Questions-and-Answers with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors: Treating Grief

TAPS Peer Mentors

Q&A with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors: Treating Grief

May 15, 2020

Dr. Shauna Springer is the Senior Director of Suicide Prevention Initiatives at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). She discusses how the TAPS’ Suicide Postvention Model helped suicide loss survivor and Marine Corps Veteran Dana O’Brien address his grief. Through telling O’Brien’s story, the course, “Treating Grief in the Veteran Population,” provides practical ways to help Veterans express their grief and loss. PsychArmor sat down with “Doc Springer” to discuss the ‘story behind the story.’

A: As I respond to this question, I reflect on receiving three suicide notifications of Veterans who are irreplaceable to those in my network this week alone — and two near misses. I think about the number of times that the Veterans I know have been pallbearers at funerals, and how they carry a thousand pounds of grief —  grief that may never be addressed by professional healers. While they may never openly identify as “survivors,” those who serve in the military are survivors of suicide loss, and other traumatic losses, whether due to those killed in action, training accidents, or illnesses. We owe them support for this grief that is based on the best of what we know and TAPS expertise offers this value for those grieving the loss of a military loved one.

A: Dana will be the first to share that the TAPS Postvention Model has transformed his life. When he started coming to TAPS events, he was struggling with symptoms of trauma. He was socially detached, wanting little to do with others. Kim Ruocco’s investment of love in him and the application of healthy grieving in the safe space that TAPS provides has changed how he views himself, how he sees the world around him, and how he navigates his relationships. He now reaches out to those who are suffering, and folds them into a loving embrace. He is transformed because of the TAPS Postvention Model and the love of the TAPS family.

A: Sitting in a room across from a licensed professional is not the only —  or best —  way for some people to find healing. Warriors are people of action. During TAPS events that have been focused on grief and loss, we have found ways to help warriors express their grief in physical ways, whether through a silent hike in the woods, building a rock cairn in honor of the fallen, or smashing a rock with a mallet. These rituals help warriors to move through grief rather than avoiding it.

A: There is NO ONE RIGHT WAY TO GRIEVE a suicide loss. Loss survivors grieve in different ways, and may grieve on different timelines. There is no “normal” grief journey or “abnormal” grief journey. But there is a healthy way to grieve, and this involves finding ways to approach one’s grief and allow it to flow and find ways to move forward while holding connection, if desired, to the loved one who has been lost. Suicide loss is a complicated grief journey for many, but with the right support, we have observed that suicide loss survivors are uniquely poised for Posttraumatic Growth.

A: Thank you for asking! I’m pleased to share a piece of my new book, “Warrior: How to Support Those Who Protect Us,” how acute grief can be dangerous. All other things being equal, the times when I was most worried about losing my patients to suicide was when they had suffered the recent loss of a fellow veteran. Sometimes they lost battle buddies in combat. Death is a fact of war, but accepting this does not lessen the impact of grief. After losing a battle buddy to combat, my Veteran patients were gripped by a sense of helplessness, covered by rage. They wanted to be back in the combat zone. They often expressed that if they had been there, maybe this might not have happened. They wondered aloud whether they could have spotted the enemy’s improvised explosive device or if they could have been killed in their brother’s place, an outcome some voiced as preferable to the pain of the loss.

Compared to combat deaths, losses to suicide were even more dangerous. In cases of suicide loss, the rage was palpable. Rather than being directed at a flesh-and-blood force of enemy combatants, however, the rage had no single clear target. Sometimes the death was felt as a personal betrayal, and the rage was directed at the person who died.

Reasoning that they had fought a war together, literally, trusting each other with their lives, they wondered why that trust had failed at their friend’s time of need? Why did their battle buddy not tell them that he felt hopelessly overmatched by his demons? In response to the suicide of a battle buddy, the deepest cry of many of my patients was this: “Why didn’t he understand that if he had just told me what was going on, I would have dropped everything and gotten on the next flight to come to him? Why didn’t he trust me enough to give me that chance?”

Sometimes, rather than directing the rage at their buddy, the rage was instead directed at themselves. This showed up in a shame-inducing string of toxic thoughts, as in “What does this say about me that she could not tell me how much she was struggling?” or “How could I have missed the signs of his pain? He was closer to me than my own family, and yet I never noticed that he was suffering.” In cases where rage was directed inward, there was an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

In addition to rage, there was often fear. Could they catch the wish to die by suicide and leave their own family bereft? Could they fall prey to their own demons at some point, and be taken out by the same silent sniper that took their friend’s life? This fear was especially strong when the warrior who died was perceived to be a leader among his peers. If the fear had a voice, it would say something like: “He was so strong, and yet he died by suicide, so what does that say about my chances?”

These sessions were heartbreaking and had high stakes. In coming to TAPS, I learned so much about how to help people grieve in a healthy way, material which has been covered in earlier courses in this TAPS-PsychArmor series.

A: The contribution of Dana’s voice and his story enriched this training immeasurably. We used the same format for the next training, on “Posttraumatic Growth After (Suicide) Loss,” featuring Jon Ganues, Sr.’s story. Brave people like Dana and Jon who share from their own experiences are saving lives by helping us to learn from lived experience. Insight is part of learning, but stories bring it home and make it stick. I thoroughly enjoyed partnering with Dana and Jon, both of whom are deeply loved and respected members of the TAPS family, to bring these courses forward.

Reasoning that they had fought a war together, literally, trusting each other with their lives, they wondered why that trust had failed at their friend’s time of need? Why did their battle buddy not tell them that he felt hopelessly overmatched by his demons? In response to the suicide of a battle buddy, the deepest cry of many of my patients was this: “Why didn’t he understand that if he had just told me what was going on, I would have dropped everything and gotten on the next flight to come to him? Why didn’t he trust me enough to give me that chance?”

Sometimes, rather than directing the rage at their buddy, the rage was instead directed at themselves. This showed up in a shame-inducing string of toxic thoughts, as in “What does this say about me that she could not tell me how much she was struggling?” or “How could I have missed the signs of his pain? He was closer to me than my own family, and yet I never noticed that he was suffering.” In cases where rage was directed inward, there was an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

In addition to rage, there was often fear. Could they catch the wish to die by suicide and leave their own family bereft? Could they fall prey to their own demons at some point, and be taken out by the same silent sniper that took their friend’s life? This fear was especially strong when the warrior who died was perceived to be a leader among his peers. If the fear had a voice, it would say something like: “He was so strong, and yet he died by suicide, so what does that say about my chances?”

These sessions were heartbreaking and had high stakes. In coming to TAPS, I learned so much about how to help people grieve in a healthy way, material which has been covered in earlier courses in this TAPS-PsychArmor series.

A: I would say that there is also a burden of grief associated with the loss of identity, roles, and relationships when one transitions from the military. I believe that our failure to directly address this grief during military transition may be one reason why suicide rates are elevated during transition. I wrote a book that was published in November 2019 with my friend Jason Roncoroni, a former battalion commander from the Army’s 101st Airborne. It’s called “Beyond the Military: A Leader’s Handbook for Warrior Reintegration.” We look at identity-related grief and other transitional traumas that are critical for us to understand as a society if our goal is to support those who protect us.

Thank you for your time, Doc. PsychArmor’s 200th course and the next course in this series, “Posttraumatic Growth After Loss,” launched on PsychArmor’s website, Monday, May 18, 2020. 

 

About the author

Victoria Carlborg is PsychArmor Institute’s Education Manager. She can be reached at vcarlborg@psycharmor.org.

Q&A with Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors

May 15, 2020

Dr. Shauna Springer is the Senior Director of Suicide Prevention Initiatives at the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). She discusses how the TAPS’ Suicide Postvention Model helped suicide loss survivor and Marine Corps Veteran Dana O’Brien address his grief. Through telling O’Brien’s story, the course, “Treating Grief in the Veteran Population,” provides practical ways to help Veterans express their grief and loss. PsychArmor sat down with “Doc Springer” to discuss the ‘story behind the story.’

A: As I respond to this question, I reflect on receiving three suicide notifications of Veterans who are irreplaceable to those in my network this week alone — and two near misses. I think about the number of times that the Veterans I know have been pallbearers at funerals, and how they carry a thousand pounds of grief —  grief that may never be addressed by professional healers. While they may never openly identify as “survivors,” those who serve in the military are survivors of suicide loss, and other traumatic losses, whether due to those killed in action, training accidents, or illnesses. We owe them support for this grief that is based on the best of what we know and TAPS expertise offers this value for those grieving the loss of a military loved one.

A: Dana will be the first to share that the TAPS Postvention Model has transformed his life. When he started coming to TAPS events, he was struggling with symptoms of trauma. He was socially detached, wanting little to do with others. Kim Ruocco’s investment of love in him and the application of healthy grieving in the safe space that TAPS provides has changed how he views himself, how he sees the world around him, and how he navigates his relationships. He now reaches out to those who are suffering, and folds them into a loving embrace. He is transformed because of the TAPS Postvention Model and the love of the TAPS family.

A: Sitting in a room across from a licensed professional is not the only —  or best —  way for some people to find healing. Warriors are people of action. During TAPS events that have been focused on grief and loss, we have found ways to help warriors express their grief in physical ways, whether through a silent hike in the woods, building a rock cairn in honor of the fallen, or smashing a rock with a mallet. These rituals help warriors to move through grief rather than avoiding it.

A: There is NO ONE RIGHT WAY TO GRIEVE a suicide loss. Loss survivors grieve in different ways, and may grieve on different timelines. There is no “normal” grief journey or “abnormal” grief journey. But there is a healthy way to grieve, and this involves finding ways to approach one’s grief and allow it to flow and find ways to move forward while holding connection, if desired, to the loved one who has been lost. Suicide loss is a complicated grief journey for many, but with the right support, we have observed that suicide loss survivors are uniquely poised for Posttraumatic Growth.

A: Thank you for asking! I’m pleased to share a piece of my new book, “Warrior: How to Support Those Who Protect Us,” how acute grief can be dangerous. All other things being equal, the times when I was most worried about losing my patients to suicide was when they had suffered the recent loss of a fellow veteran. Sometimes they lost battle buddies in combat. Death is a fact of war, but accepting this does not lessen the impact of grief. After losing a battle buddy to combat, my Veteran patients were gripped by a sense of helplessness, covered by rage. They wanted to be back in the combat zone. They often expressed that if they had been there, maybe this might not have happened. They wondered aloud whether they could have spotted the enemy’s improvised explosive device or if they could have been killed in their brother’s place, an outcome some voiced as preferable to the pain of the loss.

Compared to combat deaths, losses to suicide were even more dangerous. In cases of suicide loss, the rage was palpable. Rather than being directed at a flesh-and-blood force of enemy combatants, however, the rage had no single clear target. Sometimes the death was felt as a personal betrayal, and the rage was directed at the person who died.

Reasoning that they had fought a war together, literally, trusting each other with their lives, they wondered why that trust had failed at their friend’s time of need? Why did their battle buddy not tell them that he felt hopelessly overmatched by his demons? In response to the suicide of a battle buddy, the deepest cry of many of my patients was this: “Why didn’t he understand that if he had just told me what was going on, I would have dropped everything and gotten on the next flight to come to him? Why didn’t he trust me enough to give me that chance?”

Sometimes, rather than directing the rage at their buddy, the rage was instead directed at themselves. This showed up in a shame-inducing string of toxic thoughts, as in “What does this say about me that she could not tell me how much she was struggling?” or “How could I have missed the signs of his pain? He was closer to me than my own family, and yet I never noticed that he was suffering.” In cases where rage was directed inward, there was an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

In addition to rage, there was often fear. Could they catch the wish to die by suicide and leave their own family bereft? Could they fall prey to their own demons at some point, and be taken out by the same silent sniper that took their friend’s life? This fear was especially strong when the warrior who died was perceived to be a leader among his peers. If the fear had a voice, it would say something like: “He was so strong, and yet he died by suicide, so what does that say about my chances?”

These sessions were heartbreaking and had high stakes. In coming to TAPS, I learned so much about how to help people grieve in a healthy way, material which has been covered in earlier courses in this TAPS-PsychArmor series.

A: The contribution of Dana’s voice and his story enriched this training immeasurably. We used the same format for the next training, on “Posttraumatic Growth After (Suicide) Loss,” featuring Jon Ganues, Sr.’s story. Brave people like Dana and Jon who share from their own experiences are saving lives by helping us to learn from lived experience. Insight is part of learning, but stories bring it home and make it stick. I thoroughly enjoyed partnering with Dana and Jon, both of whom are deeply loved and respected members of the TAPS family, to bring these courses forward.

Reasoning that they had fought a war together, literally, trusting each other with their lives, they wondered why that trust had failed at their friend’s time of need? Why did their battle buddy not tell them that he felt hopelessly overmatched by his demons? In response to the suicide of a battle buddy, the deepest cry of many of my patients was this: “Why didn’t he understand that if he had just told me what was going on, I would have dropped everything and gotten on the next flight to come to him? Why didn’t he trust me enough to give me that chance?”

Sometimes, rather than directing the rage at their buddy, the rage was instead directed at themselves. This showed up in a shame-inducing string of toxic thoughts, as in “What does this say about me that she could not tell me how much she was struggling?” or “How could I have missed the signs of his pain? He was closer to me than my own family, and yet I never noticed that he was suffering.” In cases where rage was directed inward, there was an overwhelming sense of helplessness.

In addition to rage, there was often fear. Could they catch the wish to die by suicide and leave their own family bereft? Could they fall prey to their own demons at some point, and be taken out by the same silent sniper that took their friend’s life? This fear was especially strong when the warrior who died was perceived to be a leader among his peers. If the fear had a voice, it would say something like: “He was so strong, and yet he died by suicide, so what does that say about my chances?”

These sessions were heartbreaking and had high stakes. In coming to TAPS, I learned so much about how to help people grieve in a healthy way, material which has been covered in earlier courses in this TAPS-PsychArmor series.

A: I would say that there is also a burden of grief associated with the loss of identity, roles, and relationships when one transitions from the military. I believe that our failure to directly address this grief during military transition may be one reason why suicide rates are elevated during transition. I wrote a book that was published in November 2019 with my friend Jason Roncoroni, a former battalion commander from the Army’s 101st Airborne. It’s called “Beyond the Military: A Leader’s Handbook for Warrior Reintegration.” We look at identity-related grief and other transitional traumas that are critical for us to understand as a society if our goal is to support those who protect us.

Thank you for your time, Doc. PsychArmor’s 200th course and the next course in this series, “Posttraumatic Growth After Loss,” launched on PsychArmor’s website, Monday, May 18, 2020. 

 

About the author

Victoria Carlborg is PsychArmor Institute’s Education Manager. She can be reached at vcarlborg@psycharmor.org.

2020-05-22T15:52:54-07:00May 15th, 2020|