Christmas morning. It’s 5 a.m. and I am awake, not to the sounds of Santa Claus visiting our two ‘heart grandchildren,’ but to a growing sense that Jim and I are living within the true Christmas miracle, “Emmanuel,” God with us.
We are visiting at the Seattle home of Aaron Ausland who was married to our 25-year-old daughter Krista before her death while they were volunteering in Bolivia. Shadowed by profound sorrow during the bleak mid-winters of the first few Christmas seasons, I found solace in the modern translation of words from Psalm 51 that a friend sent.
“Heart shattered lives…by no means escape God’s notice.”
But this was more a hope than a sensed reality. There’s not a lot I remember about that first Christmas Eve, except that shortly before trying to get our families to a church service, the dishwasher backed up into the sink with a major plumbing issue. Already in such anguish over the absence of Krista, this relatively mundane inconvenience while preparing a special dinner plunged me into deeper distress. For the next few days, I just went through the motions of Christmas. No joy. Just emptiness.
SIXTEEN YEARS LATER
Finding how life has unfolded for Aaron and our family gives me a deeper trust in God’s faithful presence, the promise of Christmas.
So much goodness abounds. First, Aaron eventually returned to Bolivia where he met and married Gabriela, a compassionate, beautiful, intelligent woman. Her strong love for Aaron includes embracing us as extended family, a generosity of spirit that gifts our days. They live nearer since recently returning to the Northwest after working with World Vision in Colombia.
They have thoughtfully given us their bedroom for our visit and we are sleeping under an afghan lovingly knitted for Krista by my husband’s mother. She too has passed away.
During Christmas Eve dinner, Aaron and his sister show me the hand-made felt tree ornaments created by their mother Linda when they were children. She died during Aaron’s college years from breast cancer and he has called me his heart-mom ever since. Three months later I was also diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer.
But their home abounds with love. The losses become a part of their daily gratitude for each other. Their children, 9-year old Thiago and 4-year old Ava, fill their home with exuberant joy. They shared their tradition of reading from a rich collection of children’s Christmas books each night of Advent, culminating in the story in Luke of baby Jesus birth. Both children knew every detail in this biblical account, securely confident that the celebration of Christmas centered on God’s love for all people. Of course, they also looked forward to Santa’s coming, leaving the universal milk and cookies.
Aaron, who writes about his struggles in faith after seeing his wife’s violent death when their bus plunged over a cliff, walks with a quiet confidence and seasoned hope. He now serves as Chair of the Board for the Krista Foundation for Global Citizenship, along with his ongoing work with World Vision, primarily with an innovative project with youth in Rwanda. I have survived five years after another bout with breast cancer and live grateful for each day.
I am sharing this story because I remember how it seemed unimaginable in the early years of loss that life could unfold with joy-filled days again. Such is the miracle of God’s
Peace to each of you this Christmas Day!
Do you find that family rituals during holidays often increase joy, but also have the power to accentuate sorrow?
One of my favorite family traditions is the lighting of our five-candle Advent wreath on the four Sundays before Christmas. Advent comes from the word “adventus,” meaning ‘coming’ and the spirit encouraged is ‘expectant waiting.’ It orients us to prepare for the future with a confidence born of trust. The lighting of the 5th candle on Christmas Day offers a tangible act of gratitude celebrating the the birth of Jesus, called Immanuel, meaning “God with us.”
But when a family feels immersed in grief, it’s hard to imagine “expectant waiting” to be a positive emotion. Instead, especially during the first few Christmas’s after the loss of a loved one, it’s easier to almost dread times when our culture encourages “a Merry Christmas.” Our memories of past Christmas family times feel shattered by the reality of loss. Similar emotions surround festive days celebrated by families from all faith traditions. We’re all acutely aware of the empty place at the table.
“The last thing I felt like doing was decorating our house after Hunter died,” recalls Diana Graham, whose teenage son died the previous summer. “But I’m grateful my daughter kept mentioning, ‘Mom, let’s get the boxes out and put up our Christmas tree.'” She helped me remember how important such rituals are to other children in the family, perhaps especially during times of loss.”
To this day, over 15 years after our daughter Krista’s death, when we open the box of tree ornaments and hold ones she crafted as a child, or see ones with photographs with her brother and sister, my heart still stops momentarily. Of course, it’s possible to no longer keep these for the tree. But it seems far preferable to have moments of sorrow than ever try to erase her from family memory.
Facing our Fears
It’s intriguing to me that the British author C.S. Lewis, in his book A Grief Observed, understood how often such anxiety is our companion during loss. He candidly expressed, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.”
But what I also love when reading the Christmas narrative are the first words attributed to angels when speaking with Mary, and with the shepherds. “Be not afraid, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people.”
“Be not afraid” ?
Good news? Great joy? During sorrow, we’re rarely able to think of the future with hope. Instead, our hearts break recalling memories when the one we loved was near.
Such guidance involves an opening of our heart to trusting life again, and a conscious effort to not allow fear and dread to dominate. Instead, the Christmas narrative encourages a spirit of “bold expectant waiting.” Good will come again. Or as one woman who had lost a child years ago assured a newly grieving mother when her only son died, “You won’t always feel this bad.”
A faith (not a feeling) that, in time, if we allow our hearts to continue to trust and receive love, life will again hold much that is meaningful and good. Such a choice carries the power to replace fear.
Many parents have shared rituals that offered comfort in their remembrances, especially in the early hard years. Most are simple acts that nurture their sense of continuing bonds. One father mentioned that every Christmas he goes to his son’s gravesite and brings a small Christmas tree with battery lights. He talks to his son, sharing his everyday life. Since Krista loved all birds and animals, we often bring a peanut-butter infused pine cone with bird seed to place at her grave site.
For Dianna Hartvigsen, it took a conscious effort to reweave their family’s way of celebrating Christmas. For years she lived with shock and nearly overwhelming sorrow after the brutal murder of her 20-year-old daughter Dawnya by a disgruntled former employee at a Burger King restaurant. “I couldn’t imagine going out and buying stuff after this,” she recalls. Instead, she began a new tradition for their four other grieving children in their blended family.
“Dawnya loved literature and writing and won a Washington State poetry contest her senior year in high school,” recalls her mother. “I decided to give each of her brothers and sisters a Christmas book in her memory, something I could imagine Dawnya would want to give. I thoroughly enjoyed looking for just the right book for each sibling.” Some are books with beautiful illustrations, like The Polar Bear Express, The Mitten, Stranger in the Woods, and The Christmas Troll.
Some introduce them to the ways others celebrate, like The Amish Christmas, Christmas Day in the Morning, or The Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center. “They love the books and look forward to what I might select, so I’ve done this now for twenty years. I always write a short blessing for them in the book too. Now they read them aloud to their own children, and it’s kept the joy in Christmas and a way to remember Dawnya.”
Are there any rituals you’ve found give comfort and strength during these days of celebration?
Does serving in war have potential to cause “moral injury” to our soul? As our nation grapples with the escalating suicides of over 22 military men and women each day, this is a question both troubled veterans and a growing group of PTSD counselors are seeking to understand. I had never heard of “moral injury” as one of the potential causes of veteran’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder until recently.
Rather than grief over what happened to them, they live with grief over what they did to other human beings. At the core, it addresses the enormous pain men and women in the military feel when their fundamental understanding of right and wrong is violated. They live, often for years, with grief, numbness, guilt and shame over their actions.
Emerging as a relatively new term, it’s as old an experience as war itself. Soldiers from every war speak of this. Memories abound. A World War II 17-year-old submarine sailor lives his entire life recalling the day they destroyed an enemy carrier and weren’t allowed to pick up the screaming survivors drifting at sea; a Vietnam veteran continues having visual images of entire villages destroyed, knowing civilian casualties were inevitable; a Marine in Afghanistan continues to lament a split-second decision to kill an armed 13-year-old child during a firefight; or a platoon leader in Iraq suffers survivor guilt after a roadside blast kills comrades under his protection .
“Moral injuries,” explains former Army psychiatrist Elspeth Ritcher in a three-part Huffinton-Post series by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist David Wood, “are caused by a tortured conscience. You may not have done anything wrong by the law of war, but by your own humanity you feel that it’s wrong.” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/david-wood/.
ONE VETERAN’S STORY
This past week, I met with Larry Shook, a former editor of mine and highly respected journalist in Spokane, Washington. We sat in front of the comforting fireplace of the elegant Davenport Hotel, but the suffering from moral injury this Vietnam veteran describes is far from comforting. He articulates the sources of his PTSD so vividly, he helps you feel the external and internal violence and horror that erodes one’s soul. Larry, who entered the military with high enthusiasm to serve our country, fought in Vietnam during 1967-68 as a door gunner and crew chief on a helicopter gunship. In nine months, he logged 1200 combat hours, engaged in the Tet Offensive, and was shot down three times. “I saw and caused a lot of death. There’s a lot of imagery in 1200 hours. Imagine sitting in a darkened movie theater around the clock for eight weeks watching the most violent movie imaginable.”
He also found his heart captivated by the beauty of the land and the special innocence and spirit of the Vietnamese children. I understand since we have an adopted seven-year-old Vietnamese granddaughter who seems magical in spirit. But within months, his gung-ho enthusiasm took a radical shift. “Six months into the war, I was so haunted to know we were destroying their lives, their families, and their villages. I felt more like a war criminal. But I had to wall off these emotions and continue in our destruction every day.” His heart also harbored a competing emotion: his love for his fellow warriors. “I also felt immense loyalty and protection for those I served alongside.”
Last year, he gave a presentation at Spokane’s Unitarian church because he wants others to understand the full dimensions of PTSD with returning vets who need help. He said, “I saw Eden carpet-bombed by B-52s; Eden scorched with napalm; Eden seared with white phosphorous. I saw three little girls murdered in cold blood and why I didn’t kill their killers God will have to some day explain to me. So many times I heard men screaming at me in my headset to save their lives. So many times I saw them turned into bodies plastic wrapped in their own ponchos. I saw…oh, I saw so much.”
Such experiences gave him nightmares for years, all the while masking what he felt through his successful outward life as a loving husband, father, and creative journalist. “I put a mask on after returning from Vietnam. I pretended I didn’t hurt, pretended I was whole, pretended I was like everyone else. I hid, because I thought no one would want me in their life, not even my own family, if they knew who I had been in Vietnam. I thought I had no place else to go.”
But a couple of years ago, when a deer jumped in front of his car and her body parts exploded violently before him, his PTSD came roaring back. “I finally understood where my terror came from. It was a combination of shame and fear of being found out.” Now actively seeking healing and wholeness, he finds the writing of Dr. Edward Tick, a psycho-therapist who wrote about moral injury in War and the Soul especially insightful. He also finds deep meaning in helping other veterans in their journey to wellness.
Read One Veteran’s Story from Larry Shook here.
GROWING RECOGNITION for MORAL INJURY
Over 8000 vets commit suicide each year in America, far more than those killed in combat. The morally ambiguous attitudes towards recent wars adds to the complexity, compared to clear national support for World War II. Multiple deployments compound the pain. The diagnosis of PTSD has been defined and endorsed since 1980 by the mental health community. Though they share many similar symptoms of PTSD, veterans expressing moral injury add elements of profound sorrow and regret. The Defense Department doesn’t officially recognize moral injury; however, in light of the alarming number of suicides, interest appears to be growing within segments of the military. At the United States Naval Medical Center in San Diego, Amy Amidon, a staff psychologist, oversees its moral injury/moral repair therapy group. “They have seen the darkness within them and within the world, and it weighs heavily upon them.”
According to Woods, the Pentagon has quietly funded a $2 million clinical trial to explore ways to adapt PTSD therapies for Marines suffering from moral injury. William P. Nash, a retired Navy psychiatrist and a pioneer in stress control and moral injury believes many returning veterans bear this pain. “I would bet anything that if we had the wherewithal to do this kind of research we’d find that moral injury underlies veteran homelessness, criminal behavior, suicide.” He sees it akin to grief and sorrow, with lasting impact on individuals and their families that affects intimacy, trust in life, and sense of purpose. But he also believes that, in time, with awareness and intentional treatment that nurtures a positive identity infused with compassion and forgiveness, healing is possible.
His hope is that all veterans are treated as humans with souls, and not just drugged with antidepressants.
WHY THIS MATTERS
For each of you who love a veteran, plus clergy and counselors who hear their stories, I hope knowing more of this potential source of inner anguish will add insight to help in their healing. I’d really encourage you to read Doug Wood’s series in the Huffington-Post mentioned above and Larry Shook’s One Veteran’s Story for far more in-depth understanding. They deserve our best.