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Grief: A normal reaction to loss

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Sergio Carrillo
  • 376th Air Expeditionary Wing Chapel
We all have stories of tragic events in our lives, or tragic events from deployments. Throughout our days we will deal with grief. Unfortunately it is inevitable. The grief we feel is something we all share in.

Grief is the emotional suffering a person feels when someone or something they love is taken away. It is a normal reaction to a loss. Everyone grieves differently though. Some will process the event with initial shock, denial, anger, bargaining and finally, acceptance.

Often, our first reaction is shock. Shock is the mind's way of processing the news of a tragic loss. It helps us prepare for the emotions that we will feel after hearing or seeing the tragic event.

Denial is believing what we have just heard or seen cannot be true.

Anger is feeling that the tragic event is not fair, that the person or persons involved did not deserve it.

Bargaining is trying to figure out what we could have done to change the outcome; the feelings of, "what if?" Was there something I could have done or the person could have done differently to change the outcome.

The final stage of grief is acceptance. Acceptance is understanding that what we have heard or seen is true. It's where we say that what happened now has to be dealt with.

We can handle grief in only two ways -- positively or negatively. The positive way is by sharing with others the feelings we have. Just by sharing how sad we feel, how we are going to miss them or how unfair it is, will help us cope with our grief. The negative way is to hold it all in, maybe by telling ourselves, "I can handle it. I'm stronger than that," or worse, "I am too pissed off!"

I would like to share what I consider tragic events from my last deployment in Iraq and how I handled grief.

One of my duties as a chaplain's assistant is to accompany a chaplain to the theater hospital when there is a casualty. Over the five and a half months that I was deployed to Balad Air Base, we were called to the hospital to meet with Soldiers, Airmen and Marines who were wounded or killed.

In one incident, we were called to the theater hospital with a report of five casualties. When we reported to the emergency room, I was shocked to see three of the five Soldiers lying on hospital gurneys with doctors and nurses working to save their lives. There was blood on the floor, on nurses, on doctor's boots and on the Airmen's uniforms. You could sense the urgency and the desperation in the room.

I can recall seeing the face of one young nurse who was crying as she was helping the trauma team members try to save the lives of our brothers in arms. As hard as the doctors and nurses tried, the three soldiers died. The other two soldiers were wounded, but they survived their wounds.

After the three fallen warriors were put on clean gurneys, the two wounded soldiers, hospital staff and our chapel team were called to attention. The chaplain said a few words and we were all dismissed. Our chapel team performed a ramp ceremony that evening and the wounded soldiers were put on a transport plane with their fallen brothers to Germany.

Over the rest of my deployment we experienced further casualties, mortar attacks, rocket attacks, indirect fire, ramp ceremonies, R.E.A.C.H. missions and civilian casualties. The tragic events I experienced had changed my demeanor, especially when I returned home. I found I could not share my experiences with non-military people. I tried to man-up, tough it out and work it out. I found myself getting increasingly angry with those around me who couldn't know what I felt. I also found that certain sounds, surroundings, television shows and movies would trigger negative thoughts.

Our Chapel Corps teaches us that grieving comes through in the stages I explained earlier. But even with re-integration briefings, the Yellow Ribbon program, Military One Source, there is nothing like just being with those who have experienced a tragic event like you have. And those are the folks we should lean on. Isolating ourselves or self-medicating with drugs or alcohol will only increase the negative feelings.

In order to have a successful mission, we need our personnel to be successful. Good leaders will realize that we are not all the same. We all have different backgrounds, upbringings, life experiences, morals and religious beliefs. We are not all wired the same, but we do have one thing in common. We are all valuable members of a team. Whether we are here as Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors or Marines, we are part of this team. Though it may be tough to find those who are able to relate to our feelings, please recognize that we are not alone. Talk to someone who has been there such as a chaplain or mental health team. Together, we can get through the grieving process.