I was one of the lucky ones—depending on how you define luck. My late husband and I talked about what he would want for me in life, if he should die in the line of duty.
Just a few days after Lt Ken Steen, USN and I were married, we had the “Page 2” talk, which in Navy-speak means updating the service member’s personnel record for emergency contact information, next of kin changes, death gratuity designee, and the like. It’s a sobering conversation and I recall that Ken, a naval aviator who flew helicopters out of Naval Air Station Norfolk, told me it was just a necessary paperwork drill. He assured me he was well-trained; confident he could handle any emergency in the cockpit, and safely get the aircraft back on deck—I liked that type of confidence in my sailor. We put the topic behind us quicker than you could say “SGLI,” the Servicemember’s Group Life Insurance.
We had another one of those talks about a year later, one also initiated by Ken. I thought he was nuts to bring up this life-and-death topic again, as we were in the middle of moving and baby planning. In hindsight, we had just come home from my father’s funeral and I guess life, love, and death were still on his mind. And so, on an unimportant Friday evening in June, in so many words, Ken told me that if he were to die, he hoped I would make another life for myself and not spend the rest of it alone. I liked it better when we talked about babies.
Exactly two weeks later, Ken and his six-person crew, were killed when the helicopter he was piloting exploded in midair, just a stone’s throw from our new home and his duty station.
“You’ve got to move on with your life.”
The first time I was told that I needed to move on with my life was at my late husband’s funeral. This tired, old cliché never fades away, for reasons I’ll never understand. But I do believe when it’s said—however inappropriate and misinformed that may be—it is intended to help ease grief. It didn’t work for me at this place and time.
In the language of grief, there is no place for “moving on.” For those of us who have lost a loved one, moving on implies breaking the emotional, physical, and spiritual ties to the one we loved. It conveys letting go. Leaving the past behind. Ending the bond of love. Forgetting about our loved one. Gold Star families do none of these things. And fortunately, none are a part of healthy grief.
In the language of grief, there is no place for “moving on.”
I use the term healthy grief to mean that it’s healthy—and needed—for surviving family members to do the work that grief demands. What is the work of grief? Usually called “grief work,” it’s a process of recognizing needs and taking actions that help you get through the worst of your pain, and begin to adjust to life without your loved one. In easy-to-understand terms, the needs and actions of working at grief usually include:
- Face the reality that your loved one is dead and feel that pain in its many forms.
- Accept that your earthly relationship with them has ended, replaced by one of memory or spirit.
- Search for meaning in your loved one’s life and death, and, perhaps, in your own as well.
- Figure out the many sides of who you are now.
- Reinvest in living.
While your grief will never fully go away, working at grief can lessen its intensity; make it manageable, and help to mend your body, mind, and spirit.
I struggled with these needs of grief in the months and years following my late husband’s death. It was hard and exhausting work, but I grew in ways I never thought possible. Did I wonder if the intense pain would ever go away? Yep. Did I try to understand myself better by learning everything I could about Gold Star grief? I sure did. Did I ask for help when I needed it? Yes.
Moving forward doesn’t mean you’re leaving your loved one in the past, because you bring their love along as you make your way in a world without their physical presence. Simply said, you don’t move forward without them; you move forward with the strength of their love for you.
You don’t move forward without your loved one; you move forward with the strength of their love for you.
In reflecting back on my late husband’s powerful conversation just before his death, I came to understand that his message for me was to live my life to the fullest. And like many survivors I’ve talked with over the years, in those most fragile times of grief, I would ask “What would Ken want for me?” But as I developed the courage to move forward, the question evolved into, “What do I want for myself?” Not surprisingly, my hopes for the future aligned with Ken’s.
Gaining Strength in Body, Mind, and Spirit
I know some Gold Star family members take exception to the term healing, as they feel they will never completely heal from this life-changing loss. It’s true you never return to who you were before your loss, but healing doesn’t mean it’s all or nothing. Healing comes in degrees. And each instance of healing makes you stronger than you were before.
Try to look at healing as gaining the strength in body, mind, and spirit to work through the toughest parts of your grief. And as you do this, grief will lose its hold over you. It’ll become manageable. You’ll discover more good qualities about yourself and start to enjoy things in life again. And that’s all Ok.
Try to look at healing as gaining the strength in body, mind, and spirit to work through the toughest parts of your grief.
Signs You’re Moving Forward
Moving forward has a ripple effect in your life and often the progress you make may be noticed by others before you’re aware of it. I recall asking another Gold Star survivor how would I know if I was moving forward in grief. He replied that one day I would wake up and my late husband wouldn’t be in my first waking thoughts. I was appalled. But it happened one day, without warning or fanfare. And I didn’t realize its significance until long after the fact. That’s a peculiar thing about moving forward—usually you don’t realize it until you look back and see how far you’ve come. Here are a few ways you may have moved forward. Now is a good time to look back and see your progress.
7 Signs You’re Moving Forward*
- Getting out of bed and not dreading the day.
- Thinking more about your loved one’s life than the death.
- Finding comfort in memories of him or her.
- Genuinely laughing at something funny.
- Enjoying yourself and not feeling (too) guilty.
- Taking a time-out from grief.
- Building personal resiliency and strength.
A good point to remember about moving forward is that two steps forward and one step backward is still progress. And you’re headed in the right direction!
Two steps forward and one step backward is still progress.
Bumps in the Road
Like most things in life, the path forward is not without a few bumps along the way. They often come from people, places, events, and the like. And they can vary in length and importance.
With a little knowledge beforehand, you can be aware of some of life’s obstacles that may get in the way of managing your grief now and in the years to follow. Some bumps in the road are common to civilian and military losses alike, such as unpredictable bursts of grief, secondary losses, and other bad news; other bumps in the road are more specific to Gold Star grief, such as memorial overload, a personal loss entwined within a public loss, national holidays, classified information, and new or changing details when after-action reports are released.
A substantial bump in the road is the world-wide COVID-19 pandemic. It’s safe to call this pandemic a traumatic event, for it has overturned our belief on how the world is supposed to work. It has filled our daily lives with unconventional changes and health-related uncertainties, and heaped upon us loads of anxiety, stress and feelings of loss. As Gold Star family members, we hold America close to our hearts and hate to see her wounded, regardless of how it happened.
A number of complicating factors common to COVID-19 deaths may be too familiar to Gold Star families and trigger grief attacks. These factors include the inability to be with their loved ones in their final moments, or the fear that they died alone; no chance to view the body and “see for themselves;” no control over autopsy decisions or burial options, and a national identity attached to the loss, such as “COVID-19 deaths” or “line-of-duty deaths.” It would be normal to have strong feelings in these circumstances. At times such as these, hold close the thought that families of the fallen are strong. And Gold Star tough.
When Moving Forward isn’t “Moving Forward”
Seeking out help isn’t a sign of failure. It’s an act of determination.
There may be a time when you’re stuck in grief, and mending of your body, mind, and spirit isn’t moving forward. If you’re feeling stuck—or it someone points it out—then it’s probably time to do something about it. The best way to get “unstuck” is with a little assistance. Seeking out help isn’t a sign of failure. It’s an act of determination.
I believe there will come a time when I’ll see my late husband Ken again. And I hope and pray that when we meet again, he’ll give me a big hug and tell me that he’s proud of the way I faced the future and lived my life without him. I wish the same for you.
“There will come a time when I’ll see my late husband Ken again…and he’ll give me a big hug and tell me that he’s proud of the way I faced the future and lived my life without him.”
*Adapted from We Regret To Inform You (Central Recovery Press, 2019), p. 150.
Joanne Steen, MS, NCC
Board-Certified Counselor. Author We Regret To Inform You. A Survival Guide for Gold Star Parents and coauthor Military Widow: A Survival Guide. Trainer on grief, stress, and resilience. Ocean-loving chocoholic