PEARL HARBOR, GRIEF, AND OTHER MUSINGS
As the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941 approaches, I (CB) find myself reflecting on a couple of things blog-related. One is a chance encounter I had with an old WWII vet about 10 years ago; the other is what Psychology tells us about coping with grief.
The chance encounter happened in the waiting room of a car dealership while I was waiting for service on my car to be finished. I was waiting with one other gent, a considerably older guy, maybe 80. We were doing the usual guy small-talk stuff about the weather, cars, sports, when I mentioned the upcoming Army-Navy game. The old guy commented that he always rooted for Navy, and I asked him if he had served in the Navy.
“Marines,” he said.
“Did you ever see any combat?”
After a long pause he said, “Yeh, Pacific, in the big war.”
Pacific in the big war? Suddenly a train of associations entered my head and I asked, with a tone of absolute awe in my voice, “Did you island hop in the second world war?”
I was sitting just to his right, and now he looked straight ahead, and it seemed to me that he had gone off with some faraway memory. His eyes began to tear up as he nodded and said softly, “Yeh.” There was a long pause before he added, “Lost a lot of friends back there.”
I was totally speechless because I felt I was in the presence of greatness. If you don’t know about the Pacific island-hopping campaign Google it. There were thousands upon thousands of American combat casualties as they went from island to island invading and rooting out the entrenched Japanese soldiers from their bunkers and caves. Iwo Jima was one (over 6,000 US deaths), as was Okinawa (over 12,000 US deaths), and Tarawa (1,000 US deaths in a matter of hours).
The old guy and I just sat there in silence. Now I was horrified that I had awakened these painful memories for him. Mercifully, probably a minute later, which seemed like an eternity to me, the shop manager came in and called my name. I got up and extended my hand to this hero and said, “Thank you for saving our country.” He just smiled and nodded, still looking off into that world from long ago.
Other than that decade-old memory for me, the other thing I find myself thinking about these days is coping with grief. I guess the old guy is an example, maybe even a case of PTSD. One thing for sure, he showed me the staying power of trauma on someone. December 7, 1941 is a testament to the American spirit of meeting challenges through great effort and sacrifice, but it is also a grief-filled day in American history. And grief is something each of us must confront and deal with, sometimes over quite a long time.
We, your blog hosts, have had people tell us, “I wish I could avoid the grief I’m feeling. Losing _____ has just been devastating to me and I am having such a hard time keeping the grief from getting to me.”
Grief is one of those emotions that holds the temptation of avoidance in front of us. As we see again and again in the posts on this blog, avoidance is a major obstacle to coping with life’s challenges. Grief is no different, and when we are confronted with it we must expend a lot of emotional effort to work through it and not work around it.
Grief is often associated with both depression and anxiety. You must realize, however, that grief from loss is often a sign of the strengths your lost loved one has given you. Thus, grief must not be dreaded, denied, covered up, or avoided; to do so would dishonor the memory of the one now gone. Instead of avoidance, you can direct your grief into the coping skills taught to you by your lost loved one; in this way you deal with your grief by using the strengths the person gave you, and by doing so you honor the person.
One of our students was having a difficult time coping with the death of his father. He was feeling depressed and anxious because he felt alone and deserted. One of us responded to an email about his issues:
“For a man, there are few things in life that rival the impact of losing a dad. My own dad died in 1988 and to this day I still ‘chat’ with him about things. But there’s an irony to the intensity of our grief and despair when we lose our father. The more intensely we feel the loss, it seems the better our dad has prepared us for the moment. He has been our mentor, our anchor, our guide through life, and now that he is gone we wonder how we can go on. But think about it — we’re pained by his death precisely because he has taught us so much about coping with life. Our despair at his death is in direct proportion to how much of an influence he has had on us. So what better way to cope with his death than to honor his life and legacy by using the very strength he gave us?”
Someone also once told us, “While I was grieving over the loss of my child, a friend said to me, ‘Wouldn’t it be a better life if we just never had to endure any grief?’ I said no, it would not be better. Having no grief would mean that there was never any love, and I would hate to have a life without love.”
What do we recommend to those grieving over the loss of a loved one?
—-Accept that grief is a sign of the immense strengths the one you have lost has given you.
—-Your grief means that you have loved. Work through your grief by cherishing the love you experienced with the one you have lost.
—-Grief must not be denied, or avoided; to do so would dishonor the memory of the one now gone. Embrace your grief as a tribute to the loved one.
—-Channel your grief into the coping skills taught to you, and thus re-define the grief into effective coping behavior. You will always miss your loved one; but you will also treasure the memories of this person who so effectively taught you to meet the challenges now facing you.
—-Remember that the deeper your grief, the stronger your love for the lost one, and the better you are able to cope. Move forward positively, and work through your grief, not around it by denial or avoidance. Complete the tasks and challenges that face you to honor your lost one.