The simplest answer is, “I’m sorry for your loss”. Honestly, there is nothing else that needs to be said, nor is there anything else that can be safely said that won’t potentially give offense or cause more pain. But, even those five little words can cause a negative reaction depending on the recipient’s perception of the intent of the one offering that simple sentiment.
More than one family, or situation, has disintegrated over those five little words. The response of,
“Oh? Really? You’re sorry? You never liked him anyway!”,
or some variant of those words has literally caused brawls in funeral homes and wakes. Ask any funeral director. Emotions are high, for everyone, and anger is one of the emotions all the bereaved go through at one point or another.
Speaking of anger, even saying something intended as lovingly and supportively as,
“I am praying for peace for you and your family”,
can go awry. You may know this person to be deeply religious, but what you may not know is that at this moment, they are angry, beyond furious and feel rejected by the God in which they so deeply believe.
“Don’t bother praying. I prayed every day, all day, and God is not listening”,
is a not uncommon response.
Some of the things I, and others with whom I’ve spoken, have heard, along with responses that certainly were not what was expected include:
“He/she is in a better place” -
“No! There is no better place for my loved one than here, to be loved and loving me back”
“I guess Heaven needed another Angel” -
“Not as much as I needed him!”
“You must be very proud” –
“Of course I am. Are you telling me because I’m proud of him, I can’t be sad?”
“God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” –
“This had nothing to do with God. This is an act of hateful people, don’t let them off the hook”
“You know, God too gave up his only son” – “I’m not God”
This last one was offered to me, with the sincere, heartfelt intent of offering comfort, support and to alleviate my pain, by a Minister. Let’s just say he’ll never say that again to a grieving mother who just buried her only child.
I repeated that exchange in another post, and one of the comments I received was from another Minister. He offered a bit of an explanation for what was said and intended. This minister said that as a man of the cloth, as a religious leader, he feels expected to offer words of comfort. He went on to say that reading about this exchange drove home, to him, that sometimes it is best not to say anything at all, no matter how well-intended.
Many of the things I heard from my son’s chain of command could be taken as badly as the above well-intended words. But, without exception, I was able to hear the intent and appreciate it for what it was, while recognizing they too were dealing with their own measure of grief and loss. I was also acutely aware that my son’s superiors would carry the weight of his death for the rest of their lives.
Perhaps this is why nothing that was said to me by the military offended or upset me. What I do know is the weight of responsibility they, and everyone my son served with, was misplaced. They did not kill my son. They did everything they could to protect him and defend him, and he did the same. It was simply the way it worked out, that he was the one who did for them what they would have just as willingly done for him.
Some of the words received from those still in Afghanistan made me hurt for them more than for myself. I can’t imagine not being heartbroken in a whole different way when you hear the choked-up voice of an experienced, battle-hardened NCO saying,
“I’m sorry, Ma’am. It is my job to bring everyone home. I know I promised to bring him back home to you. I can’t even ask for your forgiveness”.
This one still haunts me, and is the reason I do everything I do. In those few words, that young man expressed the pain, sorrow and the too often life-long suffering of survivor’s guilt anyone who has ever served in combat recognizes. Though this was a conversation within the first few days of my son’s death, I will never forget it.
It was the moment I made a conscious decision to do all I could to make sure my son’s battle buddies knew and truly believed that I didn’t and never would blame them for my son’s death. I intuitively knew they needed to be told as many times and ways as possible that not only did I not blame them, I didn’t resent them either. That one, brief conversation has become the driving force of my life.
Other members of the military, from enlisted personnel to the highest ranks expressed the following sentiments in those first days, and echo them still today. Though I may not remember the exact words, I can recall the feelings as I listened.
“He was a great soldier. He always put the mission first. He knew what he was risking, and did it anyway, every time, even volunteering for missions when it wasn’t his turn”;
“I knew I could count on him to do his job. He never said no”;
“Nothing ever phased him. On a mission, as the RTO (radio operator) he was always calm and cool, even in the midst of incoming fire”;
“He was a duck. Everything just rolled off his back. He was always saying to not sweat the small stuff and to him, it was all small stuff”;
All of these statements, and so many more, had the underlying theme of,
“He knew what he was doing and did it anyway”.
Those specific words were said to me more times than I can count. I’ve said to myself even more. Each time others said it, it was expressed with a combination of sorrow, grief, frustration, futility and pride. Yes, pride. It was the perfect way of summing up those seemingly contradictory emotions. It was, and remains, one of the most poignant sentiments I use to express my own pain and pride, forever twinned in my heart.
The only time I’ve ever negatively reacted to those specific words, or words intended to convey that meaning, is when they were said dismissively. Sadly, infuriatingly, those words have been received in that dismissive tone by too many Gold Star families.
They’ve been said sneeringly. They’ve been said smugly. The only intent and purpose was to make a political point that completely and totally ignored the reality of my, and other Gold Stars, pain and loss. They were used as a weapon in an ideological war that has no place in the Gold Star world.
During the Vietnam War, the loss, grief and pain of the families, was irrelevant to those who spit on soldiers, called them baby-killers and used their deaths for their own political purposes. Of all the sins of this Nation during that time, this is the worst. I am heart-sick that some did not learn that lesson and are once again repeating that unpardonable sin.
The Gold Star is a symbol of pride in the service of lost loved ones. Until recently, most Americans had no idea what a Gold Star meant. We wear a pin that has been complimented as a pretty or unusual piece of jewelry. It’s very hard not to react badly when someone asks where they can get one. Many of us have a Gold Star symbol on our license plates. I and others have received comments like,
“I wonder who that is, they must be someone important”,
but not said in a kind or merely curious way.
The Gold Star community has long lamented that most people don’t know what the symbol or term means and have wished that more Americans understood. It is in short, a visible reminder of the fact that freedom is not free. Freedom is paid for with the lives of others, and in the continued grief of loved ones.
Currently the predominant conversation in my Gold Star community, as expressed most eloquently and with sadness, resignation and tears can be summed up with,
Those with whom I’m closest, “My Onlys”, who are the other mothers who have lost their only child in this war are breaking my heart saying,
“I wish the Nation would go back to not knowing what a Gold Star is. This politicizing of the Gold Star and the grief of families makes people think they know, but all it does is further divide the country. And people still don’t know. They don’t think about our sons and daughters, about who they were or what they did. And they sure don’t think about us, about the grief and sadness we live with every day for the rest of our lives”.
Think about this. This little symbol, this title “Gold Star” is supposed to bring people together in understanding and recognition of the cost of freedom. It is supposed to remind people that the freedoms we all too often take for granted in this country came and continue to come at a price most cannot imagine.
The airwaves are once again filled with politicians using the death of our loved ones as a political platform, as a weapon with which to damage their opponents. Both sides of the aisle are guilty, but those who use the moment of the most acute grief of a family as fodder in their war of words are the most guilty, the most repugnant. This is not just because of their grandstanding, it is also because of the damage to the families involved.
These people who have lost a loved one because of their decision to put on this Nations’ uniform during a time of war need space, time, privacy and respect to grieve. Yes, it is good and right and appropriate to publicly acknowledge them and their loss, but it is simply wrong to use them as a political tool, weapon or elevated platform from which to bash the other side, or for self-aggrandizement. If a politician really was concerned about the issues and challenges, the needs, and desires of Gold Stars, why do they only introduce legislation or action when they can get the most mileage, when they can make it all about themselves? The term virtue-signaling comes to mind, and it is repugnant.
The Gold Star is not to be used for political purposes. To use Gold Star families to further political agendas is repugnant. Both sides of the aisle are guilty, and both sides need to just stop.
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