Tell Me a Story
My husband and I both come from a family with a strong military histories. Over the years I have noticed some family member eagerly share stories of their time in the service. While others acknowledge their service, but do not want to talk about it. This phenomenon does not appear to be about what generation they are in or what branch of the military they serve(d) in. This Memorial Day I decided to do a little digging into why this might be. What I found was it may have something to do, among other things, with the way they process grief.
For many Memorial Day brings about memories of family picnics and colorful parades. At the heart of Memorial Day though is a somber day meant to remember those who have fallen in service to our country. It isn’t only veterans that experience this feeling of loss. This profound sadness can be felt, by the friends, family, neighbors, and community members of those who died both military and civilian alike.
Grief is a funny thing. It does not necessarily diminish with time. A person can feel content and happy, and then almost suddenly be beset by feelings of grief from long ago. As disconcerting as this is, it is also perfectly normal. People do not necessarily recover from grief. Instead they learn to adapt to the loss of the individual(s) from their life. Early theories of grief and loss like that of Bowlby (1962) and Parkes (1972) suggested that grief was a predictable orderly pattern of responses to a death. Modern theories understand it is anything but. In fact, there is a multitude of research to support that grief and loss is as much a physical issue as it is an emotional one. It isn’t an orderly one either. Even the widely accepted Kubler Ross model of grief has been criticized for not adequately describing the twists and turns grief can take. Part of the difficulty is that grief happens differently for everyone. The other is, how can you do successful research if in order to do it you must quantify, grief?
Physical Effects of Grief
Researchers are trying. Recent studies look at the physical effects of grief. It has been shown to increase blood pressure, feelings of pain, blood clots, and increase neural activity Additional studies have identified symptoms of headaches or migraines, heart pain, heaviness in the limbs, aches in the neck, back, or skeletal joints, and overall muscular pain in people who have lost a loved one. Even auditory and visual hallucinations of the deceased person are known to occur during the acute phase of grief.
The body’s response to losing a loved one is most comparable to the response it has to stress. Both lead to increased inflammation, and a battered immune system. This worsens already present illnesses and leaves you susceptible to infection. The research shows grief can and does make you sick. A grief trigger can be anything that brings up memories related to your loss. And the more battered and bruised you felt, the less you may want to risk triggering those feelings again.
As you can see bereavement can be complicated, physically and emotionally. So much so that in 2013, the American Psychiatric Association included the diagnosis Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder in the updated DSM-5. It described Complex Bereavement as “severe and persistent grief and mourning reaction” and placed it under“Other Specified Trauma-and Stressor-Related Disorder”. The APA and it’s associated organizations recognize that not all grief is created equal. Under some circumstances loss goes beyond grief and can be described as traumatic.
So when does bereavement cross the line into complicated? Well, it is different for everyone. Some risk factors include feelings of guilt or self-blame, thinking you did something wrong or could have prevented the death, bitterness about the loss, a premature, sudden, violent, or unexpected loss, and a close or dependent relationship to the deceased person. Thinking back to our veterans it isn’t surprising that some don’t want to talk about their experiences. Many of the risk factors for complicated grief are a harsh reality of military life. Talking about these events can trigger the grief response and it can be intense.
Sometimes it is Okay Not to Talk
In the military service members are taught to be physically and mentally strong. Their lives, and the lives of their fellow members depend on it. This mentality often follows them into their civilian life. Regardless of what is going on now, they take pride in their time in the service and see carrying the sometimes traumatic memories they have as honoring those they have lost. Some mourn those losses through sharing stories, and other’s keep them quietly close to their heart.
Though their is room for more research what we know about the process of grief is that there is no one right way to do it. So this Memorial Day, if you encounter a Veteran, military member, or Gold Star family take the time to stop and thank them for their sacrifice. If they want to share a story take a moment to listen. If they do not, understand that decision and quietly thank them for enduring something the rest of us could not image. Even if we can not all understand the impact serving in the military has on someone we can be grateful for their choice to do it, and for those who lost their lives in service to our country.
Tags: bereavement, Grief, loss, memorial day, mourning