The idea of losing an immediate family member is not a foreign concept to anyone married in the military. We’re all faced with it every deployment. What if my Marine doesn’t come back? The thought of losing your service member is real. You can actually imagine it. Many of us have friends who have endured it. You think about it at night when he’s gone. You fear it. Sometimes it’s crippling. But most of us are lucky enough to celebrate his return and go about our lives. I am no different.
And it’s no secret that most military parents have at one point or another discussed where you might lay your kids to rest if something ever happened to them while your family was still part of the Marine Corps traveling road show. It’s just a reality. Most of us never really think we’ll have to make those decisions. We could never *really* lose a child. After all, our Marine made it home and life could never be that twisted, right? As a mother, I have always feared something might happen to my kids, but I never actually thought it would happen.
But it did, in the middle of “the year.” In 2015, we were having one of the best years of our lives as a family. It was the kind of year that made our 2014 struggles worth it, and there were a lot of struggles:
- a 9-month, extended Marine Expeditionary Unit deployment
- an unexpected, short-fused, cross-country move
- two, teenage boys (one of whom was testing my patience to no end) who did NOT want to move
You know, typical stuff. This time last year, our moving truck was packed and on the road. The hubby had returned from deployment two weeks earlier. My oldest son, Noah, was gearing up for his last band competition at Camp Lejeune. My younger son, Gav, was spending his last weekend with his North Carolina friends. I was having my last goodbye dinner with my deployment ladies. We were checked in to a hotel with two boys, two dogs, and two cars FULL of stuff for the cross-country road trip. We were headed for recruiting on the west coast. Cali. Home sweet home.
Setting up house in California was by far the easiest transition we’d had in recent memory, despite the incredibly challenging year leading up to the move. We all had mixed feelings about leaving North Carolina and about the deployment that was now behind us, but it was very clear that all of us adored our new “home.” It was like the universe was rewarding us for the mess that was 2014. Both Noah and Gav settled in quickly, despite a mid-semester move, and heading into summer, we had camping trips, long weekends, and camps planned to keep everyone busy.
One night in early June, I got a phone call from a friend back at Lejeune. She had called to tell me that one my oldest friends in the Marine Corps had lost two of her five children in an accident in the middle of the permanent change of station. I remember being so heart broken for her and her family. There was never a question that I would be taking an unexpected trip back to North Carolina to support them, so we started making plans.
My own family had a lot going on that week. My oldest, Noah, was supposed to head to my hometown (four hours south of where we were stationed) for a band camp. This wasn’t just any camp, but a chance for my 17 year-old to impress the percussion director at the college where he planned to attend. He was a snare drummer. Missing wasn’t an option. I booked a flight to return to Camp Lejeune for the funeral, leaving from my hometown. Noah, who had only recently got his drivers license, would follow me south in his car. He could drive himself back and forth to camp and stay with grandpa while I was in North Carolina. With logistics set, we headed for band camp.
The day after we arrived, on what would have been the first day of band camp, my son was in an auto accident less than five minutes from his destination. When we got to the hospital, I called my friend, Tiff (who had just lost her kids), and told her what had happened. For six days, we prayed together, but in the end, we lost Noah, too. The night before my son passed away, Tiff and her family had their service for Mercy and Sam, and a few days later, we would do the same for Noah. As military spouses, we shared a bond. Now, we belong to the worst club on Earth.
The Marines Corps Community Just…Appeared
In our case, the accident happened far from where we were stationed, not near a military community, in a place that is NOT easy to get to. No one ever wishes for something like this to happen, but I will be eternally grateful that we were near family when it did. My little mountain town of less than 1,000 people was amazing. Our family and friends were amazing. They pulled together a beautiful memorial for Noah in a very short amount of time. But my husband and I had no idea that our small mountain town would be full of people from the Marine Corps Community that day. People from throughout my husband’s 20+ year career made the trip to the tiny church, Marines and their families that we hadn’t seen in years, some who we had just left months before, my closest friends I had met along the way, and members of our current command. Even those who couldn’t make it loved and supported us from all over the world. We felt surrounded in that support, despite also feeling very alone.
How People Helped From Far Away
Early on, it was incredibly hard for us to live on a town not near a base, where we only knew a handful of people. For us, there was no parade of meals in the freezer or close friends swinging by to sit with us. No one in our town knew Noah except a handful of his friends from the band. We were only here seven months before the accident. That said, we aren’t really good at accepting help when it was offered, and in the end wanted some space, so we kept to ourselves and the three of us grieved in private. But it was then that I realized our Marine Corps Community was never really far away. We received cards, letters, and phone calls from all over. People sent gifts and donated to Noah’s memorial fund. Some sent cards to Gav. Those small gestures may not seem like a big deal, but when you feel alone, they are your lifeline and helped us feel like we were still part of our community we had left behind for life on recruiting. I share this with you in part because many of the people who might read this are those who showed us those acts of kindness and I can never say thank you enough. But I also share because some might be wondering how you can help someone from far away. Here are some of the things that were most helpful for our family:
- not forgetting about Gavin (our warrior son), supporting him too
- prayer pledges at local churches
- gift cards for eating out
- cards and letters
- voicemails and texts
- emails and Facebook messages
- handling phone calls and helping coordinate small tasks that we all do everyday to keep our household going (dog sitters, roofers, paying bills, notifying people, airline refunds)
If you aren’t sure what to say, here are some things that were not helpful.
What Losing a Child on Active Duty Has Taught Me
No matter how detached from a base you are, the Marine Corps Community shows up. I will forever appreciate the kind hearts of our friends—our family away from home. I have also have a new understanding of what it means to be supported by people you don’t even know, simply because Marine families take care of their own. It would be easy for everyone to forget about us out here on recruiting. But no one did, and that means the world to us.
I’ve learned what’s important. I have a new appreciation for the most important things in life. Nothing in this life will give you pause more than your family of four becoming a family of three, or your family seven becoming a family of five. When you lose an immediate family member, whether it is a spouse or a child, how they died or what they were doing when it happened is not what’s important. What becomes important is how your family will face each day and the future.
That may mean big things like moving, deciding what to do with your first-born’s material possessions, or coming up with a new life plan now that yours has been completely derailed. But it can also mean small things like answering the question, “do you have kids?” or getting through a trip to the grocery store without crying. It’s so important to be sensitive when you speak with a grieving family member. Meet them where they are, emotionally.
I’ve learned what’s not important. Trust me, I wish my biggest challenge was trying to find a Primary Care Manager out in town who takes Tricare Prime, or an overseas PCS move. I would welcome a day when my biggest frustration was breaking up a fight between my boys after they bickered all day. Because silence is deafening.
And honestly, if my worst “bad day” was struggling through another single parenting day while the hubby is deployed, freaking out about work drama, stepping in dog poop when I get up to potty in the middle of the night, or battling it out with my neighbor in base housing after her kid dumped a bucket of dirty, soapy, carwash water on my kid’s head, I’d be in good shape. I have an entirely new definition of what it means to have a “bad day.”
I just want to say thank you to all of those who have showed us such compassion and who have tried to understand where we are and support us through our darkest days. Thank you to all of those Marines and spouses out there who will be there for your friend or neighbor in the future. Thank you for understanding that losing a member of your immediate family is not something you “get over.” It’s something you learn to live with, one day at a time, and it will always hurt. Thank you for understanding that sometimes bearing witness to our pain is enough. If I’ve learned anything in the past few months, it’s that we need each other, and long after our story is forgotten, some Marine Corps family, somewhere, will need you too.