Private Grief vs Public Grief

Private Grief vs Public Grief

Of all the issues, challenges and horrors being a Gold Star Mother entails, the one I wish someone had warned me about is how to deal with casual acquaintances from the past.

In one of the many Gold Star groups to which I belong, someone posed a question about how to deal with those inevitable awkward situations we all encounter; what do you say when someone you haven’t seen in a long time asks about your family? Even though everyone in that group is mourning a loved one who died wearing the uniform of our Armed Forces, the answers are as varied as would be in any collective of individuals.

Some say, tell them. They say, never miss an opportunity to talk about your loved one.  One of the only things we have left is our pride in who they were, what they did and were willing to do for the rest of us. It is important for the general public, much of whom has forgotten we are still a Nation at war, to be reminded that freedom is not only not free, the unimaginable price was paid for them in part by the service and sacrifice of your loved one.

Part of me agrees with this, and I’ve even occasionally responded this way, and for these reasons.

Others say it depends on where you are at, emotionally, at that moment. This is said with the awareness that the conversation can go one of a few directions very quickly.

Most people are good, kind and compassionate to their fellow human beings. But, people can often be carelessly, cluelessly, cruel. It can be hard to find the commiseration that is the speakers’ intent in “This is why I am so against the war. Young lives wasted”.

It is amazing to me that more Gold Star families are not in jail. I’ve been on the receiving end of this particular bit of inappropriateness and it took quite a bit of self-control to not knock some sense, literally, into that person.

Sometimes, people respond with comments or statements those of us of a certain generation were taught not to make in polite society. Upon hearing that my son was killed in action in Afghanistan is, in my opinion, not the time to make statements about how these wars are all about oil, or the CIA trying to protect their narco-trafficking. Or about how all Muslims are terrorists and we should kick every one of them out of our country and nuke their homelands.

On the other end of the spectrum are those kind souls who burst into tears, or nearly so, whom you end up consoling.  There are few things more awkward than having a person whom you thought of as a casual acquaintance at best suddenly throwing their arms around you.

I’m a very affectionate person and regularly hug those I’m close to. I don’t know when or how this social trend of hugging every person you meet got started, but I wish it would stop. A double handed, warm handshake tells me you are sincere in your offer of condolences. A sobbing hug, if we are not standing in the funeral parlor at the wake, says it is all about you and your feelings. It is the difference between sympathy and empathy.

Because this person knows you, or you knew them once upon a time, you think you can know which way the conversation will go and attempt to prepare yourself accordingly. But people are unpredictable. Those whom you’d thought would be pulling out a tissue become what I call ‘justifiably gleeful’ and launch into an anti-war, anti-government, anti-military, anti-something, soliloquy. Others, sometimes ones you barely knew and hardly remember offer the kindest and best response of all, a simple heartfelt “I’m so very sorry for your loss”.

One of the worst, most cutting reactions is the sudden change of topic while they uncomfortably look away. I admire, and even adopted as my Facebook status for a while this retort,

“I will not stop talking about my child or saying his name because it makes you uncomfortable”.

No matter which way the encounter goes, it is exhausting. Hence, the advice to smile and say nothing more than “Fine, thank you” and quickly change the subject yourself is how I usually choose to respond.

I’ve become adept at this quick change of conversational direction. I’ve not had too many encounters with people I once knew who weren’t already aware. In fact, I’ve intentionally avoided situations or events where I’m likely to run into past acquaintances. My high school 30th reunion was less than a year after my son’s death, and because of all this, I chose not to go. It is not a decision I regret.

Social and professional situations with virtual strangers is a more common occurrence for me, but the same potential for conversational land mines exist. During small talk at a conference about Emergency Management is not the time or place for me to discuss this single most important and personal fact of my existence.

There are also people with whom I associate, people who are involved in military or veterans issues or organizations that do not know I am a Gold Star Mother. Even though I see some of the same faces at quarterly or even monthly meetings, it is not the reason I, or they, are there. I am just another veteran’s advocate, or I’m a writer and speaker, or a board member. Unless someone else tells them, they don’t know; if they do know, since I didn’t and don’t bring it up, I assume due to their affiliation and understanding of the military and veteran culture, they don’t casually broach the subject with me.

How would one do that anyway? I can’t imagine the topic or circumstance that would lead me to say, “By the way, my son was killed in Afghanistan”. In the course of a planning meeting once, conversation turned to what was then the upcoming Memorial Day service. Someone said, “it would be great if we could find a Gold Star Mother to attend, so we could honor her.”  That person’s intent was about the publicity having such an honoree present would generate for their event. No, I didn’t say a word. Neither I nor any of the Gold Stars I know want to be trotted out like the prize mare at the county fair.

I can always tell when someone ‘finds out’. I will notice a conversation going on across the room with someone I am aware knows, to be followed shortly by someone coming up to me quietly, saying “I just wanted to let you know that I am very sorry for your loss and to thank you for your son’s service”. It always brings a lump to my throat and when I look at that person’s eyes, more often than not I see the young soldier they once were who experienced the loss of a brother in arms.

On those occasions, I do talk. I ask them if they served. They will then tell me where, when, and usually, who they lost. That is when I get to do the one thing I will always, always do, the part of being a Gold Star Mother I take most seriously. I thank them for their service and welcome them home, saying, “someday, I hope to see my son’s battle buddies standing where you are. That’s the way it is supposed to be and I’m grateful for each and every one of them, and for you, because it is you that will keep alive the names and the memories of the fallen. Thank you and welcome home indeed’.

It is sad how few veterans, particularly of the Viet Nam generation, ever hear this. I know that at the moment they are talking to me, I am not PFC Andrew Meari’s mom, I am the mother of their buddy. They may never get to meet her, or get that response if they did. So, I offer it, sincerely. Beyond all the writing, advocating and speaking I do publicly, these small but monumental private moments are the reason I do what I do. Though I feel good, it is still draining.

As a mother who lost her child, I have to prepare myself and be ready for any of the above reactions, anytime, anywhere. This is why my usual answer to the question “How’s your family” with past or fleeting acquaintances is a simple “Fine, thanks. And yours?”  The response to the “Do you have kids?” small talk with virtual strangers is always a quick “Yes, and you?”

The necessary emotional girding required to face these simple, normal exchanges has become as automatic a habit as picking up my keys before I walk out the door. But, to be honest, being hesitant to do this is not the whole reason or even the primary one for my general avoidance of these conversations.

For as open as I am in writing, it is surprising even to myself, how private I have become in person with my grief. Around those with whom I’m close or comfortable, I talk about my son, often in the present tense or without reference to his death. “My son couldn’t get enough Military Channel when we first got cable TV”, or to my step-sons, usually with a laugh, “Andrew taught you that one and he never got away with it, so why do you think you will?”, are said with full knowledge that he is gone, but expressed no differently than any parent would about any living child.

“I love him” and “I’m very proud of my son” are present perfect tense expressions; they were and remain true. There is no past tense to my love or pride, and the casual observer would have no inkling he is no longer here.

The latter of these remarks is something I have occasion to say nearly weekly. Though they are the first thing I put on in the morning when I wake, I rarely allow his dog tags hanging around my neck to be seen. One of the exceptions is when I’m volunteering at the VFW, which frequently elicits the question, “Are those your dog tags?”

“No, they are my son’s. I’m very proud of him” is almost always as far as the conversation goes before I change the subject, move on, or get busy with something else.

His dog tags, like my grief, are private. It is a privilege to see them or share it; a privilege I’m not willing to bestow on the merely curious cashier or stranger in public. If I knew you once upon a time and you are not aware, that means you are so disconnected from my life that you may as well be a complete stranger. Or at least this is what I’ve told myself for the past four years.

Each of us handles our grief in our own way. It is a solitary journey but because there are others on a parallel path, we are not truly alone. Maybe someday I’ll be able, like so many of those brave, strong Gold Stars I know, to wear my grief publicly. For now, it will remain a mostly private privilege I share only sparingly, at least in person. But, I’ll write. For all of the Gold Stars out there without whom I wouldn’t otherwise have the strength, and for my son, I’ll write.

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    Denise Williams

    Born and bred in Chicago, now living in the wilds of far suburbia. I'm a Gold Star Mom. My views are generally politically and socially conservative, though I am far from a Party line Republican. I believe in this country, our Constitution and above all, in the right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I believe our government is supposed to serve the people, not tell them how to live. To me, this is just common sense, but since it seems to be a minority opinion, it has become "Uncommon Sense".

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