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 […]

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 […]

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 Time to Cry and LAUGH: Writing with a sense of humor

Not long ago in a writing workshop, a colleague offered to read a personal essay I had written about a difficult life experience. My kind friend reported back that he felt as if I was dragging him, sad and depressed, to the abysmal end of the story. “I don’t want to feel as if I’m being forced to feel bad,” he said. “Where’s your sense of humor? And you’re not having any fun, either.”   Humor? I didn’t see anything funny about the story of my trip to Washington, DC, to see my husband’s name on the Vietnam Memorial for the first time – but – maybe I was taking myself a little too seriously. Perhaps Colette, the French writer whose husband locked her in a room to keep her writing, was right when she said that total absence of humor renders life impossible. Humor in nonfiction writing demands taking a firm, self-confident position about our “self” and then flipping the situation upside down. Writer Leigh Anne Jasheway calls this creative misdirection; engaging readers by taking them someplace they don’t expect to go, choosing words and metaphors that make readers giggle without knowing why. She says a smiling reader wants to read on even if the topic is inherently sad.   Where was my sense of comic relief? Obviously, I had forgotten that humor creates a bond with readers and cuts down on tension and anxiety. People need to cry and laugh. Humor fosters a sense of immediacy, a close personal connection. There was little to joke about in my essay, but there were some curious ironies that I hadn’t yet dug deeply enough to discover. As Dorothy Parker said in Writers at Work, “There’s a hell of a distance between wisecracking and wit. […]

Recognizing and Responding to PTSD

How best can we meet the challenge of being helpful/supportive to friends, co-workers and employees who may have experienced deep and lasting wounds from traumatic experiences? In fact, old emotional wounds can cause numbness, rage and anxiety and may be invisible to the rest of the world. For example, when 1st Sergeant Louis McShane received his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army in 1947 after World War II, he remembers throwing his duffel bag over his shoulder and walking out into sunshine after a handshake and hearing the words: “Go home and get a job.” Fifty years later, after his wife’s death, Louis broke down. He began to speak about the horrors he had heard and seen on the beaches of Normandy where he witnessed comrades impaled by bayonets and others drowning as they tried to swim to shore wearing ninety pounds of gear during the Allied Landing. “I don’t know how I made it back alive,” he repeated. “I always carried a kind of guilt.” For years, Louis kept the burden of what he had seen to himself. His employers, family and even his close friends knew only that he had been in the army and that he was a workaholic when he returned.  No one except Louis knew that he woke most nights in a cold sweat. Working long hours was his way of coping with obsessive thoughts and nightmares. Direct experience with traumatizing events has the potential to evoke a lasting stress reaction. Besides war – motor vehicle accidents, plane crashes, nuclear meltdowns, child and spousal abuse, being a victim […]

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 […]