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martin knight-willis

Grief - a Soldier's Perspective

by Martin Knight-Willis MC


As a former member of both 1 Ranger Squadron NZSAS, C Squadron Rhodesian SAS, and a Vietnam Veteran, I’ve been asked to say something about grief from my current perspective as a psychotherapist.

Grief is a natural human response to the shock and disappointment of loss both big and small and we are all familiar with the experience of loss.

To survive in life we create structures and routines that give us a sense of stability and safety. We live in communities, forge friendships and relationships with others, work-routines give meaning to our existence and create a sense of identity, our homes and belongings provide familiarity and certainty to each day.

When all is well we feel strong within and connected to others and the world around us.

When we experience loss, this structure is shaken and life feels less safe. A relentless series of small losses or a major loss can shatter this structure and plunge us into an emotional chaos of uncertainty, disappointment, despair and fear.

Scientific research leaves us in no doubt that emotional health is essential to the maintenance of physical health and if we neglect either, it affects the other. Research also leaves us in no doubt that connectedness or attachment to others is central to well-being and growth throughout our life. Infants starved of this attachment fail to develop the critical brain structures necessary to process emotions and relate to others and in extreme circumstances die. Adults isolated from others suffer more mental and physical health problems and statistically have a shorter life expectancy.

No surprise then that it feels so awful when we experience this severing of attachment. Our body is responding to the loss of something essential to its well-being and survival.

When tossed into this chaos our reactive response is to deny, to disconnect, to fight, to collapse, or find any one of a number of ways to avoid the pain and sadness of the loss. Part of us feels it very keenly, part of us fights to regain a place of strength and safety.

This first reaction is generally common to both men and women. What happens subsequently is that women when lost tend to ask for help, and men look for maps to find their way back. In other words a man’s instinct is to act, often in isolation to move away from the pain, whilst a woman’s instinct is to reach out for support and stay connected to others.

Another way to look at loss is as a sudden unanticipated demand for change and change requires us to adapt in new and challenging ways, stretching our personal resources of coping, understanding and enduring.

As soldiers we train to adapt to sudden change and loss in the theatre of war. We know instinctively how to behave as we leave the door of an aircraft at 500 metres and what to do if the main parachute malfunctions. We know the drills when ambushed, lost or separated from our unit. We know how to support each other in a fire fight and care for each other when wounded.

When loss and threat is clear and unambiguous, soldiers know how to respond and regain some sense of control over the situation. But these trained responses are often helpless in the face of other life events.

Be it the loss of a job or business failure, the crippling illness or accident of a close family member, a relationship breakdown, the limitations of getting old, personal illness and the overwhelming sense of helplessness attending these experiences.

The process of grief is a normal human response in these circumstances and has evolved along with other emotional processes to enable us to survive through the life span.

To avoid or suppress this process can lead to serious ill-health. To engage in and allow the process enables us to adapt, heal and re-engage in life.

So loss initiates a period of transition. Like marriage to divorce, secure employment to redundancy, exuberant health to disability, youth to old age, the list is endless. And transitions are accompanied by pain, sadness and fear.

Can we minimize the impact of this? – Yes.
Is there a quick and easy way? – No.

Grief and loss are like the wounds of battle – ignore them at your peril. Carefully attend to them and they can heal to scars that over the years we can touch and remember and they become part of who we are.

The human way to deal with grief has been to create rituals and ceremonies to honour the loss and celebrate life. Different cultures do this in a variety of ways, but there are important similarities.

The essential elements are Containment, Connection and Submission.

Containment is the provision of a safe environment for the victims of the loss. In tangihanga, it is the marae, the wharenui and whanau who gather around immediate family to provide aroha and awhi. Support of family, friends or counsellors and ministers can also provide this containment.

Connection with others helps to share the burden of grief and loss and to limit loneliness and isolation. It can provide safety in times of hopelessness and despair and help us to maintain the essential daily routines of living and caring for ourselves.

Submission to the process means allowing ourselves to connect deeply with the loss, discover and express our feelings about it and to acknowledge how much we valued what we no longer have. This is an essential step to creating the inner space needed to allow in the new in our lives and to move on.

I wonder how many of you reading these words felt a moment of discomfort at the word “submission”. Submitting is the last thing a soldier is expected to do isn’t it?

Well actually, no. Not the way it’s meant here. Think back to your service days. Did you not submit to the process of a selection course, engaging fully in the hardships and discomfort in order to achieve something? Did you not submit to the conventions and disciplines of military life to achieve something?

Submission to grief also requires courage and commitment and the rewards are growth, maturity, and inner peace.

My hope is that these few words help you to reflect on your own grief and give you confidence to support others in their way back to health.
This article was originally written for, and was published in a Regimental Association Journal for serving members, ex-service personnel, and their families.

Martin Knight-Willis is a retired psychotherapist.

Article posted 2 April 2007