Grief is something we all experience at some point in our lives. It comes in different forms and looks different for everyone. For our veterans it is a battle they continue to fight daily, even years after returning home.
In this guide, we are going to dive deeper and look at how grief and loss affect our military veterans. We’ll explore what it looks like, talk about helpful coping strategies, and available resources.
What Types Of Loss Can Cause Grief For A Veteran?
Veterans deal with many different types of loss. They experience death and injury and personal challenges at home. Grief does not discriminate and shows itself in many different forms.
While serving, they face death daily. They experience major grief over military brothers and sisters they witnessed lose their lives. There is also grief over civilians or enemy soldiers whose lives were taken due to the war.
Most people only deal with grief from death a handful of times in their life. Military veterans are faced with death each and every day.
Grief can also take the form of the loss of a relationship at home. Military life is not for the faint of heart and puts a strain on the strongest marriages and relationships. A recent analysis of U.S. Census Data from Zippia found the highest divorce rate was for first-line enlisted miliary supervisors.
They had a divorce rate of 30%. Many veterans experience loss from the battle itself and experience loss at home due to the stress and strain of the job.
It is important to seek out the right resources that you and your partner and lean on for support when going through and dealing with major transitions at home.
Injuries are common among military veterans and come with their own kind of grief. Injuries can result in loss of their career and impact their day-to-day functioning and capabilities. This results in grieving over the loss of the life they envisioned and lived prior to the injury.
Military injuries can be anything from hearing loss to a lost limb. It’s important to recognize how injury and grief connect together and are related to each other.
Statistics show veterans are at higher risk of suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from witnessing and experiencing traumatic events. PTSD can rob them of being able to function normally once returning home and cause issues in their relationships.
Veterans with PTSD will likely experience symptoms of prolonged and complicated grief. This includes unhealthy levels of guilt, emotional numbness, and feelings of emptiness. This kind of grief leads to loss of identity and isolation, because they feel like they can’t move forward from their grief.
CHANGE OF RANK
A shift or change in military rank can result in feelings of loss or grief. Whether due to injury or unforeseen circumstances, having to change rank can be a huge loss for someone serving in the military. Many men and women spend years of service working their way up to positions with higher rank.
Due to the nature of the job, there are many obstacles that can derail and cause a change. These result in feelings of grief over the years of work put in and a loss of control over their own career path.
TRANSITION CHALLENGES AT HOME
When returning home from deployment, many military men and women are met with another battle that begins at home. Transitioning from life at war to normal civilian life at home is not easy. Many experience symptoms of PTSD and have spent months or even years away from their spouse or partner.
They are having to rebuild their relationships and normal day to day activities might seem overwhelming. This can result in feelings of anger or resentment along with grief over the things they might have lost while being away.
What Types Of Loss Can Cause Grief For A Veteran?
Prolonged and complicated grief can cause symptoms of anxiety in military veterans. This includes anxious feelings and thoughts when their grief is triggered by things that remind them of the trauma they experienced.
Anxiety can present itself in many ways and is unique for every person. Some veterans might struggle in large crowds or might struggle being alone.
They can also experience restlessness and not being able to stay in one place for too long. At its worst, anxiety can result in panic type symptoms, such as fast heart rate, shortness of breath, dry mouth, and nausea.
Many veterans struggle with anger and irritability stemming from PTSD and trauma. Most have a difficult time identifying and processing their feelings. Connecting their symptoms to PTSD, trauma, and grief can prove to be a challenging process.
If they do not have the right help and resources to help manage these emotions, they can take out their frustrations and anger on other people, because that is the only way they know how to cope.
Panic attacks are a common occurrence for many military veterans. They are the result of prolonged grief, stress, anxiety, and trauma. These look like recurrent, unexpected episodes of intense fear or discomfort.
Symptoms that may accompany panic attacks are heart palpitations, difficulty breathing, a racing or pounding heart, and numbness or tingling. This makes them feel out of control or even that their life is at risk.
Recurrent panic attacks cause them to worry about having more attacks and they will often try to prevent them by isolating themselves and avoiding situations that could cause one. This limits their ability to experience and enjoy life.
DETACHMENT FROM LOVED ONES
Complicated grief is something that many veterans experience. In complicated grief, painful emotions are severe and long lasting. They make it difficult to recover from the loss and resume your own life.
One symptom of complicated grief is detachment from loved ones. It is difficult to carry out normal routines which results in isolation from others and withdrawing from social activities.
LOSS OF FAITH
Due to the level of trauma experienced, a loss of faith is not uncommon for veterans. It can be difficult to maintain spiritual practice when they have witnessed such severe pain and loss. A lack of faith results in a less hopeful outlook and consequently feeds into other unhealthy symptoms.
Some research has suggested that approximately 14 to 16 percent of U.S. service members deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan have PTSD or depression. In addition to experiencing severe grief, reliving traumatic experiences makes it hard for some veterans to focus and carry out normal daily tasks.
Depression can make them feel hopeless and they can lose interest in things they once loved.
GUILT OR REGRET
Only a veteran knows what they experienced during their deployment. Returning from duty means different things for each of them. Survivor’s guilt can be part of the transition from military to civilian life.
Survivor’s guilt is a specific kind of guilt that develops when someone has survived a life-threatening situation. Some veterans feel like they could have done more to save the lives of others or that it is unfair that they got lucky, and others didn’t.
In an effort to cope with the intense grief and loss, some veterans may result to unhealthy and addictive behaviors. These can include alcohol and substance abuse issues. Studies show that around 50 percent of people who have PTSD also have a substance use disorder.
Developing addictive behaviors is something many veterans must be mindful of and work to avoid.
Does Everyone Grieve The Same Way?
Just as grief looks different for every person, it looks different for every veteran. How someone responds emotionally and physically to grief varies of person to person.
There is no right or wrong way to go through the grieving process. Some may experience emotions like crying or rage. They could withdrawal and need space. Others may grieve with less intense emotions.
These different ways or patterns of grief are just that; they are different. No pattern is better or worse. They are just expressions of the fact that each person copes with loss in a personal way. It is healthy to grieve in your own way and in a way that is healthiest and best for you.
How Does Loss & Grief Affect A Military Veteran Differently?
DIFFERENT KINDS OF LOSSES
Grief impacts a veteran in different ways than a regular civilian. The losses that are associated with war are unique and can compound over their time in service.
Witnessing death in war is a different and traumatic experience that comes with its own unique challenges. Injury, relationship loss, and PTSD are also types of grief that veterans have to face.
Experiencing extreme survivor’s guilt is something that many veterans face when they finally make it home. Thoughts like “it should have been me” or “they deserve to be here instead of me”, are common themes for veterans who are suffering from survivor’s guilt.
Veterans build close relationships with those they are in combat with. Sometimes even closer than their own family. The trauma and loss of military brothers and sisters in combat is something they can struggle with for the rest of their life.
Some soldiers feel guilt and like they could have done more to save another soldier in combat. This can exacerbate depression and PTSD that they already might be struggling with. It is a journey for a veteran to accept things that they can and cannot control.
INJURY & DISABILITY
Many veterans become injured or disabled during their duty. This comes with long lasting grief and life changing adjustments. Some injuries are life-long and change their day-to-day functioning.
Military injuries can include gunshot wounds, lost limbs, head and brain injuries, tinnitus and hearing loss, sprains and strains, and limited range of motion.
This can cause veterans to get stuck in the grief, because the injury or disability is a constant reminder of their loss.
War and trauma affect how the brain can process and respond to certain emotions. Soldiers are taught to disconnect from their emotions in order to survive. They typically live in a state of fight or flight and can experience different forms of trauma responses.
They can also experience disassociation when trying to work through or process trauma. This looks like a disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity. For many, dissociation is a natural response to trauma that they can’t control.
How Can You Help Yourself Or Another Veteran Deal With Loss & Grief?
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF
Self-care is a huge part of the healing journey and processing through grief. Giving yourself permission to sit with your emotions and feel them, however long that takes, is part of the grieving process.
Self-care is prioritizing your physical and mental well-being. Until you take care of yourself you won’t be able to fully invest in others or reach your maximum potential. There are a few ways you can implement self-care in your daily routine.
Maintain A Healthy Diet
Eating a balanced diet is an important part of caring for yourself. Fueling your body with the right nutrients is important to maintaining good physical and mental health.
Here are some helpful tips for maintaining a healthy diet:
The basis of your meals should be high fiber starchy carbohydrates. This includes rice, bread, potatoes, pasta, and cereals. Choosing high fiber or whole grain varieties is the best option.
Eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. It’s recommended you eat a least five portions of fruits and vegetables every day.
Incorporate more fish into your diet. Fish is a good source of protein and contains a great number of vitamins and minerals. Eating 2 portions of fish a week is recommended. Especially, oily fish which are high in omega-3 fats.
Limit saturated fat and sugar. It’s important to limit saturated fat in your diet. It can increase the amount of cholesterol in your blood which puts you at risk for heart disease. Saturated fat is found in many foods like fatty cuts of meat, butter, and sweets.
Decrease sugar. Sugary foods, which are often high in energy, can contribute to weight gain. They can also cause tooth decay. Many packaged and processed foods contain high amounts of sugar.
Eat less salt. The recommended salt intake for adults is six grams a day. Eating too much salt can result in high blood pressure. Almost three-quarters of the salt you eat is already in food when you buy it. Be sure to check the food labels to help you cut down
Do not skip breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day and can help you get the nutrients you need to sustain you throughout your day. A balanced breakfast is high in fiber and low in fat.
Drink water. Drinking water helps flush your system and it is recommended you drink six to eight glasses every day.
Get Plenty Of Sleep
Getting adequate rest is important for day-to-day functioning. When someone has experienced an immense amount of grief and trauma the physical body suffers as well. Resting the body is crucial to physical and mental recovery.
Having a nightly routine is important to maintaining healthy sleep. Taking time to wind down and turning off electronics early is a good way to get good and adequate rest.
It’s recommended that adults get eight hours of sleep, but you will find what your body needs and what works best for you.
When you move your body and exercise it releases endorphins which in return help combat things like depression and anxiety. It is important to get regular exercise to keep your body and mind healthy.
Going for a run or even just a walk is a great way to get your body moving and release pent up emotions or trauma that can be stored in the tissues.
Some other alternatives to exercise would be activities like yoga or gardening. Water activities like kayaking or canoeing can also be a great form of release. Outdoor activities are another beneficial way to boost endorphins and can have to same great effect as exercise.
Get A Massage
Massage therapy has been shown to reduce stress and increase relaxation. It decreases pain, muscle soreness, and tension. It can improve energy, circulation, and increase alertness. It can also increase immune function, lower your heart rate, and blood pressure.
Even if it is just once a month, regular massage therapy has been proven to have significant and lasting positive impacts on your emotional and mental health.
Meditation & Yoga
Combining yoga and meditation helps someone have a sense of control not only in their physical and mental fitness levels but also their emotional state. Practicing yoga and meditation can help someone maintain a calm and collected state most of the time.
It is recommended to start and end your day with some form of mediation or yoga as it sets the intention for your day and helps calm down your nervous system so you can get restful sleep.
ASK FOR SUPPORT
Asking for support requires a level of vulnerability and can be difficult to do but having a support system is important when going through any major life change, trauma, or grief. Whether you lean on your friends, family, or outside resources it’s important to have people around you who can support and encourage you in your healing journey.
Finding the right support is something that you will need to invest time and effort in doing. Don’t be afraid to distance yourself certain people or systems that don’t feel like they are working for you.
It may take time or going through a few different counselors to find the right fit for you. Finding community or a support group is something that can seem challenging at first, but is very beneficial to your overall grief and recover journey.
Writing in a journal is great way to release and process emotions. It encourages space for negative feelings. Journaling evokes mindfulness and helps the writer remain present while invoking perspective. It presents the opportunity for emotional catharsis and helps the brain regulate emotions.
Here are some helpful journal prompts that are a good place to start.
- One thing I want to remember about them is…
- One cause they were passionate about is…
- If you could tell your loved one about your day, what would you tell them?
- Today, I miss…
- Write about where you feel your grief in your body. Where does your grief stay?
- One thing I wish I could do over with them…
- Describe a memory with your loved one that makes you laugh…
- I feel most connected with my loved one when…
Filling your time with work and activities you enjoy is important when processing through trauma and grief. Having an outlet to release emotions and fill time can help reduce the symptoms of PTSD, trauma, and grief.
It can be challenging to put yourself out there and try a new hobby, but once you find something that works for you, it can be very beneficial to your overall mental health.
Even if it just a few hours a week, taking time to do something that brings you joy can be invaluable to your mental health.
REVISIT PAST HOBBIES & ACTIVITIES
When someone goes through a life changing experience, like a veteran returning home from service, it can feel like their life looks completely different. It can be challenging to jump back into past hobbies or activities they used to love.
Revisiting those outlets is encouraged as it can help spark a sense of familiarity of something they once enjoyed.
BE THERE TO LISTEN
Many veterans and those recovering from grief, PTSD, and trauma need a listening ear. They need someone to listen to them and hear their experiences. Sometimes just voicing and speaking their stories is an important part of the healing process.
Joining a support group or meeting regularly with other veterans who are experiencing the same kind of grief and loss can be a great starting point. This gives an opportunity to voice your trauma and emotions with people who have an understanding and can be empathetic in a way others can’t.
HAVE A MEMORIAL OR KEEPSAKE MADE
After the death of close loved one, having a memorial or keepsake made in honor of their memory can be helpful in the healing process and can help keep their memory close. It’s something you can keep close to you while you go through the grief process.
Cremation jewelry and keepsakes hold a small piece of your loved one’s ashes in a built-in compartment. You can fill your cremation jewelry or keepsake in the comfort of your own home.
Many surviving relatives and spouses purchase cremation jewelry to feel closer to their loved one physically and in spirit. It can help them feel like their loved one is still with them in a physical and spiritual sense.
Many people say cremation necklaces help them carry the memory of their loved one close to their heart.
Photo Engraved Jewelry
Photo engraved jewelry is a popular way to carry your loved one’s memory with you. Laser engraving technology delicately engraves your loved one’s image on your choice of jewelry or keepsake.
A keepsake of piece of jewelry that is photo engraved can help keep the memory of your loved one alive longer. It can be helpful to have something you can carry with you with their image on it.
We are also able to engrave their name or a special message on the piece if that is something you desire.
A thumbprint is the most unique part of a person. Thumbprint jewelry allows you to carry that unique part of your loved one on your person wherever you are.
Your loved one’s thumbprint can be engraved on pendants, keychains, and more. Thumbprint jewelry is a unique memorial keepsake that allows you to keep their memory alive in a more visual way.
Jewelry Made From Ashes
You can carry your loved one’s ashes with you in the form of a ring, necklace, pendant, or more. Jewelry made from ashes incorporates your loved one’s ashes into the design of the jewelry itself.
We put the utmost care and attention into each piece of handcrafted jewelry. We ensure your loved one’s ashes are handled appropriately and incorporated into the stone set of your jewelry. Jewelry made from ashes is deeply personal and can help aide you in your grief and healing process.
What Professional Resources are Out There for Veterans to Help Them to Deal with Loss and Grief?
YOUR PRIMARY CARE PROVIDER
Your primary care physician is a great place to start when you are dealing with trauma, loss, and grief. Your primary care physician is someone you see on a regular basis and they know the most about you and your health history. They can run the necessary tests to make sure your everything is ok with your physical health.
They can also point you in the right direction to other resources that can help with your mental and emotional health.
It’s important to check with your local veteran’s association for resources that might be available to you. The VA has variety of mental health resources, treatment options, and more that are all accessible to veterans.
They offer bereavement counseling and grief support groups that could be beneficial to you in your healing journey. Taking advantage of the resources provided to you is a great first step to investing in yourself and your mental and physical health.
MEET WITH A PRIEST, CLERGYMAN OR OTHER SPIRITUAL LEADER
Spiritual leaders in your community are a great resource for dealing with grief and loss. Many people find that implementing spiritual practice in their daily routine is very beneficial in their healing journey.
Feeling more connected spiritually to deceased loved ones can help someone cope with their trauma, grief, and loss. This can look like regularly attending worship services. It can also look like implementing things like meditation and prayer into your daily routine.
US DEPARTMENT OF VETERANS AFFAIRS
The department of veteran affairs has programs that benefit veterans and members of their families. It offers things like education opportunities and rehabilitation services. They also provide compensation payments for disabilities or death related to military service, home loan guaranties, pensions, burials, and health care that includes nursing home services, clinics, and medical centers.
Military Grief Frequently Asked Questions
Why do Veterans Grieve Differently When They Suffer a Loss?
Veterans grieve differently because they experience different types of grief that are related to their time in service. They can deal with the loss of a comrade who has died, survivor’s guilt, the transition from active duty to civilian life, physical disability, and mental health challenges.
Quite often these losses pile up over the period of time they serve, and many veterans serve in wars, which compound the losses even further. Their grief can come out in many different ways. This often includes addictive behaviors, anger, loss of sleep, and other ways the body tries to process or handle the stressors of grief after the fact. Without proper treatment these can follow a veteran for most if not all of their lives.
Does the VA Offer Bereavement Counseling?
The veteran’s association does offer free bereavement counseling for veterans, their surviving spouse, child, or parent. Bereavement counseling which is also sometimes called grief counseling provides assistance and support for those going through psychological and emotional stress after the loss of a loved one.
The VA offers these services at community-based Vet centers, in your home, or another location that feels most comfortable to you.
What Do I Say to a Grieving Veteran?
It’s sometimes difficult to know what to say to someone who is grieving. You mean well, but if your words aren’t chosen wisely, you can hurt someone who’s already suffering from loss.
You may be close to someone who is a military family or have friends who have experienced loss through miliary service. It is hard to watch a veteran mourn the loss of their comrade. It’s uncomfortable to watch a mother cry for her son. Sometimes it’s easier to not acknowledge your friend’s pain for what it is: grief.
For veterans feelings of grief arise frequently, so it’s common to be met with the emotions surrounding their grief on a regular basis. It’s important to know how to connect with them. When talking with a grieving veteran it’s important to acknowledge their loss and speak words that are comforting. Most importantly, listening goes a long way. Give them a chance to voice and speak their emotions and meet them with a calm and comforting ear.
How Can I Help a Grieving Veteran?
Grief will take many shapes for your family member or friend. Recognizing the types of grief, they may be experiencing and how they respond is important in knowing how to help them. Here are some ways you can help them through their grief.
Acknowledge Their Loss. It can be uncomfortable for you to recognize their pain, but it is important, and they will appreciate you for it. Showing as much love and support as you can is usually all they need. It’s nice to have someone to listen or give them a hug and say, “I’m here”. That’s one of the best things a friend can do. Your willingness to acknowledge their loss says you’re open to walking beside them during their journey.
Listen to Them. Listen to them and look for signs of what they might need. It can sometimes be difficult for them to recognize and voice their needs. It’s helpful to have a listening and empathic ear. Try to put yourself in their shoes and think about what you might need or find helpful if you were in their situation and then act on it. Taking the time to sit with someone and be a calming and reassuring presence can do more than you could ever imagine.
Voice Comfort. Your family member or friend is at the center of a grief shockwave. You should meet them with as much comfort as possible and resist the urge to project or talk about how your own problems relate to theirs. When you talk with them, speak comfort. Initially try to not to bring your pain to your grieving friend in an effort to not overwhelm or exacerbate what they are already feeling.
Learn About Grief. Research more specifically on grief. How it works, what it looks like, and helpful tools you can use when faced with it. Veterans are 6 percent of the current US population. It will be helpful to learn both about the military and grief. The popular five stages of grief came from a model that never meant to describe how the average person deals with loss or grief. It was originally published to describe terminally ill patients facing their own deaths. That’s what the military created the four tasks of grief. It was developed by psychologists William Worden and Therese Rando. These tasks are meant to encourage the person grieving to take an active role in their own grieving process.
- Accepting the Reality of the Loss. Understanding that a loss has happened can be more profound than one thinks.
- Mourning the Death of a Loved One. Grief is the internal feeling and mourning is the outward expression and behaviors. It can take a long time to feel the emotional and sometimes physical pain before it lessens.
- Adjusting to the Environment. Learning to live in a new environment without a loved one can be challenging. It can be having to complete and learn tasks they once did or rearranging the house.
- Forming a New Identity. There is a lot of emotional energy invested in a relationship with a deceased military service member. That energy will need to be redirected into a new positive direction.
Is Grief Different for a Veteran?
Grief can have similar elements for a veteran but can also look very different. Everyone grieves in their own way, and it looks different for everyone. Veterans deal with different types of losses. Including death, loss of relationships, serious injury, witnessing traumatic events, changes in rank, and transition challenges at home.
Many veterans are also dealing with PTSD, which can compound their grief symptoms. Knowing there might be other elements at play in addition to their grief is important to keep in mind when interacting and trying to help a veteran dealing with grief. It’s important to recognize these unique elements and know when your veteran or friend might be experiencing grief from a different kind of loss.
Helping Our Veterans Heal
Loss and grief are something that almost every military veteran will experience. It’s important to be able to recognize the types of grief they may be experiencing and how it might manifest in their day-to-day life and actions. Understanding that everyone grieves differently, and each experience is unique. It is important to respect and honor each person’s wants and needs during their grieving process.
Having a strong support system is important to the long-term success of veterans coping with grief. Taking advantage of resources and educating yourself on grief is a great place to start. This will be beneficial in you knowing how to help yourself or someone else who is struggling with grief, trauma, and loss.
September 10, 2022 by Jeri K. Augustus