Unhelpful Labels

My son served five years in the United States Marine Corp, including two tours in Afghanistan. David still serves in Marine Reserves while living and working in Oklahoma. Like many combat vets, he has struggled. The death of his younger brother less than a year after getting out of the USMC made it worse.

I’m proud of his service to our country, but I am most proud of the man he has become since leaving active duty. He has dealt with physical and emotional issues with strength, wisdom, and grace.

He posted this on New Year’s Day 2016, after being woken by fireworks the night before:

FYI. As much as I hate the “Dysfunctional Veteran”, or the ” Vet lives here, please be courteous with fireworks,” I still don’t like being woken up to them at two in the morning right outside my house.

Those two saying sound cool to most Vets, but it is just furthering your own victimization. Gen Mattis put it much better than I can, when he said, “You’ve been told that you’re broken, that you’re damaged goods and should be labeled victims of two unjust and poorly executed wars. The truth, instead, is that we are the only folks with the skills, determination, and values to ensure American dominance in this chaotic world.” He explained the nation has a “disease orientation” toward combat stress. Mad Dog’s death blow was swift: “In America, victimhood is exalted.” (From a speech in San Francisco, April, 2014)

So by labelling yourself as a dysfunctional vet, you are becoming an oxymoron. As a vet, we possess skills and traits that make us excel, not be dysfunctional.

Yes, there are many ways we will never fully blend with society. But I’m betting most people get startled when fireworks go off at 2 am. They may not wake up with an adrenalin rush, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to cope. By putting a sign in front of your house saying don’t set off fireworks, in my opinion, you are making yourself a victim. You are surrendering to the disease, instead of fighting it.

It seems pretty plain to me. You have two choices:

1) Submit to how you think society sees you, and surrender to the disease, using it as an excuse to not excel, or

2) Fight for your right to return to society. Isn’t that why we fought on the battlefield? “The most important six inches on the battle space is between your ears.” That is even more true in our adjustment back into society.

Engage your brain, learn to control it, get help, reach out. Much like singlehanded none of us could clear an AO, few, if not none, can clear the wreckage of our past and reintegrate. Similar to learning how to dis and ass a .50 cal, we need to learn the tools. I learned them through those who have gone before me, those who went with me, and professionals who didn’t go at all. But most important, I chose to learn tools, instead of surrendering to the disease.

For me, manning up and taking it meant admitted I can’t do it on my own and need help. That seems to be the truest test of my manhood in my life. Am I going to admit I can’t beat something on my own, and ask for help, or just keep pushing through til it drives me insane. And this is with just about everything, from Harleys to health issues.

The Facebook conversation prompted by this post got me thinking about some of my grieving friends.

Many take on the label “Bereaved Parent” and wear it proudly. They claim their right to not handle life well, to break down in loud sobs at any moment in any situation regardless of the effect it may have on others, and to not participate in family functions that are simply too hard, even years after losing their child. “It’s my grief. It was my child that died. The world can just go to hell if they don’t like the way I handle it! Unfriend me if you don’t want to read about my grief or see constant posts about my child,” they may say.

Please, please understand me. I know how hard and painful those early days can be! I know that death and grief consumes our every thought when our wound is fresh, raw, and oozing! I know! I lived it after The Accident! It is almost impossible not to openly grieve in those early days and months. 

But, like the label “Disfunctional Vet”, “Bereaved Parent” may be a label that is best not worn our sleeve. Yes, the death of my twenty-year-old son changed me, but it does not define me.

To use the words of Mad Dog Mattis, “You’ve been told that you’re broken, that you’re damaged goods and should be labeled victims because of [your child’s death]. The truth, instead, is that we are the only folks with the skills, determination, and values to [walk this horrible road of grief and to help others who walk it after us].” It is not road we would have chosen, but we are on it. And God can and will give us the skills, determination, and values needed to walk this grief journey with grace, love, strength, and forgiveness if we ask Him.

We can, with the help of Christ and by doing the next right thing, get better. We can find healing, joy, and peace once again. In time. And it will take time … and work.

I don’t have to give in to the grief. I don’t have to be defined by the label “Bereaved Parent” or let grief control my behavior. Even on hard days, I have learned to control my own behavior rather than letting my grief and emotions control me. That’s what adults do.

When I am sad or filled with sorrow, I find an appropriate and safe place to express my grief. I don’t need to disrupt things or call attention to myself at the expense of others.

I may never completely fully blend in with society – I have been changed by my son’s death in ways others may not understand. But I do participate in social events and family gatherings, and I attempt tasks that may seem daunting. I’ve often found those hard things are worth the effort! Friends and family show me love and kindness at those times and in ways I would have missed had I stayed home alone wallowing in my grief.

My social media posts sometimes include comments about my loss, but more often they are about my life and the good things in it. I want to encourage others as they encourage me. Yes, I am honest and transparent. My friends see me grieve at times. They also see that grief does not consume my thoughts or my life. I have joy, laughter, peace, and hope.

Just as my son has not gone it alone in his recovery, I have not reached this point in healing by going it alone in my own recovery. I had help from my counselor, my husband, my friends, my church, and While We’re Waiting.

In the most difficult areas of my life, things are always made worse when I go it alone. It’s not just a man up thing, it’s a human thing. We are created to be in community with others.

Many think it’s weak to ask for help, but it takes great wisdom, strength, and humility to admit we cannot go it alone. And the cool thing is that we don’t have to go it alone! Others are willing to walk beside us and aid us in our journey.

If you are a veteran in need of help, contact your local VA. Yes, there have been problems with the VA, but there are good people who want to help you.  Go in, don’t just call. Take the time to walk through the system. Tell them honestly that you are suffering and need counseling. They will help you if you let them. And seek out other vets to speak with. Encourage one another.

If you are a Bereaved Parent, don’t go it alone with the attitude that it’s your grief and it will never get better! It can get easier to handle. Seek help. Counseling, Grief Share, or While We’re Waiting may help you. Many if us walk this road and are willing to walk it with you. I know, because many took time to walk with me. We will walk with you as well if you let us.


If you want to find true healing in grief, please seek God, study and apply His Word in your life. Precept Ministries International has published an 18-lesson inductive study “God’s Healing in Grief” which is available through their website, on Amazon, and at your local bookstore. 

death of a child, Grief, New Year, Recovery, USMC


I write about my life, my journey, my family, and my faith. I am wife to one, mom to seven with one in heaven, and grandmother to many. I am also full-time caregiver to my stepmom E who suffers from dementia due to Alzheimer’s. In my spare time I like to read, travel, crochet, bike, and play with our black pug Molly.

Comments (20)

  • Thank You, many people need to read and understand these words.

    My 21 year old daughter passed away 6/30/14. I was not married to her father at the time and I have two sons left here to deal with her loss as well. Just last week after visiting his biological dad, my 19 year old son and I were talking. He spoke of how hard it is to be around his Dad now because all he wants to do is talk about my daughter and how hard it is for him to miss her. My son stated, “The one thing that keeps me from spending time with Dad the most, is he does not know how to grieve in private.”

    My son knows I miss my daughter, we talk of her, laugh of her, and have special occasions that are solely centered around her. However, on my days that are the most difficult as a Mom, I grieve in private. They are all dealing with their own pain and grief, just because I was her Mom does not mean they need to heal me. I choose to live each day as just a Mom, not necessarily a grieving Mom.

    • Wisdom: “just because I was her Mom does not mean they need to heal me. ”

      It’s not my kids job to heal my pain. They help. They encourage me. But it’s not their responsibility.

      Thank you for sharing.

      • Miss Kathleen ~ This is so well put. I would like to ask permission to re-post it.

        And Miss Jennifer ~ Miss Kathleen picked the phrase, of your response/comment, that hit me the hardest.

        I am so much father down that healing path now. Back when it was only 3-4 years in… up through the sentencing of my 19-year-old boy’s murderer, and for a while after it I was living in the grief a lot. It was still raw and what scab was building was often knocked off with each continuance. My daughters got to the point where I couldn’t even bring up my son, in a general conversation, like we used to after he moved out of the house – to laugh at his silliness or … whatever, like we did before his murder. I have learned a lot over the years. But it was not my daughter’s job to heal me, even though I should have been afforded the time to grieve in my own home, my safe place. Sigh. But it is not their place to heal me. I have given that up to the good Lord and he has guided me in like kind to others who understand.

        May we not be defined by what has happened to our families.


  • Great writing! Thanks to your son for his service.
    Please take this in a constructive way, though I know it may be jumbled.
    I know your intention was neither to shame nor guilt grieving parents into “feeling better now”… but I did get the vibe, as I’m only 7 months out, that I need to skip some important stuff in my grief journey.
    I don’t nor have I ever felt like a victim, but much of my identity is this deep sorrow. I feel like that needs to be ok. Years from now, if that’s still where I am, it needs to be ok. I have worked towards healing every day… but I refuse to rush it. If I hurry past all the raw, painful stuff, it will surely come back to haunt me later on. I don’t think that grief is a hurdle to get over. It’s a lifelong process, like a friend that you carry around! You’ll always miss a piece of your heart until you go Home, and I feel that however you handle that ache needs to be accepted. I don’t think anyone CHOOSES to be sad forever, no one would choose this path in life.

    I do believe that we have rights to not show up to family holidays for as long as we feel we should stay away. I do believe that we have rights to not hide our pain just so that others are comfortable as long as we need to.
    Because “time” does not heal all wounds. If 10 years from now we still can’t show up to family functions because it is truly too painful for us, that needs to be ok. There is no timer on when a baby lost person should function according to society… And I feel like the worst perpetrators of that clock are other bereaved parents. No one’s grief journey looks the same.. Just my thoughts, and I do feel they are valid, even though I guess I am not the intended audience. I just feel that this might be a little condescending to those who are further out than me and have not reached the life of joy and gladness.

    Its hard enough to live without your child knowing that people who have no idea how you feel view you as “that woman”. Its even more painful when someone who knows how you feel views you as “that woman”. Be kind to one another.

    • I just don’t like the way grief is treated like a sickness. Words like “recovery”, phrases like “that’s what adults do” make it sound like something is wrong with us and we don’t know how to be adults. There’s nothing wrong with us! We just miss our kids.

      • I don’t view grief as a disease. But what I experienced was traumatic. I was hurt, wounded in a deep way. I had to work to recover from my deep wounds. And yes, there is a scar. I am changed. I miss my son. I will grieve his loss until I die.

        My grief changed me, but it does not define or control me as it did in those early days and months. That’s what I mean by recovery.

    • M,

      My intention is never to shame or condemn another. I only share my thoughts and my experience in hopes that what I write might help and give hope to others.

      Our grief journey is going to be unique. Our children were unique, their lives were unique. Their deaths were unique.

      I don’t put a time limit on grief, in, part, because I know I will miss my son until I die.

      Yes, you have the right to do whatever you think best.

      Especially in the early stages of grief, we must set safe boundaries and carefully chose to do what we can handle. Self-care is important.

      I’m sorry for the loss of your child. I pray you find comfort in Christ.

    • Miss M – Sorry for the rawness of your loss. Glad you are wiling to feel it and do your best to carry on, in whatever way you feel comfortable.


      6 years, 5 month, 16 days

  • It was hard to read this, mainly because truth can be painful.

    I belong to several online bereavement support groups, some non-Christian, and I see a tendency to so fully embrace the “loss parent” identity that it becomes consuming. I don’t want to be known as “That Mom” forever. I don’t want my son’s death to define me, affect every single decision I will ever make again, turn me into a perpetual victim who can’t stop feeling sorry for herself.

    Am I forever changed? Yes, and I’m hoping some of those changes are positive.

    I’ve also seen “grief trolls,” people who latch on to a loss parent and to champion their cause, thinking that they’re helping. In a lot of cases, it just seems to postpone any healing that will take place.

    And it will come, the healing. It will never be complete, not until I hold my son again, but I know I will find joy again.

  • Thank you and your sons for their service. I am so grateful. I know nothing about being a vet, but I am 2 years into this bereaved parent thing. I work, I go to church, I laugh, I vacation, I make plans. I hold on to my faith as best I can as it is recovering from the blow of losing my daughter. It is a process.

    I don’t have peace or joy, but maybe someday. My ability to tolerate and even enjoy sound, color, nature and beauty has gradually returned.

    But I absolutely still choose what gatherings I will participate in– we chose to ignore Christmas again for the 2nd time and it was the right decision for us. My husband went to church during Advent, but I did not. We did go to family Thanksgiving.

    I agree with the tenant of avoiding living into a label, but I believe that is very important to set boundaries for yourself and others. And to be aware of your needs–are you an introvert or an extrovert? We grieve differently. Are there young children in your life who need you to celebrate the holiday or are they older and choosing a family trip to the beach is a good alternative? It is a giant balancing act and it looks different for each of us AND it looks different at various time points.

    And I so agree that recognizing you’re not alone is so helpful! I am grateful for the counseling I’ve had, the books and articles I’ve read, for friends who’ve walked this path before me and for the While We’re Waiting Facebook group.

    • Julie this is Joanne Taran’s mom. AMy husband I is a Nam vet he still shows signs of Ptsd I myself had to recover from Ptsd we are different in only one way I have sought help and a truer closeness to Jesus Christ Tarans was alone at Christmas time
      He said he was avoiding anything close to Christmas

  • Kathleen, you both look amazing. I know the VA is a service that provides assistance to Veterans of war but never knew much about Vets as such. Thank you for sharing !

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