I was on chemotherapy during the summer of 2007. My mom went to church one Sunday and I stayed home because I didn’t feel well. I turned on the T.V. and watched George Stephanopoulos’ program. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were in full swing, and at the end of his show every week, they rolled the names of soldiers who had died that week.
As I watched the names of the fallen scroll across the screen, I saw the name Jason Kessler. He and I had been Resident Assistants together in college, and our wings had been paired as “brother/sister” wings, so he and I planned lots of activities for our dorm wings to do together.
And that’s how I found out that he had died. The world already seemed wrong and dark and unfair as I was going through chemotherapy at age 28 for an invasive, aggressive form of breast cancer. Jason’s death only added to the grief. I turned off the TV and wept for a long, long time.
My brother Matthew was in the Army, and he was deployed to Afghanistan for a year, from 2005-2006. Even though it’s been a decade since he was there, I remember that year like it was yesterday. The Thanksgiving he wasn’t at the table, the Christmas he wasn’t there to open his presents. I remember sleeping with my cell phone under my pillow, always waiting for — and dreading — the phone call that something tragic had happened and he was gone.
Matthew made it home safely. He lives in Pennsylvania now. He’s a good man and a good dad and a good friend, and he honors the anniversary of the death of each man in his unit who didn’t make it home.
This morning I woke up with a heavy heart, remembering Jason and remembering what it was like to be terrified of losing Matthew.
I woke up hurting for those of you who got the call that we all dread. Hurting for you who lost loved ones in war, and those of you who lost veterans to suicide back home because maybe their body came home undamaged by the war but their mind and emotions were shattered.
I’m hurting for you, the spouses who have to sleep in a half-empty bed and for those of you kids whose parent never came home from the battlefield early and surprised you at school. I’m hurting for you parents who set one less plate at the dinner table. And for you siblings who are left with pictures and memories of the past, and the knowledge that you and your sibling will not experience each others’ futures.
There’s nothing anyone can do to bring back the loved one you lost. Maybe the best thing we can do is to say, I’m here. I’m listening. I’ll be standing in the gaping gap of your loss, willing to do whatever I can to help.
Just know that you aren’t alone or forgotten. I’m here — we’re here — just tell us what we can do to care for you, what we can do to honor the sacrifice of the loved one you lost by helping you make it through.