History tells us that the two major events we observe in May—Memorial Day and Mothers’ Day—are both linked to the Civil War. In 1868, May 30 was originally called “Decoration Day,” a day to decorate the graves of soldiers who lost their lives in that bloodiest of our nation’s wars. And in 1870, five years after the Civil War ended, Julia Ward Howe conceived Mothers’ Day as a day in which mothers could come together and protest their sons killing other mothers’ sons. It seems our wise ancestors gleaned how important it is to acknowledge the inevitable grief, loss, and cries of women that burst forth in the wake of war. Any war.
Each Memorial Day, I am reminded of the famous lines from Archibald MacLeish’s poem, “The Young Dead Soldiers:”
The young dead soldiers do not speak. . . . They say: Our deaths are not ours; they are yours; they will mean what you make them. They say: Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say; it is you who must say this. They say: We leave you our deaths. Give them their meaning. We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.
MacLeish’s words remind me of our family’s first visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C. when our daughter was in high school. It struck me as a large, dark, wing of death carved into the earth. We walked together down the gradual slope to read the names of dead soldiers, etched into the smooth granite in the order in which they died. Jessica and I stood at each end of 1969-1970, Michael’s tour of duty, and I was taken aback by the enormity of the loss as I ran my fingers over the grooves of letters that formed the names of all those “young dead soldiers.”
These losses are tragic, but they are tangible, even touchable when you have a memorial, a cemetery marker, or an urn. A physical death can be mourned through ritual and in community, and the grief of those who mourn runs deep as family and friends gather to shed tears and memorialize their lost loved one. But what about Michael and the multitude of wounded warriors who didn’t die but who carry their trauma and emotional scars deep within?
What about Michael’s best friend in Vietnam who appeared so “well adjusted” and successful in the decades following his service? Yet, some thirty years after coming home from that war, he committed suicide by dousing himself with gasoline, tying himself to the steering wheel of his car, and lighting a match after leaving a 14-page suicide note for his wife and sons. Page after heartbreaking page spoke only of his combat experience—an experience he never talked to her (or anyone) about. A casualty of war whose name will never be carved on the memorial we visited.
Or what about Kevin and Joyce Lucey, who sign their emails with their names, adding, the line: “The proud parents of Cpl. Jeffrey Michael Lucey, a 23-year-old USMC reservist forever. Succumbed to the hidden wounds of PTSD on 06/22/04.” When Jeff came back from Iraq, they watched their son fall apart and tried everything to help him. Like so many loved ones, they became as hyper-vigilant as trauma survivors. But even their fierce love could not quell the horrors of war.
I worry about our young veterans, like our friend with vacant eyes who served one tour of duty in Afghanistan and three in Iraq. He came home, like so many other young soldiers, with a heart filled with pain and a head filled with ghosts. Two of his buddies were killed in action in Iraq and five others committed suicide when they came home. He also came home with four purple hearts, a traumatic brain injury, and a raging case of PTSD.
When Michael and I facilitated a discussion about the grief and loss from war, we asked those in attendance, “What does war take from soldiers, veterans, and those who love them?” Their responses included things like: Innocence. Patriotism. Love. Relationships. Money. Jobs. Sanity. Security. Tranquility. Trust. Courage. Loyalty. Feelings. Self. Purpose. Laughter. Family. God. Country. Dreams. Future. Youth. Friends. Pride.
When trauma strikes a loved one, or when the effects of trauma build to a crescendo over time, family and friends are thrust into the role of caregiver—a role they probably aren’t prepared to assume. I remember telling a friend that I felt lost in the “bewilderness” when Michael was finally diagnosed with PTSD. It is normal—and sometimes necessary—to put our lives on hold and focus on a traumatized loved one. Yet it is important to acknowledge how dramatically their trauma has changed our lives, making it our trauma too. We may choose to give up our time and a piece of ourselves to tend to their psychological or physical wounds, but there is still loss in the midst of that choice.
It took many years (and many therapy sessions) to understand that I, as the caring spouse of a Vietnam veteran with PTSD, had a need—and a right—to also grieve what I have lost. Being given permission to grieve was a gift that helped me cope with, then emerge from, the intermittent yet chronic depression I tried to ignore for such a long time. Grief is a messy process, and despite all the books and discussions about “stages,” it is usually a non-linear process in which feelings can wash over at unexpected times. Like when I read the MacLeish lines, or visit a memorial, or try to comfort my husband when he wakes shaking from a nightmare.
War changes us forever—all of us: veterans, spouses, children, healers, and citizens. I know the trauma and ghosts of war will always be with Michael—which means they will be with me too. Vietnam will always sleep between us. We will soon celebrate our 46th anniversary, and each year our marriage continues to grow sweeter, more solid, and more realistic because we know what we almost lost. As a wise friend told me, “trauma is always with us; we just learn to carry it differently.” Ernest Hemingway wrote, “The world breaks everyone and afterward, many are strong at the broken places.” I give thanks that we are two of the lucky ones.
On Memorial Day, we have a sacred responsibility to remember our soldiers and their sacrifices. But as we hold our “young dead soldiers” in heart and mind, let us not forget the other victims of war—those for whom the only escape was suicide, the loved ones like the Luceys who grieve in suicide’s wake; those with PTSD who forever carry the weight of war, and those loved ones who struggle to help lift that heavy burden. It is our duty to give all these lives and stories meaning.
Cynthia Orange (www.cynthiaorange.net) is a writer, editor, and writing consultant. Her most recent award-winning books include Take Good Care: Finding Your Joy in Compassionate Caregiving and Shock Waves: A Practical Guide to Living With a Loved One’s PTSD. She has received awards for creative nonfiction, poetry, essays, and newspaper articles.
Orange co-facilitates a group for caregivers of a variety of ages and circumstances that was founded in 2010. She has written extensively about caregiving and post-traumatic stress disorder, and she and her husband Michael (a Vietnam combat veteran) often speak to audiences about the effects of trauma and war in their continuing involvement with veterans and veterans’ issues.
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