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Life in the Aftermath

Predeployment. Deployment. Redeployment. Ah, the cycle of our lives. (Insert dramatic sigh here).

I have spent a lot of time over the last year or so thinking and writing about these subjects as part of a generous grant from the Phillips Foundation, an incredible organization. Coming out of our own very rough deployment I wanted to know how others like me were handling the heartache. I wanted to know if the toll I feared the whole thing would take on my marriage and family was real. I wanted to see if what the government said it is doing to help is working (or if they are doing it at all).

Through all of my interviews and writing I have realized that I have missed a piece that deserves more than any other to be guarded and remembered: groups of people that do not fit the mold of healing and moving on.

They are our wounded warrior and gold star families. Their battles, whether caused by serious physical injuries, mental wounds or unfathomable loss, will keep going long after we have patched things up from deployment. Often stuck in limbo between the world of the healthy and whole military community and a civilian population that does not understand, they need support more than any others. Their relationships suffer more and their struggles are far greater than ours will ever be.

These people lay heavy on my heart now more than ever before. While I am not a member of this community, far too many of my friends, many of you readers and some of our contributors are.

For those of us who have not made that level of sacrifice it can be so hard to know what to do or to say. I’ve never run across a military funded class on how to be a friend to someone going through something so unfathomably hard — whether it be an injury or a loss. Have you?

At the Association of the United States Army’s conference last year, gold star wife and military loss expert Joanne Steen shared with us her advice for communicating with those who have lost someone to war. Often the hardest part of supporting someone in that situation is knowing how to even start a conversation. Those of us who haven’t lost can feel guilty for having our servicemembers back in one piece, or back at all. Steen’s advice is a simple and practical starting point.

“When we come across a family of the fallen we really want to say and do the right things. We dont want to make a mistake, we want to make sure we say something that’s going to convey our appreciation to them,” she said. “Very often when we come across families we either try to fix their grief or give them hope. And in reality they may not be ready to have their grief fixed or ready to embrace a hopeful statement about the future. So what works extremely well … is that when we meet someone who’s just had a death in their family, a good thing to say is ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ because it conveys our sympathy, our condolences. A better thing to say is ‘I’m sorry for the loss of your husband, your wife, your son, your daughter,’ because not only have we conveyed our condolences but then we’ve now personalized the relationship. The best thing to say is “i’m sorry for the loss of your husband, John. I’m sorry for the loss of your daughter, Sarah. Im sorry for the loss of your father, Keith. Because now what we’ve done is expressed our condolences, identified the relationship and then personalized them. You notice what I didn’t say is I’m sorry for the loss of your son, Pvt. Jones. To the family he’s Bobby first, and Pvt. Jones second.”

To those of you who are a caretaker to a wounded servicemember or gold star spouse or family member, thank you. Now tell us, how can we better support you? And what is not being done by our military leaders that you need?

You can watch our interview with Joanne Steen or read more about it here.

About Amy Bushatz

Amy is the managing editor of Military.com’s spouse and family blog SpouseBuzz.com. A journalist by trade, Amy also covers spouse and family news for Military.com where she is an Associate Editor. An Army wife and mother of two, Amy has been featured as a subject matter expert on NPR and in the New York Times. Follow her on twitter @amybushatz.