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Rebekah Sanderlin

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PBS's 'This Emotional Life': Coming to Terms With Loss

Posted: 07/21/10 04:11 PM ET

"Her only question was 'what happens tomorrow?'"

That sentence seemed to say so much. A friend, a fellow Army wife, and I had been emailing about the growing number of troops killed in Afghanistan. She told me about a good friend of hers whose husband was killed and how she had gone to see her friend soon after the woman had been notified of her husband's death and how all her friend wanted to know was what happens tomorrow?

That sums it all up. The fear of the unknown, the wondering what life will be like when the most important person in your life is missing and will never return. In the physical world when we remove an object -- like a tree stump or a loose tooth -- a big hole is left behind, a hole that we can either attempt to pack with other stuff or leave alone, in the hopes that nature will eventually fill it with something else -- and nature usually does, eventually. It's the same with the loss of a person, but when that person IS your life, well, what happens tomorrow?

"What isn't planned and, simply, cannot be planned is the response one receives to that knock on the door," my friend said. "I have seen spouses stay in their post housing for the entire year following the death of their loved one and have seen spouses be out the door, cleared of quarters in less than five days after the notification. My friend whose husband died in 2006 knew that he had been killed before she was actually notified (she just felt it), so her response before the notification team showed up was to clean the bathroom because she knew that many people would be traipsing through her house that day. She just knew."

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. Nearly every day there is news of more troops who have lost their lives in Afghanistan. For every young, handsome, face in the officially-released photos, there are people, perhaps dozens of people, who are absolutely distraught to be living without him. They are completely devastated and experiencing the darkest hours of their lives, wondering what will happen next.

I am so grateful that I don't know really what to say to these families. I am so grateful that I have no firsthand knowledge from which to draw. I have not lost a husband, a son or a brother. I have lost friends -- and my heart will always ache with that loss -- but it's not the same. Still, with the death toll ever-rising, many of us in military families will find ourselves sitting at a familiar kitchen table, in a room we've been in many times before, looking at a face we know well, but at a complete loss for words. We will be trying to comfort a dear friend during a time when finding comfort is impossible. What should we say?

My friend and I discussed this. She told me that during her years as an Army wife she has been closely touched by the deaths of more than 130 soldiers. She has comforted many of their widows and parents and she has often been one of the first people to visit after notification of the death has been received. I have not had anywhere near so many experiences with comforting the grieving, but still I've had too many experiences. She and I talked about how we gauge the situation, trying to determine if the families want to talk or want to sit in silence and then we try to provide whatever it is that they want. We try to simply be there for them, whatever that may mean.

And then she offered this advice on how to approach a grieving family, particularly a family we might not yet know well. I think this might be the best advice I've seen anywhere:

"There is no one pat answer, but I have found a protocol that has worked for me. Before I meet with the families, I read every article from their local newspapers to learn more about their hero. What did he like to do? Where had he been? What took him into the Army? Then, when I get there, I hug, I look around the house for something that will give me a hint at what we might have in common ... and then I ask them to tell me about their Soldier. I just keep asking questions about their loved one and get them to talk about all of those wonderful aspects of his personality that made him such an individual and of such great import to those who loved him. It isn't a perfect method, but it has worked for me and I cherish those memories of learning about those who have made the ultimate sacrifice."

That's the key, I think. Don't make it about the death, make it about the life. The death can't be helped and, besides, no one should be remembered simply for dying. Remember them for the joy that they brought by living, then be quiet and just be there.

This Emotional Life is a two-year campaign to foster awareness, connections and solutions around emotional wellness. Join our community at www.pbs.org/thisemotionallife.