Why We Veterans Must Learn How to Grieve

by Eric Burleson in Life, Mental Heath, Veteran

I remember reading Dan Millman’s The Way of the Peaceful Warrior years ago, before I was a military veteran. The book provided lots of useful tools for me to manage a flood of painful experiences. If it weren’t for those tools, I wouldn’t have given the book a second thought. I’d just dismiss it as worthless.

Several things about the book annoyed me. The jokes were bad, the writing was weak, and I hated the apparent interweaving of fantasy and reality. The main characters did something like magic but sort of alluded to it not being magic at all. I hate when it’s unclear to me whether to take something seriously or when the medium of a message or its delivery gets in the way of the message itself.

But these didn’t bother me nearly as much as the apparent oxymoron of the “peaceful warrior”. What the hell is a “peaceful warrior”? This idea ate at me so much that I didn’t really appreciate much of what the book had to say. For one thing, I wasn’t a “peaceful warrior”. There was nothing peaceful about the war I intended to wage against the enemies of the United States, and I was proud of that.

So I set the book and its lessons aside, taking only a few things I felt had real application. “Peaceful Warrior” may be good for people who want to pretend that their business, or teaching high school, or marriage is war. It was (almost) worthless for those for whom “warrior” means “someone who goes to war”, and not metaphorically.


Working Through the Pain

For most of my readers, it’s a given that you have been through basic military training of some sort. So as you know in basic training, you go through an exercise program. Try to remember the experience of basic training–in all of its messy and emotional glory–because it provides a foundation to explain the point I’m trying to make.

In basic training, you undoubtedly went through an “adjustment period” with respect to your muscles. You couldn’t do certain things, but as you got stronger, you could. Your body adapted to the stress of experiencing exercise. Eventually, you could do more. It was likely more than you ever thought you were capable of doing.

Recruits low-crawling through mud.

Funny. By the time you got to this point, it didn’t even seem all that bad.

If you carried on this habit of intense exercise, you probably continued to grow in ways you never expected. You may even have reached the beautiful point where you realize that you will never be “strong enough”. Your sense of strength will just evolve as you age, and your goals will continually change.

But think back to your ideas of what it would be like once you did get “strong enough”. I remember thinking that when I got “strong enough”, I would be able to run/jump/fight/pushup/shoot/whatever, and I wouldn’t give it a second thought. Doing the thing I wanted to do that was hard would be easy, and it would feel like easy things now. For example, I would curl 40 pounds, but it would feel like 10 pounds. I would do 100 pushups, but it would feel like 20.

Looking back now and remembering what it actually feels like in the moment, I realize I was tricking myself. We like to think that our idea of what a weight or speed feels like will change. The fact is that the perception of those levels of actual work never changes. The only thing that changes is how hard or easy we think they are.

To be clear, when you start out and 135 feels like a tough bench, you might think that when you hit 225, 135 will feel like just a bare bar. The truth is that 135 always feels like 135. You’re just stronger now, and 135 is easier. You get recalibrated.


The Depressing Fact About Antidepressants

Seriously, WTF are you talking about?!? Dear reader, your thought-bubble betrays your impatience. Stay with me.

Our society puts a high premium on logic and rationality. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing at all. A focus on objective reality can help us to make better decisions more consistently. The problem is that the pendulum has swung so far in that direction that any talk about emotions at all is considered illogical. Therefore, there’s an unspoken trend for people to avoid talking about or displaying emotion of any kind, with rare exceptions for positive emotions like happiness.

Two stuffed figures, one says "Happy" the other says "keep on smiling".

JUST! KEEP! SMILING!

So what do people recommend to those displaying powerful emotions? “You really need some anti-depressants.” While I do think some mood-stabilizing drugs can be a powerful tool in a holistic care plan, we have a tendency to try to use them to not feel anything.

And they work, to an extent. There’s a huge industry around not feeling emotions, from alcohol to overeating to the sorts of psychoactive medications I referenced earlier. When used as crutches, they prevent a person from fully experiencing the difficult emotions that ultimately are a part of life and the human condition. Additionally, they prevent a person from experiencing very many positive emotions. The anti-depressants compress emotion, bringing the magnitude of those feelings to within an acceptable range, whether they are “good” or “bad” emotions. To be clear, psychoactive drugs can be very helpful and even life-saving, especially when used as part of a comprehensive treatment plan that also includes therapy. But it’s important to understand how they work and how they affect you. 

 

Chart demonstrating range of emotions for SSRIs

SSRIs suppress ALL intense emotions; both high and low.


The Importance of Grief for Veterans

So why do we have to experience “bad” emotions at all?

Grief is among the most powerful of emotions because it represents a sense of loss for something that you relied on. It tells you that the person or thing you lost was important to you. Grief matters because the things we grieve matter to us.

When we separate from service, our lives change permanently, whether we wanted it to or not. We lose a huge network of financial, emotional, physical, and social support, and there’s no way to replace that. Whether the decision to leave was the right one or not, all veterans experience some level of grief at leaving. And I’m telling you that you have to experience that grief because without doing so, it’s difficult to fully experience all the positive emotions that are also a part of the human (civilian) condition.

Grief can be overwhelming. I know when I was grieving a lost teammate or family member, there was an overwhelming sense of dread constantly lurking around every corner. But I knew that avoiding feeling my grief was like wishing that I could be in the military and never have to work out, lift heavy things, ruck march with body armor, or run on a mission. There’s no way to avoid the discomfort. The only way out is through.

Guy carrying tons of shingles on a roof.

I mean, this shit’s not going to carry itself.

Luckily, two things work in our favor. First, unlike exercise, there’s no way healthy emotional processing, like crying when you’re overloaded and grieving, is going to permanently damage you. Sure, you may feel like the tears are ripping you apart, but that unpleasantness is actually cathartic. You’ll feel better in the long run. Second, the more you allow yourself to experience emotional pain, the more you can tolerate those emotions and work through them more surely.  Second, the more we allow ourselves to experience and tolerate painful emotion, the more we can handle.

Chart shows the point of overwhelm has shifted out.

Learning to process emotions gives you space to experience all your emotions.

It’s just like your workout. The point has never been to make 135 feel like 45.  It’s to be able to tolerate 135 as 135 is, and to go much further than that. With your emotions, the point is to be able to sit with any of your uncomfortable emotions for as long as they occur.

An emotionally strong person can cry, express anger or frustration, or even experience what would otherwise be paralyzing fear or grief without acting out or shutting down. They experience the same level of emotion, but they are better able to tolerate them without getting overwhelmed. The military tries to get us to not experience emotion. We would be much better off if we were encouraged to fully experience all of our emotions, however painful, to develop a tolerance for the most difficult ones. Perhaps the military should even offer grief counseling to give active service members and veterans the appropriate tools. Unfortunately, the military doesn’t, meaning you are left to learn the importance of grief upon separation, which isn’t ideal.

 


Learning to Deal with Grief

A starry night. Remember to keep looking up, veteran.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” -Oscar Wilde

Now that I’ve spent years dealing with traumas I experienced early on and trying to grow past those experiences, I understand better why Dan Millman talked about a “peaceful” warrior.

I’ve watched as I grew from acting out every time I was overwhelmed with grief, sadness, or anger, to being able to hold onto those emotions and explore them with people that care about me. I’ve watched myself be able to experience all kinds of new stresses and be able to tolerate them much better.

They still suck. Nothing will ever make the slings and arrows of life not sting. The difference is that I know that in allowing myself to experience the emotions, I’m much more capable of dealing with them. I wish I knew in the military what I know now. I’d have been able to do much more.

 We live in a turbulent world, Conflict will always occur, sometimes violent, usually not. And violence is not the only source of trauma. People are 100% mortal, so everyone we ever know will eventually leave us, or we will leave them.

The “peaceful warrior” understands that trauma, pain, and the difficulty is part of human life, and in accepting that, ironically becomes more human. That is why it’s important for you to grieve, for you to feel emotion. The “peaceful warrior” is peaceful because he experiences his emotions and then moves through and past them into his best self. The peaceful warrior is not at peace with the world. He is simply at peace with his own humanity.

 


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