The anniversary of Trent’s death is tomorrow. Many of my friends know, they remember that horrible week, two years ago, when Trent died at Walter Reed from wounds he received in Afghanistan. Since you know what this month’s topic is, this is your chance to run screaming to another blog, a safe one, one that talks about fluffy bunnies, rainbows, and unicorns. I am going to talk about Death.
Several people have asked me how I was/am able to handle the death of my husband. The answer is easy, really; the process was not easy, do not mistake the two. Two things came into play with Trent’s death: 9 years of preparation and 9 years of anticipatory grief. *I am going to add a caveat here that I am not implying that the grief process is over. Let’s get that out of the way, that and I know I randomly put commas in any place I feel, like, putting them so please, I already, know that too. ,
In 2002 when we learned that Trent was going to deploy for the first time, to Iraq, I lost my emotional shit. I expected him to die the minute he hit the ground there. I was a wreck, I was also pregnant with Gwen, living overseas, and coped the only way I knew how: cry, and eat bread (and ice cream, and butter, lots and lots of butter). Trent came home with a paper to plan his funeral in the event that he died, I soaked my tears up with bread, and kept my mouth shut by chewing said bread, so I could just nod, “Yes, the wooden coffin would be fine.” None of this was fine. I was terrified. As soon he left I was on my knees, in a kitchen no bigger than my bathroom here, bawling my eyes out, convinced I’d never see him again. I was in my twenties. This was a process most people go through in their later years.
That deployment taught me so much, mostly about myself, patience, and how much bread I could eat (it’s a lot).
In 2003, Trent decided he wanted a Green Beret. He went through the selection process, and had a choice to go to school right away, or do one more deployment with his current unit, which was the best field artillery regiment ever. We were all very close, the Families, the Soldiers, it was a great unit, so we stayed one more year.
I was working at the time, one of my duties was to assist with casualty affairs. I also volunteered for the Family Readiness Group (FRG). We lost quite a few Soldiers from the get go. The deployment to Iraq didn’t bear many casualties, certainly not many “close to home” as they say. I think many of us expected this deployment to go similarly. We started losing people right away, people with Families, on post, our next-door neighbors, and our colleagues. The memorial services were frequent, and heart breaking. Early on in the deployment (let’s say month two out of twelve) one spouse changed the way I handled the way I helped Families then and in the future.
I was working, assisting with casualties affairs when Mrs. X came in with a binder. We usually go to the Families. Her husband had been killed days earlier, and I had to meet with her to help process her paperwork to receive benefits. When a Soldier dies, one of the first things we do is process payments for the Family so they can feed their children, pay their mortgage, pay for their car, and so on. Payments happen quickly because they need to. Funeral planning also happens quickly because it needs to. The military world is different from the civilian world, the military comes to you with funeral planning. If a death occurs, you don’t have to go to your local funeral home and seek out someone to take care of the details, the military comes to the Family, and assists you with every aspect of planning. The Family member needs to have so much paperwork in order, yet they are grieving, in shock, where the hell is the marriage license? Who knows, you can’t even find a tissue! In the early years of the war, even now, Families don’t expect this. They often feel surprised, and rushed by the process.
Mrs. X came to me, to my surprise, with a binder. I was a bit shocked that she walked into my office, and had everything she needed. She walked in, beautiful, put together, hair done, eyes red. She had every piece of paperwork needed to complete her benefits, everything. Her husband had sat down with her, and not only planned his funeral, but organized all of his paperwork for the next step (ID cards, veteran’s benefits for the children, financial planning, everything else). I was in awe.
I took that binder idea to my FRG and encouraged our Families to put something similar together. When we transferred to Fort Bragg, I got a job working with Families and encouraged them to do the same. For years I had a binder, updated it, took it to meetings and trainings, taught Families about the process, educated them about the casualty process, let them know it was OK to ask the tough questions (like the money questions). I encouraged them to be familiar with timelines, plan the funeral, know where everything is. This knowledge, this familiarity allows you to grieve, not search for paperwork and panic at a time when you don’t even remember to buy toilet paper.
No one wants to think about death. This is not something you want to be prepared for. It’s negative, it’s painful, people run screaming from you like Joe Dirt, “I got the Death on me!” I can tell you all something you already know but I’ll not. I think it’s obnoxious when people do the whole, “We are all going to die” routine, because insert a big, “No shit” here and a, “How is that helpful?” over here. “Be prepared for death” is helpful.
Every time Trent left, every single time, we planned his funeral. By the ninth time we did that the thing was nine pages long, I thought I would be the one dying filling in the blanks. Once, I even tried to get the Department of the Army to simplify it and make it a DD form! Every unit has a version from two pages to thirteen (Rangers Lead the Way!) Cumbersome! Trent is already dead and I’m STILL complaining about that damn form! Here is where I want this blog to go viral and someone at DA to say, “OHHH let’s DO THIS!” I have big dreams. I also digress.
The day I was notified of Trent’s injury, it didn’t go quite as I imagined. Yes, I imagined it. Trent and I joked that my hair wouldn’t be done and the house would be a mess. When the notification team came to my house (it was clean) I opened the door for them, I noticed the welcome home wreath I had made for Trent, anticipating his arrival home. He was supposed to redeploy soon and I was excited. I passed the wreath and shook my head, “Stupid Fucking Wreath”. My sister, always my best friend and biggest supporter had made one for her home in Maine. When I told her about the “Stupid Fucking Wreath” she said, “Fuck that wreath, I tore mine down and drove over that stupid fucking thing with the car!” Everyone grieves differently.
I was able to call my friends and have them come to the house after I was notified. I didn’t have any family in the area. They asked what they could do, and I asked one of them to get my binder. It was in my office, I had just done a training and used it. Most of my friends are in the business of helping prepare Families for this very thing too. One of them even brought Gwen a backpack for our expected trip to meet with Trent. This is just what we do.
Trent didn’t only plan his funeral, he planned all of his end stages. I am glad we had had those tough conversations because he was in a coma, he couldn’t talk, I had to talk for him. He had spoken at length about his wishes. He had been deployed so many times, on countless training missions, and quite frankly, the drivers in this town suck so badly, the chances of him getting run over were pretty high too. This was our reality. It’s all of our realities. He had said he wanted Gwen and I at his bedside to say goodbye if that were ever the case. He wanted to donate all of his organs if possible. He had a living will and did not want to be on life support. He planned every single detail, down to the letter. When the unit notified me of his injury, and told me he was not going to live, I was able to tell them what he wanted. I was able to talk to his doctors, talk to Gwen when she had questions, I was able to execute his last wishes without wondering what he wanted, and I could cry in peace, my only search being for tissues.
I cried so much in the nine years prior to his death, I was able to keep it together for all the other people I had to comfort, because that happens too. I shouldn’t have to comfort other people I was told, but it happens. Trent had friends. They were grieving. We grieved together. Friends of mine that didn’t know Trent grieved for me, for Gwen. I had to talk to Gwen about her father because she had questions, and you can’t hide things from that kid. As much as I wished I had a child that was oblivious, I was blessed with an intuitive child that seems to know everything. It’s unnerving. I leaned heavily on the tears I had already cried to try to keep it together long enough to function as I had to. I had to function. I had to make decisions for Trent, I had to talk to his doctors, I had to be able to take care of myself, and Gwen during the process. I was able to do all of that because I was prepared. It didn’t stop the grief; it allowed me to grieve. It allowed me to get up every morning, go to the hospital, talk to the organ donation team, his doctors, the paperwork people, the family, every other person that seemed to materialize, and then go back to Gwen every night and hug her and hold her. I had plenty of time to face plant and attend what we started calling “Lilith Fair” (that grieving period when you don’t shave, or shower, listen to Sarah McLachlan’s sad songs about Angels and shit, and ugly cry) after all the work was done.
Being prepared helps you grieve, plain and simple. You don’t waste time stressing over details, you don’t waste time questioning your decisions, or searching for paperwork. Does it take the sting away? Nope. Does it soften the blow any? Perhaps if you consider it an expected death it does. Many military spouses will tell you that you live each day of a deployment near your phone waiting to hear from your loved one. I would get an email every four days and reset my clock. Being prepared allows you to face plant and go to Lilith Fair, and not cry because where the hell is the marriage license?
There are so many things that go along with the death of a spouse, that at the very least, the preparations make room for the more important things. Make that room. Spend time with that sorrow, cherish the heartbeat while you can feel it, the arms around you while you have them, because when they are gone, you will have those memories to comfort you.