Putting Them to Rest

Rock pile.

Therapeutic tools can bring resolution to bad memories of combat, but there’s also a lot a veteran can do for himself.

By Mary Tendall and Jan Fishler

When a loved one dies, there is grieving. Over time, the heavy grief transforms through many stages, moving on into sadness and ultimate resolution. Memories of the loved one become steeped in the past, allowing a distance to be created between the time of the death and the present.

That is not the case for most veterans who have lost brothers in combat.

The Groundhog Day Effect

Because combat losses occur in a place of trauma (a combat zone), the brain records the event in a much different manner. Following the losses, many soldiers must operate as usual, and grieving would mean letting down the emotional shield necessary for the protection of self and others. As a result of the vigilant state of the brain during the loss, the brain replays the event over and over as if it is in the present. Like the movie, “Groundhog Day,” it repeats the images with no resolution. Because of this, many combat veterans relive the deaths of their brothers on a daily or nightly basis. Consequently, moods are altered, and the result is often irritability, sadness, and a need to isolate. This behavior is often misunderstood not only by family and friends, but also by the veteran.

When the End Is Missing

While there are various therapeutic tools used to bring resolution to these memories, there is much a veteran can do for himself. One effective technique is to create, symbolically, a beginning, middle, and end to the event.

As a result of the vigilant state of the brain during the loss, the brain replays the event over and over as if it is in the present.

Al* had struggled with constantly reliving the death of his buddy while he was in Vietnam. They had been talking one night, when Al walked 20 yards away for a cup of coffee. When he returned, his friend was dead. Al was left with the vision of his dead buddy, and reported that it was like an experience he had to deal with every day. In therapy, Al learned to relax by doing deep-breathing exercises, and then use this relaxed state to recreate the “story.”

The beginning (their conversation) and middle (his walking away and returning to see his friend killed) stayed the same. But Al added an ending, where he saw his buddy being carried away, and where he later attended the imaginary funeral complete with the grieving family laying his friend to rest. Al was encouraged to imagine the full story several times a day for the first week. Initially, he reported that he really struggled to add the ending. When he was finally successful with replaying the event from the beginning to his created ending, his anxiety regarding the loss decreased dramatically. It took about two weeks, with real dedication on Al’s part, to complete this process. Finally, he chose a large tree near his driveway as a memorial. He sees that tree every day, and has learned to put the event into the past and never forget his friend.

A Memorial as a Means to an End

A self-made memorial is another symbolic gesture that helps bring closure to losses. Ted* said that there were too many names and faces that he couldn’t remember and never knew, yet their deaths still haunt him. He is one of many who experience survival guilt. Ted designed a memorial for his combat brothers in the woods near his house. He used a natural rock outcropping and added stones around it. Whenever he walked near it, he added a stone. This symbolic memorial was his private way to honor the losses and say good-bye. Ted also received another benefit: His nightmares began to decrease in frequency and intensity, and now he has been free of disturbing dreams for more than eight months.

Emotional Closure Takes Courage

In both of these cases, the veterans had to actively face their memories of loss and grief while creating a process that would finally allow the losses to be put in the past. Al and Ted both reported that it took a different kind of courage to create emotional closure. Al stated, “I had avoided thinking or talking about my experiences unless they showed up uninvited. Now, when I think back, I still feel sad, but it is a completely different experience and I do not have to avoid it at all.”

Symbols

As most of us have heard or personally experienced, the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, DC and the Traveling Wall have served as powerful and often overwhelming symbols of combat loss. For many veterans, seeing names on The Wall activates many of the unshed tears. Others numb out, which is also a survival reaction to loss. Many cannot face The Wall at all because of the deep sorrow it represents. Personal memorials can then be created, which are often unknown even to family members.

Many cannot face The Wall at all because of the deep sorrow it represents.

The symbolism of tombstones, The Wall, and other memorials, are for those of us who are still alive and need to honor those who have left us. The symbols themselves are a way to pay tribute not only to those who have died, but also to our own sense of loss, so that we may move forward knowing they will never be forgotten.

*Names and some situations in this article have been changed. Some photos may include models who have no real-life relationship to the story or any PTSD issues.

 

Mary TendallMary Tendall, MA LMFT, has worked for over 20 years with combat veterans and their families, as a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in combat-related PTSD. She has consulted for the Gulf War Resource Center, National Public Radio, and Newsweek. She continues to work with combat veterans and their families, and is affiliated with several national non-profits whose goal is to help veterans, such as VietNow, Soldier’s Heart, Train Down, and America’s Heroes First. She can be reached by e-mail at maryten@jps.net.

 

Jan FishlerJan Fishler is an author, writing coach, and creator/presenter of a series of writing workshops. Her memoir, Searching for Jane, Finding Myself, is available on Amazon. You can learn more about her at janfishler.com. She is married to a Vietnam veteran.