I was honored to connect with writer Sara Coppola through Hope*Writers, a community of working writers. On this Veterans’ Day, Sara joins us to reflect on grief as a military wife and on turning toward your sorrow as a pathway to flourishing.
The year 2011 was a time of major loss for my husband Paul. Four of his good friends, young men with bright futures ahead and full lives waiting for them at home, lost their lives defending our country and the greater good of the world. There was no time to mourn. The guys had to press on with the mission and remain vigilant in order to stay alive. Paul was the target of a suicide bomb attack; after he called to say he got hurt, I went right back to work and to class that afternoon. Life went on without skipping a beat. He suffered a traumatic brain injury and, like most combat veterans, moral injury. War tears a soul apart like nothing else.
We were both unprepared for the effect his injuries and experiences would have on our life. Whether it was naïvety or optimism, we trucked on with life. My career grew, we bought a house, he went to the required therapies following his return, and we thought everything would be manageable . . . until his headaches became more pronounced. As he sought treatment for his pain, he was informed that he likely would not be allowed to reenlist and that he should start the process of medical retirement.
Instead of taking the time to mourn the loss of his career and the dreams he had, we forged on. I was always thinking, “What’s next? Where do we go from here? How do we move forward?” The way we chose to move forward was to leave North Carolina, both of our careers, friendships, church, and our new home that we adored. Back home in New England with family around to support us felt like the most natural decision to me at the time (though in hindsight I realize I never even listened for God’s wisdom to guide me).
My excitement to be back with family and to engage in whatever was next for us in life overshadowed any sadness I may have felt about leaving everything behind and the reason our life was changing. I wasn’t trying to run away from grief, I just didn’t recognize it as something that I would ever experience. It wasn’t until years later that it hit me.
Through introspection, writing, and counseling, I’ve learned a few lessons about grief. I’ve learned that grief isn’t reserved exclusively for the death of a loved one. Grief isn’t just for the wife as she lays her hand on a flag-draped casket, wishing she could hold her husband one more time. Grief isn’t just for the mother whose heart sinks with the ring of her doorbell and a Marine in a polished dress uniform on her front steps. Grief isn’t just for the son who will hear stories of his dad’s heroism and love for his country but never get to toss a ball around with him.
It turns out, grief is for me, too, even while I’m holding my husband’s hand. And it’s for you. If you have breath in your lungs, you’re allowed to feel grief, and you will feel it, because it’s part of being human; part of being alive.
I’ve also learned that grief can walk alongside other emotions. Grief can, ironically, walk alongside things like joy, contentment, and eager anticipation. I can be joyful and grateful that Paul returned home alive and in one piece, while also grieving the man he once was and could have been. One moment my heart is glad as he makes a lighthearted joke and I see a glimpse of the carefree guy I fell in love with; the next moment I’ll remember our seven security cameras strategically placed outside our humble small-town home and grieve for that carefree guy.
I hear stories of other military caregivers who need to help their husbands bathe and feel thankful that Paul is mostly independent—until he calls me to help him off the couch. Then I feel sad, grieving our dream of hiking New Hampshire’s 48 4000 Footers. I daydream about summers with our future grandkids at our family camp, but I also start grieving those picturesque moments and feel fear for our uncertain future as I hear of veterans with traumatic brain injuries being diagnosed with early dementia. In hindsight, I should have given myself time to grieve our life in North Carolina as a military family, even while feeling excited to be home in New Hampshire.
As the whole world grieves in one way or another this strange year, my own grief, stifled and ignored for too long, has bubbled to the surface. Instead of continuing to turn a blind eye to this essential human emotion, I’m choosing to embrace it and let it run its course.
Whether your loss is fresh or it’s something you also have ignored for years, I challenge you to feel it fully, in all of its messiness, without judgement. Acknowledge that you’ve experienced a loss and it’s not a matter of simply staying positive or pulling up your bootstraps that will get you through it.
The wound will always be on your heart, but in my experience, the grace in accepting grief is like a balm that brings comfort to the tattered edges of my soul. Pick up a journal, find a therapist, or pour it out to a trusted friend. Embrace the grace that comes with grief.
Sara Coppola is a military veteran caregiver, wife, and mom to two girls. She lives in New Hampshire where a quick drive to the ocean or a trip to the mountains can refresh and revive her soul. An avid writer and reader from a young age, Sara is finally embracing her gifts and seeking God’s wisdom to refine her message for the readers who need encouragement the most. You can find Sara on Instagram.