05/22/2015 06:13 pm ET Updated May 22, 2016

Grief and the Veteran: An Inside Look

On Memorial Day, we take pause to remember and pay tribute to those Americans who died in active military service. Earlier this month I took the opportunity to address a dedicated group of psychotherapists who generously donate their time to provide pro bono counseling to veterans through a program called The Soldiers Project. I was moved and inspired by the warmth and caring these therapists displayed as they spoke of the men and women who have served our country and returned from a tour of duty in need of a listening ear.

The complicated psychological issues facing veterans usually lead mental health professionals to consider three common diagnoses: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Anxiety, and Major Depression. For PTSD we address the nightmares, flashbacks, and startle responses. For anxiety we teach relaxation techniques. For depression we teach methods for stopping negative thoughts.

I then posed the question: "What about the grief that the veterans may be carrying but not mentioning?"

As is often the case in society in general, there was acknowledgement that grief is often overlooked or ignored among those serving in the armed forces. After all, people in the military are taught to "be brave", "buck up," or not let their emotions show. I offered several scenarios for consideration.

Scenario #1: The soldier who received a letter informing him that his best friend from high school died. He was unable to have time off to attend memorial services and thus he was deprived of the opportunity to laugh, cry, and reminisce with his friends back home. His buddies in Afghanistan didn't know the one who died and it felt awkward to talk to them about his sorrow. By the time he returned home to family and friends, no one asked about his grief.

Scenario #2: The veteran who flew home the midst of her tour of duty because her father (who had served in Vietnam) was dying. While she knew in her heart how proud he was that she was serving her country, there could be no conversation about that now as her father lay in the hospital unconscious. She was grateful to able to spend her father's last few hours at his bedside and remain at home for the funeral but she had to fly out that afternoon. Her longing to have just one more conversation with her dad left her feeling lost and abandoned.

Scenario #3: The couple that met while on a tour of duty and whose plans for marriage will never come to fruition because the bride-to-be died in Iraq. When the day arrives that would have been their wedding day, he is too numb and embarrassed to tell anyone.

One of the highlights of the workshop was when a veteran in attendance offered to participate in a mock psychotherapy session. As we spoke together, this courageous man shared memories of two of his buddies who died in combat using phrases like: "Why did I make it and they didn't?" "I missed the funeral and memorial rituals, I guess it's too late now."

Through our conversation I validated Mark's feelings and the fact that grief doesn't just disappear over time. How being able to express long-bottled-up grief has great value. How it is never too late to create a memorial ritual. And before our session ended Mark had decided to go home and write letters in his journal to his two buddies, telling them what he wishes he could say to them now.

If you or someone you know have experienced a death, please take the time you need to process your grief. To all those who have served our country or who are remembering a Veteran, may Memorial Day bring some measure of peace and calm to your heart.

Fredda Wasserman, MA, MPH, LMFT, CT, is the Clinical Director of Adult Programs and Education at OUR HOUSE Grief Support Center, one of the nation's most respected centers for grief support and education. Fredda presents workshops and seminars on end of life and grief for therapists, clergy, educators, and medical and mental health professionals at locations throughout the country. She is the co-author of Saying Goodbye to Someone You Love: Your Emotional Journey Through End of Life and Grief. Recognized as an expert in death, dying, and bereavement, Fredda has devoted her career to life's final chapter.


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