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3 Tips for Dealing With Military Loss

Knowing what to do or say when a serivcemember is killed can be tricky and uncomfortable. You want to do and say the right thing – but what is that? And how do you do it?

As we have seen recently, there is a wrong way and a right way to go about dealing with loss in the military and sharing your condolences with the family and friends of those killed. Let’s call the incident in which a young Army spouse learned of her husband’s death via text message what it is: an epic lapse in judgment on the part of the person who sent the message.

The first time someone I knew lost their servicemember I had no clue how to deal with it or what to say. Was I supposed to drive to her house and tell her I was sorry? Was I supposed to send a card? What about a phone call? What if she didn’t want to be disturbed? When I ran into her on base should the first thing I say be “I’m so sorry” or should I just ignore the elephant in the room and treat her like nothing had changed?

Tragic death and loss are a fact of military life, whether the country is at war or not. No matter how it comes, loss is not easy – and all who go leave behind survivors in the form of spouses, children, parents, extended family and friends.

Someday you will be probably be encountered with someone who has sacrificed a loved one for our country. Use our tips to know what to say and when and how to say it.

1. Don’t Speak Too Soon

The military has in place a tried and true notification process for informing military family members of loss with dignity and honor. For the sake of everyone involved, please give that process a chance to run its course. If you find out a servicemember in your unit has been killed, make sure the Department of Defense has released the name and information surrounding that person’s death before contacting the family. Those releases are posted 24 hours after the notification of the last next-of-kin has been made.

Even if you feel like you have given the military more than enough time to notify the family properly, make sure you are not beating the casualty notification team to the job. Spouses who move home or parents who live in remote areas, far from any military installation, can take longer for the military to contact. If the unit has the wrong contact information for the family, a next of kin lives out of the country or the family has gone on vacation without updating anyone of their temporary address, notification can take many days.

If you are a close friend of the spouse or family will probably call you and ask you to come themselves. Don’t assume anything. Play it safe and give the official process time to work.

Don’t know how to find out if that DoD announcement has been made? Visit their press release site and search for the servicemember’s name.  If their death has been published, the announcement will come up.

Respecting this process is a part of observing operational security. Not up-to-date on the whole operational security thing? Learn more about it from the US Army.

2. Know how to say the right thing

… But what could “the right thing” possibly be in a situation like this? To answer this question we turn to Joanne Steen, an expert and speaker on military loss as well as a military widow herself.

 Here is what she told us:

“When we come across a family of the fallen we really want to say and do the right things. We don't want to make a mistake, we want to make sure we say something that’s going to convey our appreciation to them. Very often when we come across families we either try to fix their grief or give them hope. And in reality they may not be ready to have their grief fixed or ready to embrace a hopeful statement about the future. So what works extremely well … is that when we meet someone who has just had a death in their family, a good thing to say is ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ because it conveys our sympathy, our condolences.

"A better thing to say is ‘I’m sorry for the loss of your husband,' 'your wife,' 'your son,' 'your daughter,’ because not only have we conveyed our condolences but then we’ve now personalized the relationship.

"The best thing to say is 'I’m sorry for the loss of your husband, John.' 'I’m sorry for the loss of your daughter, Sarah.' 'I'm sorry for the loss of your father, Keith.' Because now what we’ve done is expressed our condolences, identified the relationship and then personalized them. You notice what I didn’t say is 'I’m sorry for the loss of your son, Pvt. Jones.' To the family he’s Bobby first, and Pvt. Jones second.”

Go here to watch our video interview with Joanne Steen.

3. Use the right form of communication

How do you pick the right form of communication to tell someone you’re sorry for their loss? The key is to know your audience.

One of the most interesting things about this story is seeing how readers react to the idea of a “text message.”  Many are horrified that anyone would ever send thoughts of their sympathies over such an “impersonal” method of communication.

Let’s be clear: there is absolutely nothing wrong with a sending a text message to someone to say that you are sorry for their loss ... provided they are text messagers themselves. The problem in the above example was the message’s timing, not that it was sent at all.

But truly, a text message may not be the right way to communicate with everyone you know. Many young spouses today text message far, far more than they talk on the phone. But an older spouse may find text messages extremely distasteful.

Here is what one commenter on this post said about sending texts – and I very much agree with her:

My neighbor's dad died the other day. When she didn't show up to our walking group I wondered where she was... The other ladies told me what happened.

I sent her a text that said, "I am so sorry to hear about your Dad. I lost my father 2 years ago and I want you to know I am here and I understand."

When my Dad died phone calls often came when I was crying with my stepmother or making funeral arrangements. Voicemails were too raw and I couldn't make myself listen. But the texts, the texts I read and I appreciated.

I have lost no less than 12 friends to combat operations. Every educated spouse I know sends a text message asking:

When can I bring a meal? What time can I pick up the dog to take him for a run for you? I'm going to the park, let me take your children with me.

Still -- if you are unsure how a text message would be received and don’t know the best way to communicate your condolences, sending a sympathy card by mail is the safest, most effective way to go. If you don’t know the mailing address, the servicemember’s unit will likely be happy to collect and forward cards.

If you know the family member or friend doesn’t mind talking on the phone, call and leave a message. If you know them very, very well, call and ask if you can visit.

But first, more than anything else -- remember rule number one and don't speak too soon.

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