Liberating unmourned loss/hurt and unforgiven guilt/shame

Ceremonies for Bereaved Families of Veterans

by Deborah Grassman

Ritualized formats that incorporate the three stages of change (separation, transition, integration)  can provide effective bereavement care for Veterans’ families. Community Veteran Memorial services, Memorial Day programs, and Veterans Day services are just a few of the opportunities that agencies have to develop services that support the needs of Veterans’ families. The following are an example:

Memorial Services

Consider offering a communal service designed specifically for families of veterans. Décor can be militarized and patriotic music played. The printed program cover might display military symbols. Posting of the colors, pledge of allegiance, singing the Star-Spangled Banner or  America the Beautiful  can enhance the military milieu.

Separation Stage of Ceremony: This portion of the service should acknowledge the problem: the death of the veteran and the family’s pain with the loss.

The Ceremony Host might:

• Acknowledge the sacrifice of military service that their loved one made

• Acknowledge the sacrifice that family members may have made

• Acknowledge the role that stoicism may have had on the dying/grief experience.

• Acknowledge the pain that families are currently experiencing with the loss of their veteran

Next: Read the names, but first prepare the audience. The goal is to help them connect with the part of themselves carrying their pain. Avoid trying to gloss over it or numb it: “In a few moments, your loved one’s name is going to be read while you stand to honor him or her. This may be painful for you. You might feel a lump in your throat. Don’t shove it back down. Instead, let it come out in tears. This is a sad time in the life of your family. Everyone around you also feels sad. Your grief is safe here. We are here to hold your grief with you.” Then, dim the lights. Formally and with a slight staccato style, read each veteran’s name; have their family stand; thank them for their veteran’s military service; light a candle.

(An effective way to provide the candle lighting is to have a stair-cased platform made of 2x4s and painted a dark color. Position tea-lights in such a way that the word “Hope” is spelled out. Have the candles draped before the service so that it is hidden from participants’ view. Four candle lighters can stand before each letter and the drape removed after the room is dimmed so that participants’ view remains blocked during the candle lighting. After the last name is read, THEN the candle-lighters step aside to reveal the word “Hope” ablaze. This always draws a collective gasp from the audience. See picture below)

Transition Stage of Ceremony: This portion of the ceremony should focus on educating the bereaved on effective coping strategies to reckon with their feelings of loss and creating a “new normal” without their veteran. 

Pat McGuire, Opus Peace co-founder, has developed a metaphorical depiction of the process. She uses a large, pretty, cotton-stuffed heart that she displays while explaining all the “niceties” of love with its sentimental ideals. She also discusses the reality of love with its difficulties and shadows. Then comes a terminal diagnosis. She throws some stuffings on the floor: “Love starts getting messy.” More and more stuffings end up on the floor as Pat describes the usual disease trajectory that results in death. At the time of death, Pat reveals three heart strings on the inside of the heart (see picture above). “Love is pulling on your heart strings and you might feel empty with your stuffings all over the floor. Your world is now upside-down.”

Pat then shows how hope can be restored. (Before the service starts, she gave some people who agreed to help her out, a soft flannel swatch around cotton stuffing. Each swatch has a piece of advice about how to do the work of grief recovery. She instructs them to bring these forward when she asks with the words: “I can help”!) Now, she invites them forward with a “Who can help with this broken heart that’s turned inside out?” One by one, people jump up saying, “I can help!” They bring forth tips that help as well as things that don’t. The advice that can help is written on the soft flannel; the advice that doesn’t help is on large plastic cards that won’t fit into the heart.

By the end, the heart is re-stuffed and looks reasonably heart-like: “It doesn’t look quite the same and the stuffings are different, but it’s capable of beating again.”

Integration Stage of the Ritual:

This part of the ceremony should focus on integrating the pain that was brought out into the open. This can be done in several ways:

• Sharing with the person sitting next to them one helpful thing they learned today

• Coming forward to retrieve the candle lit for their Veteran

• Participants reminded to take bereavement literature, attend a support group, speak with staff in attendance, make a private appointment with a bereavement counselor, or whatever else they may want to do to take responsibility for their recovery.

A closing song, blessing, retrieval of the flag concludes the service.

Memorial Day Program

Memorial Day is an opportune time to facilitate grief recovery with Veteran families. National Cemeteries usually have services on their property. You might coordinate a bereavement program to be held after the cemetery service is over. The program can focus on the specific ways to recover from their loss. Sending out invitations to Veterans' families to attend both the Cemetery and the bereavement programs can help assure that bereavement needs are being met.

A program that I’ve participated in includes a picnic which allows interaction among grieving families of Veterans. The picnic follows a bereavement program held under the trees of the park. We bring the “Old Rugged Path” out from the hallway to hang from a branch of a large oak tree. The “Old Rugged Path” is a ten foot long path with captioned graphic figures along its way.

Each figure on the Path symbolizes a staff member and their story with the graphics and captions depicting our various struggles. Rocks along the way create barriers. Many stories symbolize feelings that have been shoved into hiding. Each staff person comes forward to read his or her story from the Path. Chaplain Dan’s graphic is a man peering out from inside a toilet captioned with: “I know I’m not the same person I was 8 years ago. I give the credit to God, a good therapist, and some Prozac. I had a lot of wounds to heal. It was hard work. Sometimes, it was painful. But, my-oh-my, the rewards! I’m free at last!”

I then talk about the relationship between grief and depression and the importance of getting depression treated. I then ask the audience if any of them can relate to Dan’s story. Many do, and are willing to share their experience, which encourages self-reflection for everyone else.

Pat shares her story of divorce. Her graphic depicts a car at the edge of a cliff with a frantic woman at the wheel. Road signs pointing different directions reflect her confusion. After Pat reads her caption, I explain how grief accompanies many losses, not just divorce. I emphasize how those “who grieve well, heal well” and the value of tears. I point out how the stoic culture of the military may have affected their family and how this can interfere with their grief recovery. Again, I ask for stories from the audience who have experienced confusion and grief from a loss and people always oblige, even seem eager to share.

I share my story of grief after my father died. Marie shares her story of coming back from Vietnam and the losses she felt. Sheila talks about her faith journey surrounding her agnostic quest. Shaku speaks about the estrangement she had with her son. All stories are different, yet all connect. After each person speaks, I briefly explain the bereavement principle surrounding the issue and go into the audience to solicit stories. The vulnerability of each staff person easily gathers them!

You can receive free pamphlets from your closest Dignity Memorial funeral home. Use them to educate Veterans' families. You can also download the pamphlets below by clicking on them.