Nutrition and the Stress of Tragedy

Naomi appeared lean and fit, although a bit pale, when she arrived for her appointment in the Nutrition Clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital. At first glance, before taking her history, I thought she might be a long-distance runner, an ice skater, or a gymnast. I had counseled many elite athletes over the years. They usually wanted to know what kind of foods would enhance their performance and if it was true that some nutrients or supplements made it easier to build muscle. Sometimes they had an eating disorder brought on by the constant competition to be strong, but look thin. As soon as Naomi began to speak, I realized that her nutritional challenge was completely different. “My mother thought I should see someone,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears. “I can’t eat – I have no desire to eat – in fact I feel full all the time – but also empty.” She described a feeling of heaviness in her chest, lack of concentration, restlessness, difficulty sleeping and frequent tears. Further conversation revealed the source of her emotional and physical state: Three months before, her fiancé had been killed in Iraq. Many people don’t realize that learning terrible news – being suddenly and powerfully aggrieved – triggers an automatic physical response. It’s not a sign of weakness or inability to handle emotion, it is the body’s way of trying to stay safe. Both the physical stress of athletic training and the emotional stress of a sudden tragedy can create the same reaction in the body. As we battle to survive, stress hormones are released from the adrenal glands located just above the kidneys. As these hormones surge throughout the body, they enable us […]

Remembering War

This essay entitled “My Buddy’s Hat”  also appears in the winter issue, 2013, of the on-line Journal PersimmonTree.org “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 is the recreational outing 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.  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 some of the guys who were with my husband forty-two years ago in the jungles of Vietnam. Each time I’m with these men at a reunion I’m […]

Parenting, Motherlove, and Guns: Why Teach Children to Kill?

I’m not sure we can understand the “how” or the “why” in the aftermath of this recent massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, but there are reasons to see this event as an anomaly; the result of negligent stupidity on the part of a parent. The National Association of School Psychologists is suggesting that children should be reassured that this shooting was an unusual event and they are safe in their schools. http://www.nasponline.org. This may be true, but only if parents of children with mental health issues make wise decisions about which activities are beneficial and life enhancing. The mother in this case collected guns and taught her child how to shoot them. Her relationship with her son was described as “close.”   It is also a reality that the winter holidays are accompanied, for many people, by a malaise: a sad inefficacy, a complex of emotions that can become almost intolerable. Some folks are unhappy because they think they “should” be happy. Others resent that they are no longer children and they can’t line up at Santa Land and sit on the lap of a benevolent fat man who will make all wishes come true.   What is this unhappiness that spreads over so many like a film of grimy discontent during this holiday when hours of daylight decrease and the symbols of childhood magic increase? Decorated trees, wreaths, toys, red and gold wrapped gifts, diamond studded fake snow – all full of the promise of happiness.  Some could experience a kind of profound disappointment that life isn’t what it appears to be.   When people are disappointed and desperate for solace, they might do almost anything. For example, if they think their mother loves guns more than […]

Giving Thanks: Healing and Resiliency after War

Those to whom I give thanks today. As much as we might feel alone in the aftermath of tragic life events, there are many surrounding who have open hearts.   The veterans of Alpha Company of the 2/22 Infantry Division found me by posting their words of tribute and thanks to my husband, Capt. David R. Crocker, Jr., on the virtual Vietnam Memorial wall. My reunions with them since 2006 have provided a consistent strengthening of my spirit with their stories, communications, love and support. Without them I would not have had the courage to visit the  Memorial Wall at a reunion in Washington, DC in 2008. Without them I would never have heard the stories of what a great leader Dave was until his death in Vietnam in 1969. To those people who wonder if there is a benefit to being in contact with old comrades, please don’t hesitate. Take the chance. It may feel uncomfortable, even painful, to imagine meeting people from that difficult time which many have tried to forget, but what you will find is joy; pure joy. Living through the experience of war, losing friends in front of your eyes, needs to be shared. Find your old friends from far away and embrace them. They want to provide support and comfort. Visit www.vietnamtripledeuce.org and www.22ndinfantry.org to get started and reconnect. The members of the Gold Star Wives (GSW) have battled since their formation in 1947, with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt, to assure that spouses […]

Grandparent’s Day and 9/11: A story of resilience

Most of us associate the month of September with the tragedy that occurred on 9/11/01. We don’t think of Grandparent’s day which traditionally arrives on the first Sunday after Labor Day.  Seldom do we consider these two events side-by-side in relationship with each other. For my friend Paula Clifford Scott, September 11, 2011, was especially cruel and poignant because, not only was it Grandparent’s Day, by chance, but it marked the 10th anniversary of the death of her only daughter and granddaughter. On 9/11/01, Juliana Valentine McCourt, age four, and her mother, Ruth Clifford McCourt, departed from Boston on American Airlines flight 11 headed for a vacation in California. Ruth’s best friend, Paige Farrelly Hackel (Godmother to Juliana) was on the second plane, United flight 175. The dream trip for mother, daughter and Godmother included the Deepak Chopra Center for Well-being and Disneyland.  Before departing for the airport, Juliana explained to Grandma Paula how she had decided which of her favorite stuffed animals would accompany her on the plane. “Bunny Rabbit can stay with you, Gramma,” she said, “he’ll take care of you while I’m gone.” Eight children between the ages of two and eleven died in the three planes lost on 9/11.  How do grandparents survive with just the memory of the tiny hands and fresh faces of their grandchildren and the knowledge that they themselves are still here, alive?  Knowing that the unspoken order of life and death – who should depart this earth before the other – has been so tragically turned upside down.  Deep sadness, rage, disbelief, guilt, even becoming physically debilitated […]

Finding words: grief and trauma in memoir

How many times have you heard, in the aftermath of a traumatic event, people who say, “I just can’t talk about it right now.” Most of us know this experience of feeling lost for words, as if the “right words” have not been invented to pinpoint the feelings. Yet,  memoirs about traumatic life experience abound these days and it raises the question of when – how soon after? – and how – what will be the structure? – of writing about the death of a parent, spouse, or sibling, or an experience with addiction, domestic violence, war, or any number of experiences that traumatize by their swiftness, or repetition over time. My feeling is that, first, the body tells us when we’re ready to write. For some, the impulse to jot down notes or keep a journal emerges during the process of psychotherapy following a life-changing experience. Others say that they began with a fictional account, a short story or novel, and then realized they needed  to tell a true story.   Whatever the starting point, it’s important to be kind to yourself and acknowledge that, while writing may help in the healing process, it takes time and reflection to be ready to heal. Some people wait a long time – decades – to begin writing. Judith Barrington in Writing the Memoir, describes one example. She says, “Tove Ditlevsen’s Early Spring …was first published some forty years after some of the events it describes and demonstrates an extraordinary insight into childhood – one that clearly required many years of reflection before it could be written.”  I began writing about my husband’s death in Vietnam […]