A Father's Grief

Men who are confronted with the death of a son, a brother or a daughter need to realize as soon as possible that our usual male tendencies may not be all we need. The fact of death itself should tell us that the normal ways of coping with life aren’t enough.

What’s the first male response to trouble? Get in there and do something right away, of course. But you can’t do anything about a warrior who is already dead. Which leads to the next natural, manly move: write off the loss and move on to something else. This is how men have always coped with reality and how we survived and got our families sheltered and fed, after all. But when we are blind-sided with a heartbreaking, stunning loss, these traditional ways will backfire and only aggravate our pain sooner or later – even years later.

Men who are confronted with the death of a son, a brother or a daughter need to realize as soon as possible that our usual male tendencies may not be all we need. The fact of death itself should tell us that the normal ways of coping with life aren’t enough. My lifelong ways of handling trouble would lead me into one of two mistakes: either pretending I’m completely OK or pretending that my young Marine didn’t permanently own a huge piece of my heart. Both would be lies – lies to myself and to everyone who knows me.

When the Marines came to tell us our daughter, the glorious Lt. “Vinny” Vincent, had died in a plane crash along with a Navy flying ace, we had to drive 100 miles to tell our son. In those two hours of seclusion in our Suburban, I saw that I needed a plan like I had never had before. My son and I would take control of the situation and use every resource we could think of. We would stay a step ahead of all the sad rituals and extremely uncomfortable events to come. My wife and I were miraculously able to make these decisions in the first days and weeks of our catastrophe. But it is never too late for those of you who have long since buried your beloved warrior, to find some peace, some small but priceless joy, to act, and think new thoughts.

Drive away blame. In peacetime, most of the deaths seem to come from highway accidents, training incidents and airplane crashes. Military airplanes are more complicated than civilian aircraft. Pilots must constantly practice, and mishaps are just part of reality. And every weekend there is a multitude of servicemen and women driving great distances to see loved ones and have fun. Then they rush back hundreds of miles to meet their curfew. Almost every weekend someone dies.

A dozen times a day you may think you “lost” the 20 years of work and emotion you invested in your son. We are bombarded with thoughts of futility, of someone’s mistake, of what “should have - would have - could have been.” These thoughts don’t do anything for you but double your pain. But you must forever know there is no futility or shame in the death of one whose living had so much merit. We must never stain their merit with negative judgements. And we must never let what they could have been take away any of the glory of what they already were.

Be proud. Before U.S. Marines Officers School, my daughter went through Parris Island as a private, just to learn the life of the enlisted Marines she would someday be protecting. I realized at the graduation that every private who completed that arduous training, regardless of class rank, had already achieved something amazing, something far beyond the rest of America’s youth.

Everyone who reads this letter has the right to spend every day of their lives showing their pride in their loved one, regardless of the details of the death itself. Because every one of those we love had already risen far above the rest of our society in character, courage, honor and ability. And not an atom of their achievement can ever be lost or taken back. We all know this. Someone has surely told you this truth already. Start exercising your pride -- no matter how long you have been grieving, make a point to hold your chin up in pride for part of every day. Your deceased warrior deserves it. He or she has earned it. If they had lived, they would be proud today of who they are and what they are doing. Now it’s our duty to be proud for them.

Make your own celebrations. There were three separate services in Pensacola, Florida and Massachusetts before we finally buried our Marine’s ashes at sea. On the Coast Guard cutter that took us from Woods Hole, MA to open sea near Martha’s Vineyard, we brought along four Episcopal priests, but I gave the homily oration myself, followed by my wife Susan’s upbeat celebration of our daughter. Sue ended her words by leading the Marines in a hearty “Oo-rah!”

Since then, we have planted a tree in Vinny’s honor near our town’s Veterans memorial. A prize fund in our daughter’s name was established at Boston University’s Marine Science Program where she had been an unforgettable young scientist. Her mother is going to have her knee replacement surgery and then plan a memorial bicycle race on Cape Cod three years after our Marine’s death.

Understandably, you haven’t done all these things yet. But you can. You can still hold a memorial event at your church or club any time, any year. Then you can speak your own words and say everything you wish you had thought of before. You can rent a hall and have a party for all of your loved one’s friends, set up a picture display, and get them to write their sentiments in a book. Buy two or three inexpensive pocket recorders, so they can dictate their memories. You can turn the past into some kind of a future. You can take charge of your grief, even if you can’t make it go completely away.

Get together. Get with a group who are also bereaved, and go away somewhere. I was amazed how much better I felt after the 1999 TAPS weekend at Washington, and I would sure like to have more dads, brothers and sons join me in the hotel sports bar next May. At the Memorial Day TAPS conference you can meet some of the original Flying Tigers in the halls. You can spend the whole weekend alone with your thoughts in your own little world, if you wish. It's a comfortable hotel, very large, but it has lots of quiet places, a pool and a gym. Or you can take the opportunity to talk, and you might find yourself laughing more than once. In TAPS you are guaranteed to find friendly listeners – others who are pleased to hear about all the things you don’t want to talk about at work and in your social circles at home. My co-workers in Groton might feel very uncomfortable if I pulled out my pictures and started talking again about how wonderful Vinny was and how much I wish I could have a beer with her tonight. But in one of the lounges at our hotel, sharing memories and pains with other parents is as easy as munching the pretzels.

By Lee Vincent

(c) 2007, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Inc., ["TAPS"]; Reprinted with permission of TAPS. Limited reprinting allowed under single-user, “Fair Use” guidelines. All other rights reserved to TAPS.

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