Three years ago when I was offered an opportunity to lead a workshop related to ambiguous grief at the POW/MIA League of Families meeting in Washington D.C., I accepted the invitation even though I didn’t really know what to expect. I had never attended a POW/MIA League of Families annual meeting before. I had been to a host of military update meetings scattered across Texas, but it was a first for me in seeing the whole picture.
I certainly couldn’t pass myself off as an expert on grief or as a professional with all the answers. My background is social work and pastoral care, but what did I really have to share other than my story? Although I would describe myself as being in a good place, there are days that it is two steps forward and three steps back. My only credentials for the assignment are that I, too, have walked down that road and I’m not threatened by the vulnerability to honestly disclose everything associated to the journey. Somehow, I’ve always found myself the recipient of God’s grace. That in itself, provides the resources I need for a single day after day.
At the end of the day, it is people helping people. Does it get any better than that? I remember at the conclusion of that first POW/MIA League of Families meeting, I told my niece something closely akin to, “I don’t have time for this! You sucked me in and now I’m hooked. Thank you very much!”
I remember one of the young military officers who presented an overview of his work on the other side of the world. He was leading a team of military men and women in sorting through the dirt and mire looking for remains of America’s missing. He had such compassion and resolves to make his work matter. In the process of updating those present of his efforts, he shared his personal story. He had recently received a telephone call from his dad. He intuitively knew that his dad was calling to the other side of the world to wish him a happy birthday. After all, it was his birthday.
Sadly, the young man was wrong on the purpose of his dad’s call. His dad was calling to tell him that he’d just received word that his brother had been killed in combat in Afghanistan. My eyes filled with tears as the young man spoke. My heart went out to him and his family. The journey before him is a long journey and it is filled with the expected. It really becomes a trust walk and you can only manage it one day at a time with God’s help. That is the only thing that I know for certain.
That experience coupled with a host of other opportunities to meet people who have a void in their lives associated to having no frame of reference to remembering their father tore at my heartstrings. I found myself wanting to be a surrogate dad to any number of people. Fortunately, many of those who’ve walked that path did so with the support and underpinning by extended family members. That kind of support makes the unbearable seem like a possibility, even though it is only marginally. After all, who can replace a dad?
Sadly, not all were that lucky. How many people did I meet who had no frame of reference of that kind of familial support? Unbelievable yes! – But it does happen. Heartache has the sad refrain to repeat the chorus again and again. I don’t understand it. It has never been my experience, but it does happen. I know it happens because I’ve talked to the folks who’ve struggled in the midst of uncertainty without extended family support.
You’re probably wondering what motivated today’s topic. Over the past week, I’ve been making arrangements to be in Washington, D.C. week after next for the POW/MIA League of Families annual meeting. How do I plan for that without chronicling my thoughts in the process? Obviously I didn’t. If I thought it, I wrote it down.
I was humbled last night to read a person’s comments related to my written thoughts. Earlier in the week, I had written about the struggle, despair and victories associated to post-Vietnam experiences. She wrote: “God continues to use you in a mighty way Don.” Wow! I was greatly humbled and honored by her compliment. Truth be told, the only thing I’ve done is simply been honest in sharing my thoughts.
Over the past three years, I have become friends with a number of men who served with Ron. Ron’s loss has impacted their lives in a multiple of different ways. Hearing their stories has been a gift I never saw coming. It is like I’ve been given a snapshot into a part of my brother’s world that I never knew existed. At least I didn’t have a frame of reference to fully understand the camaraderie forged through harms way.
I can also truthfully say (based on both observation and experience) that there is a common denominator characteristic of family members surreptitiously inducted into this pilgrimage. Their lives have been enhanced and enriched by friendships shared with others who’ve walked the same path.
Somehow from the threshold of ambiguous grief, the process has polished the diamonds in the rough wrought by happenstance into polished and brilliant gems that heighten the connections and the friendships shared. Consequently, I’d say collectively everyone has become a winner. The organization is filled with folks who take delight in life, lead successful and fulfilled lives and value the legacy and heritage they share. They move forward individually and in unison with a determination to make life better for others.
The compliment paid me last night by someone saying: “God continues to use you in a mighty way” is both humbling and honoring. If it’s true of me, it is true of all who’ve embarked the same journey and made the discovery that only God can turn loss into abundance, mourning into joy, tears into laughter and isolation into a camaraderie of friendships that makes men brothers. Some would say that is too good to be true, but unless you’ve shared the experience, you can’t fully know. We are blessed!
All My Best!