➣ Insight: Veteran Bereavement Letter
by Deborah Grassman
Ben was a friend of mine who was a World War II veteran. Over time, I came to see how stoicism and his combat experiences had impacted his life. When Ben died, I met his five adult children, all of whom lived out of state. I could see that some of them felt distant from their father. I could also see that they really didn’t grasp the importance and relevance that the military had in shaping their father’s life and their own lives. I wrote them a letter to offer insight that might provide a healing perspective for how the effects of the military had impacted them. Later, I learned from Ben’s wife that this letter helped their children to better understand their father. It also helped one daughter to stop blaming herself for her father’s emotionally-distant treatment of her in her childhood. This is the letter:
Dear Susan, Greg, Jane, Paul, and Amy,
As I came away from the funeral service last night, I was left with a desire to share my own story about your Dad. I have known your Dad for the past 10 years as part of our church community. He started a small group in his home, and we have been meeting monthly since that time. Your Dad was careful to say in the first meeting that this would not be the kind of meeting where people “spill their guts,” and your Dad kept his word about that for five years. One night, however, your Dad started talking about the death of your sister. As he spoke, it became apparent that the death of this daughter at age five had been deeply disturbing, though he had never let himself grieve. Instead, he had boxed up his pain, hoping it would go away. Now, 40 years later, here it was again. This time though, he let himself feel his pain. He told of his despair over losing a child at that tender age, and he let himself cry. He was embarrassed at first, but soon the emotion gave way to the sobs of tears he had held back so long. Your Mom said it was the first time she’d ever seen him cry. I think your Dad was a little different after that day. A part of his heart was unlocked and his sharing became more open, his feelings expressed more freely.
I also think of your Dad at our 4th of July party. We did a tribute to the veterans for the freedom we were celebrating that day. I called the three veterans who were at the party to the front of the group and seated them in places of honor. Then we sang God Bless America and saluted them, which meant a lot to your Dad. Your Dad sacrificed a lot for his country. He bore a lot of physical and emotional scars from the war. Those scars are what I thought of last night when I saw the flag draped across his coffin.
I learned more about your Dad’s struggles after the war when I visited him in the hospital last week. He wasn’t taking any painkillers for his pain. He said he wouldn’t have anything to do with morphine. Then, he told me the story of how he had become addicted to it with his injuries during the war. He said that there weren’t facilities during wartime for fixing the injury. Instead, he said the soldiers were “doped up” until medical services could be provided. After being on morphine for many months, he got hooked on it. After his injuries were repaired and healed, he continued on the morphine. He told me about a time when he beat up a pharmacist friend of his to get more. He said that was about the “stupidest” thing he ever did and was deeply ashamed, but it served as the wake-up call to kick his habit. He kicked it the only way he knew how. He went off into a cabin in the woods. He stayed there by himself and sweated it out. Your Dad said it was pure hell. He sat with a loaded gun to his head and his finger on the trigger for many of those days. I think it was a combination of will power on your Dad’s part, defiance toward his father, and faith in God that kept him from pulling that trigger. At any rate, as I listened to your Dad’s story, my respect for him deepened. I had a greater appreciation of his stoicism. I had a deeper sense of who he was and why he was.
Your Dad had a hard life. And I think these last 10 years after he retired enabled him to let the grizzly bear in him fade and the tender teddy bear emerge. These were years when your Dad softened with age so that insight and wisdom grew, and pride and introversion faded, years that softened the blows in life that your Dad had to face and the hardness that it took for him to face them. My hope is that through his death, you will have a deeper sense of his life, a deeper sense of his love for you, and a deeper sense of yourselves.