and so wise beyond his years. His ultra-tough, no tears exterior is only very rarely removed. But for her the façade is gone. He sees her and her kids as “our people” and wants to help them feel how it is to get over the worst of it.
The other day I received an email from my son’s teacher. Two students had recently lost family members. One student said, “Maybe my grandpa is hanging out with her grandma in heaven!” Then, his teacher said my son had a big grin on his face and said, “Maybe they’re both partying with my dad!” When I opened that email my heart exploded and I felt an incredible mix of bittersweet emotions. I saw a real glimpse of healing. He was able to talk about Daddy with his friends with a smile on his face. But I still hate that he even has to deal with it. I was proud, angry, and heartbroken all at the same time as I sat in my office crying over the progress he was making. But he is making progress like we all will eventually.
Our situations and our timelines will be different. There is no timeline for grief. There is no 12-step program to check off that signals that it is all over. Grief is unpredictable. Sometimes it feels like you’re being tossed in the waves unable to breathe, unable to think, and unable to stand. But, eventually, the waves get smaller. They never go away, but you’ll learn how to sit in your beach chair and see the beauty of the beach around you while the waves lap gently at your feet.
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