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Grief and Mental Health

My son’s father passed away unexpectedly four years ago; he was 33 years old and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and depression a year before that. At the time of his death my son was six years old, and I was the one to break his heart with the news while mine was shattering seeing his pain.

The cause of death remained unknown for several months. The number of messages and questions I received from strangers about his death were uncounted. Most assumed he had committed suicide. One person told me they really wanted to know his cause of death because it would give them closure. At that point I was in the anger stage of grief and told that person their closure meant nothing to me as I had a son to raise on my own who would never have closure. I was angry at everyone for thinking their loss was greater than my son’s. Who were they to think they had a place in Jim’s life when most of them had not spoken to him in years! I was angry.

In my head, his death had happened to us and no one could relate to our pain. Except, they can. Families of veterans and those who’ve lost a loved one to unknown causes know exactly what I was going through. In our case, families and friends of deployed veterans. Deployed soldiers experience high levels of trauma when sent to war zones. Jim was in Afghanistan for four years.

Alan Bernhardt (2009) in Rising to the Challenge of Treating OEF/OIF Veterans with Co‐occurring PTSD and Substance Abuse, Smith College Studies In Social Work, finds that according to one survey (Hoge et al., 2004), a high percentage of Army and Marine soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan experienced heavy combat trauma. For example, 95% of Marines and 89% of Army soldiers serving in Iraq experienced being attacked or ambushed, and 58% of Army soldiers serving in Afghanistan experienced this. High percentages for these three groups also experienced incoming artillery, rocket, or mortar fire (92%, 86%, and 84%, respectively), saw dead bodies or human remains (94%, 95%, and 39%, respectively), or knew someone seriously injured or killed (87%, 86%, and 43%, respectively). Jim is included in these statistics, although he was seeking treatment in the months before his death it may have been a little too late.

Once the aftermath of the funeral settled its dust, and after much protest, my son and I moved in with my parents. For the first year, this commute became our biggest communication tool. My son in the backseat with his hair slicked back and fresh eyed would open his heart and vent about his feelings. I catch glimpses of his dad through his eyes and the way he describes his emotions, and the smoldering side smile. James would pour his heart out in the middle of a traffic jam on Interstate 270. I’d grip my steering wheel and hold back the tears.

Many people suggested I take him to counseling, that the sudden death of his veteran father would be something a kid would really struggle with. Former military comrades suggested we join advocacy groups and retreats all over the country. I just wanted to make it in time for his 8:45 a.m. school bell and go to work. I wanted to stay as normal as possible. To us, normal was going to school and work every day and a fun activity on the weekends. I kept James in his same school; he was in kindergarten at the time of his father’s death and I didn’t want to make too many changes. We had already moved into a different house and that was a bigger struggle for him. James suddenly had the attention of not only me but, his grandparents and aunts.

My family and friends became a huge support system. I could count on my mom to take over whenever I felt overwhelmed with emotions or needed a break. The hardest days were when my well-behaved son would have lash outs over what to eat or when to take a shower. Some days he’d wake up in the morning crying from dreams about his dad. On those days I would put on my brave face, take the day off from work and school and spend the day talking to him and comforting him. Somedays, I found myself locked in my room crying more than any other time in my life. Then, there were days where I couldn’t get out of bed because my anxiety told me if I walked out the door I could die and then my son would have two dead parents. A heavy blanket of depression covered my body and the weight of the responsibility lifted me at the same time. With a hot tea in hand my mom pulled me out of bed, and I knew it was time to reach out to a professional and start healing the grief.

I am grateful to work in a compassionate, safe environment where I can be candid with my colleagues about my life. One day during a lunch and learn activity, we went around the table and shared lots of life experiences. After sharing mine, a few people approached me afterwards and suggested I contact our Employee Assistance Program. This program was the guiding light I needed to get through. They provided my son and I with therapy sessions that helped us develop communication tools to help us deal with the grief and take care of our mental health.

If you, a colleague, or a loved one are going through rough times with mental health difficulties, reach out, speak up. There is always someone willing to help you through it.