Monday, June 28, 2010

Requiem for a Soldier

Saturday afternoon was the culmination of five weeks of sorrow and preparation for saying a ritual goodbye to a young man who died in May of his battle wounds, the final wound self-inflicted. It has been a long process for all of us involved, from parents who saw their only child bloody and limp on a gurney from a gunshot wound, to a fiancee who witnessed the event, to those of us called upon for help in the moment and in the weeks-long process of preparing his memorial celebration.

I asked my lovely congregation to help with part of this process, providing the space, a reception, my services as officiant, and other tasks, and they marshaled their energy and came through for me and the family. I estimate that their participation involved many person-hours and more than a few bucks for food; mine, I estimate, included many hours of being with the family as they dealt with the shock and the immediate needs of the situation, hours of conversation between family and officiants (for there were two other clergy involved), emails and phone calls, adjusting of details, and finally the nine-hour slot of time on Saturday, to set up, conduct the service and its aftermath, and cleanup.

It's hard for many folks to understand grief and individuals' different ways of expressing it. This group wanted to give their beloved a final ceremony that said everything, that offered all friends and family a chance to tell stories, that somehow reproduced the important events and the growth in character of this young man over his short life. So days and weeks of planning went into this memorial service and resulted in a marathon outpouring of love and mourning.

To many, it may have seemed over-the-top and certainly it was exhausting for all who participated in the service. But it was important to these parents, I think, to make a statement to the community and to other veterans-----the lives of our soldiers are important, they are changed drastically by the violence of war, and some are so badly wounded that they cannot survive in civilian life.

I've never done a memorial service for a suicide or for a veteran and this one included both elements. Each of us clergy addressed the method of death in some way, without judgment. And at the end of the service, a two-man Honor Guard conducted a flag ceremony, unfolding the ceremonial flag, shaking it to release the spirit of the dead soldier, and re-folding it before offering it to the soldier's mother. At that time, we stood and the soft tones of "Taps" floated through the open door.

I felt very privileged to work with the two other clergy, one an Episcopal priest who is a spiritual director on the island and the other a Navy chaplain at NAS Whidbey. Together I believe we offered family and friends a healing experience and I think we all learned something important in our working together. I certainly made two new colleague-friends.

What I hope the family will receive from this experience: a sense that many hands reached out to offer them support in their grief, a recognition of the many hours spent working on their behalf to help them create the kind of experience they wanted, a welling-up of gratitude from them toward those who did so much for them, and a desire to give back in some way.

When we are in great pain and others reach out to help, spending many hours and financial resources, we may not be able to recognize our debt to them at first nor may we have the strength to do anything about it for awhile, but when we do, those who have served us will benefit from our appreciation and our sincere thanks. I hope I remember my own advice if I am ever in this situation! Those who serve are nourished by the appreciation of those who are served.

There's another topic in this story as well, but I'll save that for another post. It's about professional "distance" and the need not to succumb to one's own grief as one helps others mourn.


LinguistFriend said...

There are certainly a number of topics here. A major one is the VA's limited resources to deal with soldiers who have come back from wars in which they suffered various types of physical or psychological trauma, or both. The VA is a major sponsor of research in these areas, but this means that they include many unsolved problems. You just encountered one case in an avoidable epidemic, the results and expense of which will be with us for many years.

ms. kitty said...

I would add, LF, that humans have been experiencing the effects of war wounds for centuries, variously called "gassing", "shell shock", "battle fatigue" and now PTSD and TBI. Men (and women) have always been affected by the violence of war; some more so than others.