Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Grief of December

Grief never feels good. If you ever lost a loved one, you know this. It could be a year ago or 40 years ago; it changes sometimes, the pain less sharp and sometimes more. It’s an injury without blood, a gaping wound that never really heals.  
Most of us learn to live with it-- the missing piece to our psychic puzzle. There is always a feeling of something missing. Someone missing. Some of us try to fill the hole with medication or new shoes, or booze. It doesn’t work.
Years after my mom died, I picked up the phone to call her. I realized I couldn’t remember her number and then realized why and embarrassed at myself for such a ridiculous fopaux, (Seriously, how can you forget your mom has died?) hung up the phone. I can’t remember if I cried—or cleaned house. One of the two, I have no doubt.  
My 27-year-old brother died December 19th 1982 from complications due to injuries sustained in a motorcycle accident that occurred a little over 100 days prior. My 53-year-old mother died two years later on December 9th. The holiday season has proven to be my most difficult season to get through and the list of people I grieve for has grown substantially since my brother and mother died. But, there is always a holiday, or a hallmark of some kind, birthdays, death days, the last time you talked. Any month can be the bad one but for me it’s always December.
I know there are the seven stages of grief, but the truth is there are no rules for how to do it, or how long, or how sad you should be, or how much you should cry, or if you should cry at all. Everyone grieves how he or she grieves and if you become expert—through experience, how sad for you.
It comes in waves. It doesn’t matter how long ago someone left this world, it can feel like yesterday or it can feel like a long time ago and you wonder how you could be so sad for so damn long. For me, sometimes just smelling something like bubblegum will remind me of my brother and the endless baseball card bubblegum he shared with me when he was little. Earlier this year his best friend sent some pictures of my brother when he was young, and a few shortly before he died. I cried because I missed him… and I cried for what he is missing. A beautiful daughter he never met and three amazing granddaughters that would have owned him. He missed the best part of my life and his.
The “no rules” grief also applies for whom we are grieving. My sister just lost her horse after 21 years, and was devastated. When my son’s 14-year-old dog was put down, I watched his grief pour out in heavy sobs, he was beyond consoling. It was then I realized he was also grieving for the friends he lost in the war, the ones he never had time to cry for—and maybe his own innocence, left in the sands of Iraq. Postponed grief is the stuff that will kill you.
We walk around with a cloud of sadness. Not everyone sees it. Some people are oblivious to our teary eyes and our ability to skirt a subject that is sure to make the wave of sadness rush in. Some of us want to talk about it, some of us cannot.
Sometimes, grief can surprise us. When my son’s dad died unexpectedly two years ago, I was floored with grief and I woke up crying every day for weeks—still sometimes, I can’t think about this loss without tearing up. I never expected to feel that way, but I never expected him to die at 53 either.
My grief is always just below the surface. I don’t wear it like a badge—I don’t share it with strangers, or even all my friends. It’s just there and that is how grief works.
For me, grief is a reminder to live well, to be kind because we really don’t know what other people are going through and we really don’t know if someone won’t be here tomorrow.  I do put one foot in front of the other but I understand that isn’t always possible for everyone. When my son’s dad died, his grandmother understandably got a little crazy. When I asked my son (in an uncharitable moment) how he could put up with that he reminded me that losing your child trumps losing your father. His grief—made him smarter. His grandparents carry on; their strength is admirable their Japanese Buddhist durability intact, and I try my best to mimic them.
I know more than a few people hurting from grief right now. It always seems worse around the holidays. The empty seat syndrome, the missing piece of your heart, the special ornament with their name on it, more reminders than our hearts can bare—but bare we must.
This holiday season don’t be afraid to share stories about your departed loved ones with people that knew them or know you. Often you will find yourself laughing through a story instead of crying through the silence.
For all of you feeling the loss of a loved one please know this… you are not alone.  Many people are grieving over someone. We may not all wear it the same way—but we wear it.
If you are suffering from severe depression due to grief, please seek counseling -- while I don't think there are rules-- I do think some people benefit from help with the grieving process.
see this link:
 Just a few of my missing pieces...Mom, Johnny, Dad, Jon, Johnny, Jon, Noodle & Smokie

Sunday, November 10, 2013

VETERANS DAY 2013


Iraq 2006


Every year, since 2007, when my own son became a veteran, I have written something for Veterans Day. My theme changes slightly, usually depending on the reflection I am seeing through my son’s eyes.

This year, the reflection from his eyes is a good one. At least for today, at least for this moment—he is in a good place and time. If he is dogged by nightmares, he’s not saying. I notice he keeps himself busy, like my dad used to do. Always tinkering with something—the opposite of depression sleeping. Busy hands, calm mind. Calmer mind.

If he is in a better place- than, so too am I. But, now my focus has shifted from him to the bigger picture. A picture whose existence I have been peripherally aware of, but until now, until my own son was in the clear, walking towards peace of mind instead of down Crazyville Street, I could not focus on anything but him.

The picture I am seeing is a horrific one. It’s the stuff nightmares are made of. It’s full of suicide, depression, PTSD, diagnosed and undiagnosed brain injuries, the inability to reach the people that need us most—that deserve help the most. And, worst of all—apathy. Apathy on the part of the American people, the very people who have benefited from the missing limbs, the burned skin, the inability to think straight, the lack of attention span, the shakes, the nightmares, the alcoholism, the suicides—they could not care less.

Lately there is advertising showing buffed soldiers or Marine veterans missing body parts, modeling underwear or whatever. This is good. Maybe, Americans will be able to look these people in the eye someday and say…what?  Thank you for your sacrifice. Thank you for losing that leg, arm, eye, life as you knew it. Thank you just isn’t enough.

The latest DOD data on suicide amongst veterans is an estimated 22 Veterans will commit suicide DAILY.

According to the report: “Among cases where history of U.S. military service was reported, Veterans comprised approximately 22.2% of all suicides reported during the project period. If this prevalence estimate is assumed to be constant across all U.S. states, an estimated 22 Veterans will have died from suicide each day in the calendar year 2010.”

I suspect the actual number is really higher. They won’t classify death from alcohol or drug overdose as suicide—but for many veterans (and civilians too) that is exactly what it is. I call it slow suicide.

This report notes the following: During the Iraq War, 4,475 U.S. service members were killed and 32,220 were wounded; in Afghanistan, 2,165 have been killed and 18,230 wounded through Feb. 5, 2013. Among service members deployed in these conflicts, 103,792 were diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) over the period 2002 to December 2012. Over that same period, 253,330 service members were diagnosed with a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) of some kind. As a result of battle injuries in the Iraq War, 991 service members received wounds that required amputations; 797 lost major limbs, such as a leg. In Afghanistan, 724 have had to undergo amputations, with 696 losing a major limb. -

According to information obtained through the VA, there were 62,619 homeless veterans in the United States in January 2012. I’m willing to bet there were more then and there are many more now. This is disgraceful and unacceptable. And, please don’t tell me some of them want to live this way. If that is what you want to tell yourself to make yourself feel better then great—but please don’t expect me or anyone else with a brain to believe it.

Here are some facts from the not for profit Greendoors, based in Texas.

  • The number of homeless female veterans is on the rise: in 2006, there were 150 homeless female veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars; in 2011, there were 1,700. That same year, 18% of homeless veterans assisted by the VA were women. Comparison studies conducted by HUD show that female veterans are two to three times more likely to be homeless than any other group in the US adult population.
  • Veterans between the ages of 18 and 30 are twice as likely as adults in the general population to be homeless, and the risk of homelessness increases significantly among young veterans who are poor.
  • Roughly 56% of all homeless veterans are African-American or Hispanic, despite only accounting for 12.8% and 15.4% of the U.S. population respectively.
  • About 53% of individual homeless veterans have disabilities, compared with 41%of homeless non-veteran individuals.
  • Half suffer from mental illness; two-thirds suffer from substance abuse problems; and many from dual diagnosis (which is defined as a person struggling with both mental illness and a substance abuse problem).
  • Homeless veterans tend to experience homelessness longer than their non-veteran peers: Veterans spend an average of nearly six years homeless, compared to four years reported among non-veterans.

There are programs all over the country trying to help homeless veterans. But, they need our help. The VA is overwhelmed with veterans right now. If you think your 2-3 hour wait at Kaiser or your local clinic is too long… try going to the VA.  Now try it with PTSD and a little bit of TBI. Try filling out reams of forms and then turning them in and waiting 6 -9 months for a reply to tell you if you qualify for disability, when you are positive that you were blown off a rooftop in Iraq and hurt your head-- bad.

Volunteering at the VA is one way you and I can help. But there are other ways. You can help on a local level by finding out what resources there are for veterans in your area and asking them what you can do.

Learn how to talk to veterans. If you never served, you need to understand that you don’t really understand. Acknowledge that, and you will at least gain some respect from the veteran. Don’t ask stupid questions. (Like, did you ever kill anyone?)  A veteran will tell you what he wants to tell you.

If you know a veteran in need of assistance make a call 877-4AID-VET

If you know a veteran who may be contemplating suicide: Veterans and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, chat online at www.VeteransCrisisLine.net*, or send a text message to 838255 to receive free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, even if they are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care. VA also provides support for Service members through the Military Crisis Line. Service members and their families and friends can call and text the Veterans Crisis Line numbers and can chat online at www.MilitaryCrisisLine.net.

There are so many things we civilians can do to help today’s veterans and the veterans from previous wars, who have served our country, and made it possible for us to live in the free world that we live in.

Most of us can’t write a big old fat check to our favorite charity. But there are still ways to help raise funds for these not for profit organizations that truly help our veterans. Be sure you investigate the organization thoroughly before donating time or money.  

If you can’t volunteer, then just do this. Next time you see someone wearing a USMC hat, or a Navy hat, or an Army jacket. Ask them if they are a veteran. If they say yes—shake their hand. Look them in the eye and shake their hand-- and then say thank you, and mean it.

Resources for veterans and their loved ones:

PTSD/ SUICIDE

Hearts Toward Home International – Dr. Bridgett Cantrell





HOMELESS





Greendoors -Texas

***You can find more and local resources by googling key words and adding your city.