It starts with a knock at the door. Two uniformed officers are standing outside, and they ask to come in. Before they speak, the family knows what will be said. They are just hoping it's not true. Then they hear the words, "We regret to inform you..." and the life of a military family is changed forever.
The death of a loved one in service to America starts a military family down a new path -- one of grief and loss. We embrace and support hundreds of these families through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). It is a unique journey that requires specialized care and support.
Several factors make military loss unusual.
Death while in service to country can happen in many ways. Service members die from many causes -- they die in combat, training accidents, suicides, homicides or illness, both in war zones and elsewhere.
From 2001 to 2011, about 16,700 American service members died worldwide. Less than 30 percent of these deaths (about 5,000), even with two wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, happened in combat or by hostile act. Currently more service members are dying by suicide than in combat in Afghanistan.
Public meaning is associated with the death. It is a death in service to country. Language like "paid the ultimate sacrifice" assigns greater meaning by society to the death. One survivor said, "It felt like he belonged to so many more people than just our family. He belonged to the community too."
In the rocky days following the worst moments of their lives, surviving military families organize funerals, speak in sound bytes, are photographed by the news media, and lead the community in mourning. If the death carries stigma, such as a suicide, the family often carries additional emotional scars.
Death impacts many people in a family. On average, at least 10 people are significantly impacted by the death of a service member. They are wives and husbands, mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, sisters and brothers, aunts and uncles, and a wide range of relatives.
We intake on average seven new people a day at TAPS, who are grieving the death of someone who served in the military. At least one to two of them will be grieving a death by suicide. For many of them, calling TAPS may be the first time they have ever talked with someone else who understands what military loss is like.
The grief journey can be complicated and last for years. More than 80 percent of our families are grieving a death that was unexpected, traumatic and often violent. These circumstances leave surviving families more vulnerable to anxiety, depression, insomnia, post-traumatic stress disorder, and other issues. It takes five to seven years, on average, for people to reach a new normal, following the sudden death of a loved one.
The military family loses its identity and can struggle. The spouse and children left behind after a military death also lose their identity as a military family. They lose the supportive and structured lifestyle of a military family. And may move to a new community where they know few people, or return to a "hometown" they have not lived in for many years.
Their military identification cards are changed, and they are forever labeled as survivors of someone who served and died -- literally stamped "deceased." Children may lose the last home they lived in with the person who died, as well as their friends from school, teachers and other community support, at a time when they need these touchstones the most.
One young widow who lost her husband in combat in Iraq while she was in her twenties told us, "I always thought that the military would tell us where we would live. After my husband died, I had to figure out where to go for myself, and define what our lives would become. On top of that, I was coping with his death and taking care of our infant daughter. The decisions felt overwhelming, and even paralyzing."
Thankfully, they don't have to make this journey alone. At TAPS, our 24/7 resource and information helpline fields 21,000 calls annually. We offer regional seminars for adults and good grief camps for children around the country and throughout the year. Our online chat room, message boards and email support groups buzz with activity daily. TAPS care groups link survivors in communities across America and our peer mentoring program pairs up newly-bereaved survivors with others who have experienced a similar loss.
They're people like Elizabeth Church, who was eight months pregnant when her husband died by suicide. She found a supportive companion in Carla Stumpf Patton, who years earlier, had also lost her Marine husband to suicide when she was eight months pregnant. Carla understood what Beth was going through, in a way that few other people could. With care and support, Beth is building today a new life for herself and her daughter.
With care and support, surviving military families are able to work through their pain and remember the love that they shared with their service member. They can even celebrate the life that they shared with that person who died and share their journey to help others.