No You Can’t Go Home

Pastoral Care and the Grieving Service Member

It is two in the morning and there is a knock on my door. The ship is underway on deployment and we have received an American Red Cross Message. The Red Cross has the responsibility for notification when significant events occur to military member’s families. They receive the information and validate the report. Then, they send a message to the unit. Often the Chaplain is given the message to pass along to the service member. It can be the birth of a child, the death of an uncle or a medical emergency with the spouse. When I hear the knock or receive a call. I never knew what the message will say. When you are deployed on the other side of the world, 2:00pm in the United States is 2:00am for us.

Sometimes the person already knows. They receive an email or happened to call home and heard the news. Many times they have not. So I sit down with the person, share it and begin the process of helping them deal with what they heard. In the case of a death or significant event the desire is to get the military member home if at all possible. Unfortunately, when a unit is deployed, there are limitations. In those cases the member will only go home if it is immediate family or the person served as parental figure (In loco parentis) for at least five years during the member’s childhood. Even then there can be issues of operational commitments and location that limit the service member’s ability to go home. This article focuses on the pastoral care provided in those moments.

The first focus is on letting the Sailor or Marine call home and connect with family members. They get the information and questions go back and forth. In the initial aftermath it is just as if you were sitting in the United States. The person cries and you listen. You provide comfort, pray with them and make sure they feel supported.

It is what happens next that is different.

Common Reactions

The most common reaction the Sailor or Marine has is a belief it is critical for them to be there. They know they are needed to provide support to their family. There is a helplessness in being so far away. It is heartbreaking because there is a degree of truth in what they are saying. They would be a huge support to their family. However, they can’t and the family will have to move forward without them being there physically.

Theologically it is a powerful reminder of just how little we control. We know we need to rely on God and we need to pray. When you are on the other side of the world, relying on God and praying often become the only thing you can do. Many Marines and Sailors understand and so do their families. In those moments it is truly a testimony to quality of those in the military and the families that support them.

In some case either the member begins to break down or the family does not accept that their loved one is not coming home. As a Chaplain my office becomes a safe place for them to rage and express their frustration and anger. In those moments the best thing I can do is be a calming presence. We will brainstorm practical ways they can support and we will look to see what other resources may be available to assist their family. All I am doing is walking with them as they are forced to accept this reality.

Regardless of how the individual is handling it the unit has an opportunity to be a community of support. My piece is just one piece. Their chain of command, friends and co-workers rally around the Sailor or Marine. Often times there is another person who has been in a similar situation who offers how they coped. It becomes an interactive team. Many people will talk about the bonds that form within military units. It is often in these moments those bonds are forged.

Honoring Loved Ones

A critical care component is when a death has occurred. I always encourage the person to look for a tangible and specific way to honor their loved one. Almost every culture around the world has some form of ritual to honor the passing of a person. If that happens in every culture, there is something important about ritual and having tangible moments to remember the dead. I share that reality with the person. We talk through what that may look like. Some will have a time of prayer in the Chapel usually timed for the same day as the funeral. Some will do something out on the weather decks of the ship. Others write letters. Others make plans for when they get home. The primary seed I want to plant is for them to have something specific and tangible that will bring closure and help them begin the process of moving forward.

When I was in Afghanistan, a young Marine lost an extended family member. He was not going home. We talked about doing something tangible and he asked if I could do a small memorial for him in the Chapel. We planned it and I was expecting him and one or two of his friends. His entire platoon came to support him. We had a memorial and his fellow Marines came around him and helped him grieve. It was a beautiful moment and made me proud to serve as a Chaplain.

Chaplain Paul Armstrong
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