Joanne Steen has lived the life she describes in the pages of "Military Widow: A Survival Guide" (Navy Institute Press).
The author said she felt a need to write the book, but wanted it to be more than her own story.
It is. Practical and comprehensive, this guide speaks with the voice of experience, but not in first person. It is not the catharsis of one tragedy, but a concise exploration of many military widows’ experiences.
Joanne’s husband, Ken, a Navy helicopter pilot, died in a 1992 training accident. In her bereavement, Joanne discovered there were few resources for military widows, except other widows.
"As the years rolled by, the names and faces of the military widows who came after me changed, but the core issues they dealt with remained the same," Joanne said from her Virginia home.
Six years after her husband died, Joanne left a career in engineering for graduate school, earning a counseling degree with an emphasis on traumatic loss.
She and her co-author, Regina Asaro, a military wife and psychiatric nurse, based the book on interviews, research and their own grief and trauma counseling experience.
The book is for military widows, Joanne said, but it also informs those who support them. Family and friends of military widows and the military community can learn what helps, and what does not.
Joanne emphasizes, in print and in person, that grief is individual, and there is no one right way to grieve. The book consistently refers to grief as "work," reinforcing that whatever form it takes, grief is work that must be done.
"In order to get to a point in your life that you do feel better, you’ve got to go through the mud. There’s no getting around it," she said.
She advises other widows what experience and training have taught her: "Accept the reality of loss, feel the pain, go through the pain and choose to reinvest in life."
For military widows, Joanne said, this process poses unique difficulties from the outset. Military members who die are often young and have young families. Also, military deaths are often violent deaths that happen far from home.
Add military red tape, potential investigations, memorial services and news coverage to get a sense of the complicated process and ensuing emotions.
Long-term grieving is also affected, said Joanne. National holidays, for instance, take on new meaning.
"When you know there are Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts placing a flag on your husband’s tombstone, the very symbols of our country become symbols of loss to you," she said.
Continuing life as a military dependent is also complicated. "You’re not quite civilian and you’re not quite military," Joanne said. "I still have to use his Social Security number. It makes it harder to make your peace with the loss because it’s a constant reminder."
Military spouses are asked to provide duty phone and address for many routine activities. How does a widow answer that question?
As Joanne writes in her book, "Arlington National Cemetery is not considered a duty station, however permanent it is."
"Military Widow" is a guide for surviving an experience we hope never to face. It comes alongside military widows with empathy, not pity; encouraging them to work through grief, not "get over it." The authors provide guidance on many questions, from the practical (How not to spend life insurance) to personal (What to do with the "I love me" wall.)
Next week: More about Joanne’s work on behalf of military widows, and ways to reach out and offer help. Links and more information are available on the Spouse Calls blog.
Terri Barnes is a military wife and mother of three. She lives and writes in Germany. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and see the Spouse Calls blog here.