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Living with Death’s Shadow

December 23, 2010

Holiday blues. Survivor guilt. Withering blasts of grief.

Like so many war veterans, I’ve been living with these and other chronic nightmares most of my adult life. It often gets worse during holiday seasons and certain anniversaries. For many of us, this is an intensely private story that’s seldom talked about in public.

News stories in recent years have revealed the alarming number of American soldiers and veterans with post-traumatic stress issues from serving in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This dismal news has been amplified by reports of shocking rates of suicide among young soldiers and veterans, male and female, combat and support troops. Yet, little information has been provided on ways of living with this frightening malady. How older generations of survivors of traumatic events—including loss of health, home, job, family, friends—found ways to cope with the demons of disaster has gotten little attention.

Among the things I’ve learned is that the usual things said about grief are wrong. Time does not heal all wounds. “Get on with your life” and “suck it up” do not make the pain of grief go away.

I still get zapped, often at unexpected times that can cause an eruption of cursing, by memories I’d rather not dwell on—such as the hearty laughter of a buddy in my unit in Vietnam who died 47 years ago; an animated discussion of war poetry with a Vietnam vet who worked as a peer counselor and later committed suicide with a clipping of one of my bitterest writings in his wallet, as government budget cutters threatened to end the first VA program designed to help veterans cope with post-traumatic stress, nearly 30 years ago; the death at age 60 of a close friend, Dave Cline, whose body and soul and health were consumed by his efforts as a national leader of Veterans For Peace and Vietnam Veterans Against the War to slay the dragons of war.

A Daze of Days

For years I got through what I once described as “a daze of days” by keeping busy—as an activist on war and veterans’ issues, as an editor and publisher of poetry by Vietnam veterans, as a relentless get-that-story journalist, as a hands-on parent involved in myriad ways in our community.

And then one day, death snuffs out our life support. There are worse things than surviving a war, as many veterans have found out when a child dies or their spouse. When my wife died of cancer, fading fast during a Christmas-New Year’s holiday season, I was hit by a tsunami of grief that’s still a bone-deep wound nine years later.

I survived thanks to a lifeline of support networks. In the early 1970s, I helped organize a workshop group of Vietnam vets and war-experienced psychiatrists seeking ways of addressing a mysterious malady that later was officially defined as post-traumatic stress disorder. And then I moved on with my life. When my wife died, I knew I needed that kind of help big time. I called a hotline asking to get into a support group for people who’d lost their wife or husband, spurred by nearly crashing my car on the way to work when I burst into tears as a memory of my wife welled up.

Fellow members and organizers of the support group at St. Barnabas Hospice Center were very supportive in working through initial stages of grief. So was another support group I attended, hosted by Montclair High School’s adult education program, that included local families who lost a loved one in the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11. I was also aided by attending a gathering with a trauma specialist who led a highly unusual reflective discussion by harried, in some cases haunted reporters, editors and photographers who had covered the collapse of the twin towers and the aftermath of grief that enveloped the New York metropolitan area and the nation.

What also got me through the worst time of my life is my editors at The Record of Bergen County (NJ) put me on medical leave. I spent six weeks recuperating in the countryside where I grew up, camping and biking from my parents’ place in the Finger Lakes region of New York, rediscovering what I enjoy about life. And having long talks with my father, a World War II veteran, and my mother, whose brother was killed in a sea battle off the Philippines on Armistice Day in 1944 and whose youngest son, my brother, died in a motorcycle accident.

Still, I have flare ups and setbacks. When I returned to work, I had occasional testy moments with colleagues and bitter outbursts that weren’t always confined to “normal” road rage screams over some other idiot’s driving. One day I realized I needed to find a less stressful line of work and retired from daily journalism to teach college courses part time.

Recently, thanks to a friend’s advice, I attended a much needed and instructive set of workshops for families hosted by NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, after an altercation with a relative who has his own grief-freighted problems. At age 67, I flew off the handle like a young hothead back in the Army. To add insult to injury, I lost the stupid fight. I realized I needed to learn a better way of communicating and handling my own distress. It was a wake up call that I needed to stretch beyond the don’t-mess-with-me personality that’s been my core since growing up in the military in the midst of a war.

Writing It Out

Writing about troubling events in my life has been cathartic. I wrote about my wife’s death, our tumultuous life together and what I gained from that experience and earlier events, including soldiering in Vietnam, in a poetry collection titled “Earth Songs.” Working on those poems carried me through sleepless nights with a reinvigorating sense of creative accomplishment. A new collection, that helped work through more recent nightmares, is titled “Life after War & Other Poems.” I get through wintry holidays, which is the worst part of the year for me, by creating photo books of spectacular nature scenes I enjoyed discovering on outdoors treks.

Since my brush with the abyss, I’ve tried to aid others dealing with grief, working with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans in Warrior Writers and Combat Paper writing and arts workshops, and addressing survivors of all ages in poetry readings sponsored by Post-Traumatic Press and other groups. I stay in touch with a prickly, yet supportive circle of fellow vets, spouses and friends who cope in various ways—from attending AA meetings, VA support groups, private counseling sessions, peace demonstrations, pilgrimages to old battlefields, memorial services, unit reunions, to grousing among ourselves.

People who have coped with death and grief are all around us. The hard part of reaching out, especially for active duty soldiers and war veterans, is admitting there’s a crack in our armor. It takes nerve, or desperation, to call a friend or some stranger and say: “I’m having a hellacious day. Ah… got time to talk?” But it can also lead to some amazing friendships and a booster shot of life.

Selected Works

Poetry
A tonic spray of poetry, verses that a Vietnam war veteran lives by.
Prose
A pragmatic, common-sense handbook for civic action at the community and international levels.