Remembering Memorial Day

The Legacy of Vietnam   May, 2017, marks the 48th anniversary of my husband’s death in Vietnam. I don’t like to pin it down to May 17 (1969) because of the peculiarities of the time difference between where I lived at the time in Connecticut and where he died in Southeast Asia. The 8000 miles between us made it seem that we were days apart. Perhaps when managing this kind of tragedy, we play with anything that offers freedom from exactitude. The Life-Cycle of Grief Each year, remembering this event takes on a different shape in my inner world as it reverberates through wherever I am in the present. This “anniversary” is the only aspect of the experience of his loss that is locked in time, irreparably, so I note the similarity of the weather, then and now, and who I am, today. I remember that it was finally spring, trees were blossoming, and I remember the commencement of the grief process back then as I reabsorb this moment from long ago, again. Each year at this time I pay more attention than usual to my life navigation and where I’ve sailed from that lightning bolt of catastrophe. The most important thing I’ve done in all the years since his death was to understand the experience of war and loss by writing about it. Richard Hoffman says about writing difficult stories that you can never entirely redeem the experience, but you can make it beautiful (human) enough that there is something to balance it. When we restore balance, we integrate our experience and feel our own truth. It becomes manageable. Writing […]

Blue Holidays: A Season for Emotion

The holidays are coming. Supermarkets are stocking up on turkeys and hams. Towers of candy wrapped in silver and gold are springing up in stores. Evergreens will soon scent the air with pine, and bell-ringing Salvation Army Santa Clauses will pierce our ears with reminders to be generous and give to the poor. Sights, sounds and smells can trigger happy memories – along with sadness and anxiety. I asked friends if they could describe some of these emotions. A sense of loss was number one – loss of family members, good friends, traditions, and “place” for those who live far from home. Some described certain people who were beacons for celebrating and enjoying a holiday; people who were the life of the party. (I remember my younger brother’s enthusiasm for decorating the house and the Christmas tree – even though we used to argue about it!) One friend described her husband (now deceased) as loving Christmas so much that the tree kept getting bigger every year and they finally had to buy a bigger house. Since he died, it’s been difficult for her to get into the Christmas spirit. A young mother said that, since her husband’s death in the Iraq war, her sadness intensifies at Christmas because it reminds her that her children were too young when he died to remember him during his favorite holiday. Some people expressed an overwhelming feeling of expectation, that holidays require being social and happy, buying the right gifts, accepting invitations, being as good as the media tells us we have to be, and accomplishing all of this in a short period of […]

Gold Star Wives of America: Resilient Survivors

(This article originally appeared here in April, 2015, commemorating Gold Star Wives Day and the 70th anniversary of the founding of Gold Star Wives of America, an organization devoted to educating and protecting those whose spouse died in combat or from combat-related causes.) It was a muggy July evening in 1946 when five women, whose husbands had died in World War II, traveled to Hyde Park, New York, to meet with a soon to be war widow, Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt later wrote in her news column, My Day, “…they came for supper, and then went to Poughkeepsie the Lafayette Post of the American Legion had given them permission to use a room… It was a small meeting, though the casualties among servicemen from Dutchess County were pretty high.” In fact, more than 175 men from Dutchess County alone were killed or MIA by 1945. These five young widows had first met together in Marie Jordan’s apartment in New York City in 1945 to talk about how they might band together to support the needs of all war widows and their children. Losing a spouse in combat meant also losing medical care, commissary privileges and even their home if they lived in military housing. Most had married young and had no job training. They had little or no resources from the U.S. government and often relied on the charity of family and friends. Out of desperation they formed a support group called the American Widows of WWII. Their appeal to Mrs. Roosevelt was auspicious. When FDR died in 1946, she counted herself among them […]

The Emotional Tentacles of Suicide

My mind needs spring-cleaning right now, just like the rest of my house. The ideas are piled up like laundry ready to be sorted and folded and put somewhere. They are mental meteors ready to land and make a big splash, promising to be the beginning of an adventure on the page, but the lights on the landing field are obscured. My brilliant gems zoom off un-tethered into the stratosphere. I excuse this by reminding myself that I am besieged because a member of my family recently committed suicide. I’m choosing my words carefully. David Whyte says that most people feel besieged most of the time by events, by people – even by the creative possibilities they have set in motion themselves. A traumatic event, a suicide, throws the mind into disarray by demanding a place within every thought, every activity. It’s difficult to remember our vision of what we were doing and what we wanted to do with our lives before the event. Someone has chosen to stop in the midst of life and we question how to regroup and reorganize our life without them. The people who are still in the world are waiting for us to come back from the disorganization and brittleness of grief and we’re not sure how to cross the river of broken dreams and rejoin the world. Peter Walsh, believes that organization begins in the mind rather than our basements. Walsh became famous as an organizer of clutter on the TV series, “Clean Sweep.” He doesn’t focus on objects, he goes right to the heart of the matter. He asks his clients: “What’s your vision for the life you want?” He starts with the purported “purpose,” picking up an object […]

The Healing Journey of Grief

At a recent meeting with a book club discussing my memoir, Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War, one reader asked me if it is difficult today for me to look at pictures of my husband who was killed in Vietnam in 1969. It’s a great question because it brought back my memory of the many years during which it was difficult to look at anything that reminded me of him and our happiness. I remember putting out of sight anything that triggered my grief and the pain in my heart, even the book plates that he had placed in all our books, with an image of the little mermaid statue in Copenhagen, on which he wrote, “Dave and Ruth” was too much for me. I covered them up with the same bookplate, leaving the line where our names had been written blank. And yet, today, I have written and published an entire book about him, our relationship, his death and the serendipitous meeting of his comrades who have regaled me with stories about him. In the process of writing I’ve looked at many photographs of him, many supplied by the guys who were with him in Vietnam. I see this young, handsome guy who I was deeply in love with, who I still feel the same love for, but I can look at him and not feel shaken. Is this the effects of time, age, natural healing? Does the heart grow scar tissue? I’m not sure. In my memoir I wrote about learning from my mother’s example of putting things away after a death. When my youngest brother died at home after years of […]

When Holidays are not Happy Days

  I was deeply touched by the responses to a question I posed on Facebook recently when I asked for thoughts on why people become depressed (or more depressed) around the holidays and which holiday is the most challenging. No one spoke about having to work on a holiday as a source of distress and no one mentioned cooking, but this was a limited sample. A sense of loss was number one; loss of family members, traditions, and place (for those who have moved far away from what they call “home”), especially when the losses were irrevocable. Certain people in our lives seem to be beacons for how to celebrate and enjoy a holiday. One person described her deceased husband as loving Christmas so much that the tree kept getting bigger every year and they finally had to buy a bigger house. When he was gone, it was difficult to get into the spirit in the same way. Christmas is a time when we miss people the most. One person mentioned that her sadness since her husband’s death in Iraq is greater at Christmas because it reminds her that her children were too young to remember their father. He died when they were babies. Right behind loss was the overwhelming sense of expectation; that holidays require being social and happy, buying gifts, buying the right gifts, accepting invitations, being as good as the media tells us we have to be, and accomplishing all this in a short period of time (if you haven’t been shopping all year!). December 26 is a day of enormous relief for many people. Maybe that’s the day the party should be held. After expectations, a […]

Grieving the Death of a Child

            When Tom L. lost his son, Mike, age twenty, in a fiery motorcycle accident, he never dreamed he would write a book about it. In fact, Tom described himself as a poor student and felt fortunate to finish high school. But, ten years after his son’s death, he still carried a profound sense of sadness at losing his only child. “Some friends thought I should be feeling better by that point,” recalled Tom. “But you just can’t push a button and make the pain go away.” He visited a counselor who told him that what he was feeling, besides normal grief after devastating loss, might be unattended sorrow. “Perhaps there is something else that you need to do, something that really allows you to express your feelings. Grief is like a garden in a heart washed out by a storm. You’ve got to tend the soil and grow new flowers. You seem to have a circle of supportive friends, but are there any details about your son and your relationship with him that you’d like others to know?  Why don’t you write me a list of those things, those thoughts that you want to nurture and grow.” Tom started writing and couldn’t stop. “I wrote my heart out,” he said. Two weeks later he had two hundred pages describing his son and what it was like to be Mike’s father – and eventually his friend as Mike grew into a young adult. Not everyone will attempt to work through grief by writing a book, but anyone who has experienced the death of a child of any age understands how profoundly difficult it is to ease the ache in the heart. What writing seems […]

A Friend in Need: Memories of War

The following is an excerpt from the memoir: Those Who Remain: Remembrance and Reunion After War.   There is no glory in battle worth the blood it costs.    Dwight David Eisenhower   It’s late April 2011, and already broiling hot at the entrance to the National Infantry Museum and Soldier Center in Columbus, Georgia. This outing is part of the planned program of events during my fourth reunion with the guys of Alpha Company. Once again, we’re part of a motley crew of former GIs who served in the 22nd US Army Infantry Division in various wars, a few spouses, and me, the only Vietnam War widow in the group. In spite of the fact that we are here among about two hundred veterans of all ages, our section of the bus – those connected in some way to Dave’s Company back in 1969 – behaves like a merry band of war buddies, joking and teasing, ribbing each other about things that happened long ago in the region of Tay Ninh.  Now they include me in their repartee, as if I had been there, too. Our bus driver, Ike, a thin, talkative man, lightens the atmosphere further when he chimes in over the loud speaker in his melodious Georgia drawl throughout the two-hour bus ride from Atlanta with quips like: “Whatever you folks do back there behind me, don’t wake me up while I’m drivin’ “ How amazing to be on a road trip with these guys who were with Dave forty-two years ago in the jungles of Vietnam. Each time I’m with these men at a reunion I’m flooded with the feeling that Dave is present among us, that he is smiling at me from somewhere in the room.     Joe, […]

Veteran’s Writing Project: The stories that must be told

I am honored to have an excerpt from my memoir published this month in O-Dark-Thirty, the magazine of the Veteran’s Writing Project. Here is a description of the project written by the editors: “O-Dark-Thirty is the journal for the Veterans Writing Project.   Our editors curate the works submitted to this site. We have two sections. The Report is our hub. It’s where the vast majority of our work will be based.We chose the title The Report because of this quote from Oliver Wendell Holmes: The generation that carried on the war has been set apart by its experience. In our youth our hearts were touched with fire. It was given to us to learn that life is a profound and passionate thing. While we are permitted to scorn nothing but indifference, we have seen with our own eyes, and it is for us to bear the report to those who come after us. The Review is our quarterly journal. It will be a little tighter, more closely edited. It might have themes. It is our plan to present the finest literary writing we can find. One of the tenets upon which we built the Veterans Writing Project is the idea that every veteran has a story. This site is where those stories get told. Sure, there are other places to hear or read the stories: around the bar, on a road trip, in some other journal. But like the man says, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” This is our journal. It was conceived by and designed for, is run by, features work written by, and provides voice to members of the military community.” My story, What the Dog Understood, describes a […]

Writing Down the Ham Bone: Healing the Griever Within

I borrowed part of the title of this essay from Natalie Goldberg whose generous craft book, “Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within,” offers great sustenance to writers. Her’s is a healing book to encourage writers to get on with life, to feed the writer spirit, to be attentive to place, to memory and experience. I’ve been grappling with writing about healing from grief, specifically how I survived the death of my husband in Vietnam in 1969, and then the tragic death of my father after a construction accident in 1981, and my younger brother’s death from AIDS in 1989. I’m not special in my experiences. It is rare to meet anyone who has not experienced a generous helping of tragic events. But, my question is: How do we share these experiences among ourselves? How do we decide what to do and what to say? Can we pinpoint things that are helpful? Being a lover of cooking and the sharing of food, some old culinary memories bubbled up as I thought about living through tough times. I can’t say that I desired anything to do with eating in the aftermath of learning that my husband had been killed when I was twenty-three, but I do remember the presence of food in that difficult time; I remember people gathered around me at the dining room table and in restaurants where others ate and I sat in stunned silence.I remember kindness and encouragement without pressure to participate and eat. When my grandmother died in 1972, a basket arrived on our doorstep even before the funeral. It contained a […]