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4 Tips for Talking About Military Death

Military death paralyzed me. It was 2009 and our unit was taking hit after hit. I was surrounded by friends whose husbands would never come home -- and I didn't know what to say about military death. So instead, I said nothing. When I saw one of our Gold Star wives or family members, I made small talk about other stuff. And then I tried to hide so I didn't have to say anything. They didn't want to be reminded of the loss, I thought. I didn't need to bring it up and make things harder for all of us.

It didn't take long for me to realize that that was the exactly wrong approach. Hiding or simply not talking about the loss wasn't just making it so much harder for my friends -- it was making it harder for me to deal with the ramifications of those deaths in my own life. Those soldiers were my husband's friends. Their families were my friends. That loss was ours in a way, too. 

But it wasn't until I read Sheryl Sandberg's book, "Option B," that I heard the lessons I've learned about talking to the families of the fallen about their loss articulated in a way that was easy to share.

No matter who you are or where you are in your military journey, you will eventually encounter someone who has experienced a loss due to service. And now, thanks to Sandberg, you can know what to say. 

4 Tips for Talking About Military Death

1. Never ignore the Elephant in the room. I used to think that I was sparing my friends pain by not bringing up their loss. According to Sandberg, that is not the case. The Elephant in the room -- loss -- is there whether you acknowledge it or not. And guess what? You bringing it up isn't reminding the person of the death -- they are already thinking about it. Instead, not acknowledging it in some way can be like the dagger you were trying to avoid to start with. Saying nothing makes it seem like you have forgotten.

2. Ask "How are you today?" Of everything Sandberg said in her book, this was by far my favorite advice -- and the quickest way to give the Elephant the node he needs. When you say "How are you?" to someone who is clearly not OK, you risk trivializing the situation and ignoring the Elephant. But the addition of one simple word can change all of that. Instead of "how are you?" ask, "how are you today?" By adding "today" you give the simple acknowledgment that some days may be better than others, that there is something going on beyond what meets the eye -- that the Elephant is alive and well. 

3. Instead of asking what you can do, just do something. I'm always concerned that I will do the wrong thing, that I will somehow make matters worse. "Let me know if there's anything I can do" seems like it puts the ball in the other persons' court to tell me if I'm even wanted.

The truth, Sandberg notes, is that you are absolutely wanted. Just knowing that someone is doing something makes a difference.  So instead of asking what you can do, just do something. She gives the example of someone who texted a friend in grief to ask "what do you not want on a hamburger?" (instead of "can I bring you a hamburger" or "I'm bringing you a hamburger")  and another who told a friend spending time in the hospital with a loved one "if you need a hug I'll be in the hospital lobby for the next hour."

Doing something doesn't have to be complicated or expensive. Show-up with coffee. Ding-dong-ditch a gift card for takeout food on their doorstep. Offer a hug. Do something -- do anything.

4. Give them the chance to talk about their lost loved one. When Sandberg suggested giving those in grief the chance to talk about the person they lost, I nodded. Time and again I have heard my Gold Star friends say that they fear that the person they lost will be forgotten. Asking for a story is a way to make sure that does not happen. By talking about them you are not reminding your friend that their loved one is physically gone. They already know. Instead you are helping make sure their memory isn't gone, too. 

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