Joanne Steen agrees with King Solomon, who wrote that there is a time for everything, including grief.
Joanne knows about grief. Her husband, Ken, a Navy pilot, died in a helicopter accident in 1992.
Several years and a graduate degree in counseling later, Joanne’s hard-won wisdom led her to co-write "Military Widow: A Survival Guide" (Naval Institute Press) with Regina Asaro, military wife and psychiatric nurse.
The book offers guidance through the complex experience of military widowhood insights for family, friends and the military community about supporting military widows.
"People want to help, they just don’t know what to say," Joanne said by phone from Virginia. "They want to, in some way, fix grief, and that’s not always a good thing. In the (Biblical) book of Ecclesiastes, it says there is a time to mourn. We, as a society, just don’t want to do that."
Discomfort with death and grief makes people hesitant to reach out to bereaved families, or causes inappropriate reactions.
"I can’t tell you the number of (military widows) I’ve talked to who tell me they’ve gone to unit functions and have been told ‘When I look at you, I see death.’
"In some way shape or form, they are told that."
Avoidance of grief is unhealthy, Joanne said. In "Mililtary Widow" she describes grief as work that must be done, but military widows are not alone in these efforts.
"Grief work is not just for the families of fallen warriors," Joanne said. "As units take sustained casualties over multiple deployments, the units and their spouses feel the effects of military deaths and to a lesser but real extent, they need to work through these losses."
A speaker and consultant as well as author, Joanne regularly addresses commanders, caregivers and spouses about recognizing grief among their ranks and reaching out to military widows.
Grief is not one-dimensional, expressed only through tears. It can show up in any area of life, Joanne pointed out. Physical effects can include insomnia or a weakened immune system. Cognitive ability is sometimes impacted.
"When you’re assaulted by grief, you lose your ability to think, process information and make decisions," she said. Spiritual, social, emotional and behavioral spheres of life are also affected.
Reaching out to grieving people is important, even essential, so what can friends and family do to help?
"Silence is not golden," Joanne said. "The best thing you can do for a family is, first of all, acknowledge the loss." Use the name of the loved one who died and encourage the family to talk about him.Give practical help. Grief is exhausting, and life goes on. "Offer to cut the grass. Give her the name of a good mechanic," Joanne suggested. "Offer to put up her Christmas tree. Then offer to take it down."Offer a break from grief. "It all depends on how well you know someone, but don’t be afraid to suggest fun things to do. Be mindful that she will probably want to talk about her spouse, because that’s what people need to do," she said.Don’t ignore unhealthy behavior. While there is no correct way to grieve, some reactions are unhealthy, such as depression and substance abuse. Pointing out self-destructive behavior is delicate and my require help from a chaplain or mental health professional. Said Joanne, "One needs to ask oneself: If I were in this position, would I want someone to reach out and help me?"More about "Military Widow: A Survival Guide" is available at www.militarywidow.com. More from my interview with Joanne is 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.