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Camp offers brief respite for grieving military families

Northwest Guardian

Published: 04:43PM January 18th, 2016

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors turned American Lake Conference Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord into a place of healing Saturday. The Northwest Regional Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp gave survivors of service members who passed away a weekend to seek help.

The weekend was spent eating meals together, attending seminars and going to workshops.

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors began in 1994 when Bonnie Carroll founded the program to help survivors of fallen heroes. Her husband passed away in an aircraft crash in Alaska. She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in November 2015 for her efforts in helping survivors.

“This is a place none of us wanted to be at on a Saturday morning,” Carroll said. “This is a place that we would rather not have reason to come to. But it is a place that I am so glad we have. It’s a safe place that is full of love and hope and connection.”

I Corps Commanding General Lt. Gen. Stephen Lanza spoke briefly at the event. He thanked Carroll and the rest of the staff from TAPS for putting the event together. He also thanked those who attended the event and sat in the audience.

“Today is about celebrating the life of your loved one because you all have something in common that most people in this nation will never experience — the loss of a loved one while they are in service to their country,” Lanza said. “That’s profound. First of all, that your loved one stepped up and said, ‘I want to serve my nation,’ and then when we lost them. I hope today you can find some comfort and healing while coming together today and tomorrow.”

Carroll went on to talk about the importance of coming together and sharing with those who’ve had similar experiences. She said it helps survivors through feelings of loneliness and also gives them a space to share and remember those they lost.

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors member Emily Munez used the story of the Soldiers who stormed the beaches at Normandy as a metaphor for dealing with loss. Grief does not follow a simple line or plan, she said, similar to how battles rarely stick to what each side wants to happen. Instead, it is important to understand that everyone deals with grief differently and goes through the processes to find a new normal, Munez said.

“I’m sure at least one person has heard, ‘You should be over it,’ or ‘It’s over.’ But it doesn’t work that way,” she said.

Workshops focused on doing activities together in small groups to share stories. People wrote down on post-it notes what they wanted to say during the meetings for each group to ensure it was said. Resources including hotlines, nonprofits and where to go to handle financial issues after loss were available. Every participant was also given tools to overcome the obstacles from living with a loss.

There were also seminars for children to attend to help them express loss in their own way.

Dr. Frank Campbell spoke about how children experience crisis.

“They just feel what they feel, whether it’s happy or sad or mad or a mixture of all three,” he said. “They just get it out and then move onto play basketball. There is no acceptable mourning period or way to cope; they just feel what they need to. That’s important.”

Adults need to be able to express these feelings and find healthy ways to deal with them, according to Campbell. But first, much like putting an oxygen mask on yourself before helping others put them on during a flight, it’s important to take care of yourself, Campbell said.

He used a four-legged stool as a metaphor. The first leg is to participate in one or more supportive communities who are there to listen or help. The second represents physical wellness, by taking care of the aches and pains that come with grief. The third means control over daily activities, such as getting up, having breakfast and having a routine. The last leg is creating a productive and healthy life full of activities you enjoy doing. This, he said, would lead to a healthy new normal for the whole family.

“So the term ‘self-care’ may sound selfish, but it is not,” Campbell said. “It’s important to show your children and others how to get themselves through this grief in order to help

them.”

With all of the personal sharing and emotional energy, the room changed between morning and evening sessions. Carroll said it’s always amazing to witness a group of people silent in the morning having dinner together later.

“Everyone is much more animated and laughing, and the energy is completely different,” Carroll said. “That’s what we are aiming to do — create that family of support for those who have lost heroes.”

For more information, visit TAPS.org. The number for the 24-hour helpline is 800-959-TAPS (8277).