Grief and Loss: Mourning Our Troops -- Dottie Ward-Wimmer, RN -- 04/02/03

By Dottie Ward-Wimmer
WebMD Live Events Transcript

The human cost of the conflict in Iraq is a heavy price to pay, especially for families that have lost loved ones already. We discussed the grief of lives cut short in the service of our country with Dottie Ward-Wimmer, RN, from the William Wendt Center for Loss and Healing.

The opinions expressed herein are the guest's alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to WebMD Live, Dottie. For those who have loved ones serving in the military -- what advice do you have to keep from grieving every time the news comes on and more wounded, missing, and killed are reported?

Ward-Wimmer: The fact of the matter is you really can't keep them from reacting when they see it. This is a time when military people and their families will be more frightened and more vulnerable. It's important to attempt to limit the exposure to the news as much as possible. When a child watches the news, an adult can watch with him. That way if there's a news flash and they say there's been injuries, the adults can say, thank goodness that's not Daddy's unit. They can clarify for the child what the real risk is for that child's loved one, nipping it in the bud, if you will.

Be certain that children's fears are heard, and that military families are given extra support. So not only can they talk to Mom, they can talk to their neighbor or their friend, so that the child knows. Children also need permission to have a life and have fun even if they're afraid. We all can have it at the same time. We can be happy and laughing at the very same time we're worried.

Moderator: How honest should we be with children regarding the risks faced by parents in the military?

Ward-Wimmer: That's a really good question. I believe honesty is important. If you don't give children the truth about scary things, they won't be able to believe it when you try to give them the truth about assuring things. Children's truth, however, must be very age appropriate with the right language.

Children are only going to hear that first sentence. So let them know what you want to tell them in age appropriate language in one to two sentences. At the same time we're giving information and talking about the threat about the loved one, give reassurance. That may be, "Remember, Daddy is a well-trained soldier, and has learned to be a good soldier, and he'll always be here with you."

Member: I try to protect my 6-year-old from seeing the news, but even during non-news TV there are newsbreaks and promos for war updates. He keeps saying that GI Joe is on TV. Should I tell him this is real? Can he understand that?

Ward-Wimmer: He's 6 years old. He can understand some things like Joe is a doll; the soldiers on television now are real men. You don't have to say anything about war, just that there's a difference.

Also, when you're planning your TV schedule with your children, if possible avoid the major networks. I don't mean to malign those networks, but children's shows don't have those interruptions. So you want to limit the exposure, limit the hours in front of TV, and this might be a good time to go rent videos for the kids. Or play family games and try to avoid TV altogether. The library is a wonderful source, and it's free.

Moderator: Avoiding TV for a family that is hungry for news of a loved one is difficult.

Ward-Wimmer: Yes. It is difficult. One has to build in a schedule. Build a schedule in so it is watched with the adult present. The families who have military in action need to be aware of where they'll get the best information. Is it from the media, or are there ways to find out from other sources? Are there phone numbers for families to contact? And can they be contacted regularly to see if there is any news today? Then one can give that info to the child. This prevents the frequent turning on of the news.

This is extraordinarily difficult. Each family will have to find out what works for them, knowing that the child needs to be reassured. You need to be mindful of what the child is going through, and knowing that you are going through it together.

Moderator: You said earlier that "age-appropriate language" is important in discussing risks with children. Can you define that a bit?

Ward-Wimmer: Age-appropriate will depend on life exposure and cognitive vocabulary of the child. Age-appropriate language in an older military child is probably very different from an inner city or farm kid. It's important that whomever is talking to the child understands the language that that child is talking. You wouldn't talk about missiles to a 10-year-old. That's not in their daily life.

The thing to remember is that no matter what kind of language you give to a child, don't say to the child, "Do you understand me?" because the child will always nod yes. Ask them to say back to you what you meant. And make sure the child, in fact, understands what you're saying, because sometimes children will take one word and completely misunderstand what you're talking about.

Sometimes when defining risk for children, especially younger children, draw a picture. If you draw a picture and say, "This whole piece of paper is the country where the war is happening," if that's the word the child is familiar with. You can say, "This is where daddy is," and you can relate how small daddy is in relation to the size of the country. And if he sees that daddy's X is a little closer on the map to where the war is happening, you can say, "Yes, we're a little worried. Mommy is worried and that's why she is so short-tempered. And mommy has to remind herself that Daddy is a good soldier and Daddy has lots and lots of other soldiers around him to help." Just reassuring phrases that we talked about earlier. You're giving the child the truth, but also hope. The vast majority of these soldiers will come home.

Member: Chemical warfare is a very frightening thought for me, but terrifies my kids. Their dad is over there and although I know he is well trained and well equipped, and I can talk to them reasonably until it comes to the possibility of chemical weapons being used. Please help me.

Ward-Wimmer: This is a huge fear for military families and non-military families alike. I don't know how to offer reassurance that it won't happen. We help children to express their fear. Once expressed, once it's out there, you can put it aside for a while and get on with life. One idea is to sit down and draw a little picture. Draw what it looks like to be scared inside yourself. Then when you're feeling scared it will help make yourself better. Let the child lead. I say that because as an adult who is so emotionally invested in having a spouse over there, the fear is just so huge.

You can ask the child, "What is it that helps you to feel better about something?" Children can always come up with things. Sometimes it's as simple as a hug. Sometimes it's teddy bear, sometimes it's sleeping with the light on. Sometimes it's imagining that the fear is wrapped in a big blanket, so it can't bother me for a while so I can go out and play. I'm going to stuff that fear in a pillow case and put it somewhere, wherever he wants to put it, so that for a little while I can forget about it.

At the same time, it acknowledges. When you give the child some control, letting him know that he's competent and can do something about it. When we feel more in control, the fear dissipates. The fear comes from a feeling of a lack of control.

One of the things these parents have to do, they really need to find ways of supporting themselves before they talk to their kids. As much emotional support as they can get for and among themselves. Their fears are huge and legitimate. So they need to honor that.

Member: What do we say to other families who might lose someone? I don't know what I should say if it happens to someone near us. I'm so scared for my husband and so concerned for my children. But I want to be supportive, just as I would want support. I don't know anyone who has died over there, but it could happen. I want to set a good example for my children and help, but I'm so scared myself.

Ward-Wimmer: Good for you for admitting you're scared, and still wanting to be brave enough to want to help. The most important thing you can give to another person is your presence. It is not what you say, just show up. It's perfectly legitimate to visit a friend of someone who died under any circumstance. Some things to say or ask:

  • "I just wanted to be here for you, and I'm sorry about what happened."
  • "I don't know what to say, or if there is anything I can say, but I just want to be here with you."
  • "How are you? How are the children?"
  • "Is there anything practical that I can be doing?"
  • "Are people bringing meals over? I'd like to bring supper on Thursday night. Is that OK?"
  • "Do you have errands that need to be run?"

If you knew the person who died, this is somebody that you knew, say the person's name out loud. Talk about them. Talk about what a wonderful person they were. If the person who you are there to comfort starts to cry, know that they are not crying because you mentioned them, they are crying because they miss that person. They would miss him just as much if you didn't talk about him. And keep going back. Wait a few days and call again. Say, "Hello, I'm just thinking about you." Do that from time to time.

Sometimes the most effective comfort is to just put your arms out and hold somebody. And you do it in whatever way feels comfortable for you. Bring your kids along, and let the kids go out and play if they want to. Before you get in the car, tell your children, "We are going to Joe or Mary's, and they're very sad. So we're going to go over and visit. I'll be talking to Mary, and she may be crying. People are sad. If you would like to play with the children, that's OK. If they're sad and they want to stay in with Mary, that's OK. We'll all be together. But if they want to go out and play, that's OK, too.

I wish everybody could understand that during this time, the important thing is to be as gentle with yourself as possible and take as little from yourself as possible. Get enough sleep and exercise. Kids may be more frightened if they look at Mom and she's more run down, because Mom is immediate. Take as gentle and good care of yourself as possible.

Keep family routines as normal as possible. Children are secure in monotony. Keep family routines: nap time, church, chores. When kids are responsible, they are confident and feel more in control. Keep all of those routines in place. If you have an emergency plan, and can do it in a very gentle way, discuss it one night over dinner: "Just in case you kids were wondering, I thought about this and I do have water, blankets, flashlight, (whatever has been thought about), and I keep it in the trunk of the car; we can take care of ourselves if we need to. In the meantime, you have to go to school and behave and eat your green vegetables." Keep that life as informative and on schedule as possible.

Member: How can I keep from getting too emotional about the losses of our troops and the innocent civilians?

Ward-Wimmer: Another wonderful question. I'm not sure it's possible to keep from caring about the losses of civilians and soldiers. We are a passionate people, and we respond with pain. You may want to find people to talk to. When you find yourself in this place of emotions, you should have someone, whether it's a spouse, friend, therapist, support group, clergy person, so that you can deal with those times when you are emotional.

I offer you the same advice that I offer for children. I do not watch the news before going to sleep at night. I read the paper earlier in the day and watch news earlier in the evening.

You will need to find out what works for you in terms of finding balance in your life. For some people it's just being reminded of the enormous amount of human kindness; this may be a good time to volunteer in a soup kitchen, and just reach out to other people and nurture compassion in the world, so people have a way to balance the awareness of what's going on in the world with doing something concrete in their own backyard.

Member: Even when death is a possible outcome when you're a soldier at war, it still hurts to see young people killed for such a purpose. Do you think military families take solace in a "noble" death, or are the grieving and sense of loss just as bad as when a child or spouse is lost to an accident or illness?

Ward-Wimmer: The loss of a child or spouse is always, always dreadful. What brings individual families comfort can only be defined by that family. The noble death to some would be a comfort. The important thing to remember is that each family has to define it for itself; we need to ask each family as we reach out to them what this means to them. If that wife says, "At least he died saving a stricken people," then you go right along with it and say, "Absolutely. I'm glad that comforts you." You can't assume that. You can't offer that as a platitude, because if she doesn't feel it, it won't help her.

Member: My boyfriend is in the Army, deployed in the Middle East since November. I haven't heard from him since a week before the war started. Naturally I'm worried, but trying to be realistic about communications between troops and family. How can I keep from going bonkers?

Ward-Wimmer: I wish I had a magic answer for you. I'm sorry. I don't. But here are some suggestions:

  • Gather your friends around you and keep talking.
  • You may want to be writing letters. If you are, keep writing them.
  • If you wish on stars, you look at that star and know that star is shining on your loved one.
  • If you have a prayer life, a belief in a higher being, it's a good time to lean on it to pray for strength, patience and safety for him.
  • Staying busy is helpful.
  • Things like having a regular bedtime routine helps some people get to sleep at night.
  • You may want a bath, do exercise -- believe it or not, exercise and a warm shower can be very comforting, so you can at least rest.

You might want to give yourself permission to go a little bonkers sometimes. Set a timer for three minutes, five minutes, and sit in your room and absolutely just yell, or write, "I hate this. It stinks. I wish I could pour it out." When the timer goes off, put the pen down and say, OK, I've had my bonkers, now I can have my life." Sometimes building in those pockets of release is helpful.

Member: How can I help my friend who has a son in Iraq? What can I do to make life easier for her right now? She doesn't need meals or anything like that.

Ward-Wimmer: If you're friends, you can ask her. She might say there's nothing you can do to make this easier. Even so, you can say:

  • "OK, I'll visit you."
  • "I'll take you for a walk"
  • "We'll go shopping together."
  • "I'll take you to a movie."
  • "I'll be a pest once a week, and I know I'm not making this easier, but I want you to know you're not alone. I'll walk this path with you."

Member: I have a good friend whose husband left a couple of months ago for Iraq. Her kids who are 10 and 7 are worried that their step-dad will be one of the soldiers that have been killed, even though she assures them it's not the same unit. How can my friend talk to her kids and reassure them?

Ward-Wimmer: Limit exposure, talk and listen, play in arts to help a child express his or her feelings, lots of family time including chores and rituals, and remind them of other times they've gone through some hard and confusing times. And don't do this at bedtime. Do it at dinner, in the car, use natural moments when children are talking about it anyway. Maybe they're watching TV and a news blurb comes on, or maybe when they're talking with their friends. Keep bedtime routines as neutral and as normal as you can.

Moderator: Dottie, before we wrap up for today, do you have any final comments for us?

Ward-Wimmer: My final comment is that in this particular time I would hope that every single one of us have a little extra patience, and be extra gentle with ourselves and the people around us.

Moderator: Thanks to Dottie Ward-Wimmer for being our guest.

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Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003