The Power of Shared Grief
I’m a believer in Godwinks, TAPS magic, and unlikely earthly angels. I’ve had several earthly angels throughout my life. I experienced the other two for the first time Memorial Day Weekend 2016 when I went to Washington DC to attend my first National Military Survivor Seminar put on by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (also known as TAPS). I know, it’s a mouthful. TAPS is a nonprofit organization that supports surviving family members of fallen military members.
Memorial Day Weekend in general is a highly anticipated time of year observed by nearly everyone in one respect or another. For some, it’s seen as a day off to BBQ and maybe swing by the city cemetery and pay respects to Great Grandma. For others it’s a time of heart wrenching reflection for lost dear ones. For many military surviving families, it’s a time to gather in our Nation’s Capital, to cry, to remember, to honor and to be rejuvenated by connection to other TAPS families.
Memorial Day 2021, like Memorial Day 2020, will be drastically different from previous and future years. As the general public slowly becomes accustomed to being maskless, we are still far from life as we knew it pre-Covid. In a sense, many will experience unlikely grief for beloved Memorial Day traditions. I feel that grief acutely but am managing.
I had no idea how much TAPS would change and bless my life! When I first arrived at Nationals in 2016, I felt like the world’s biggest imposter. My dad had been gone for over 40 years and most of the attendees were fresh in their grief. I mean, I almost didn’t get on the plane in the first place except that for some reason, I knew without a doubt I was supposed to be there.
At check in, I begged the events manager to put me to work, but she refused. “You’re here to heal. And you’ll be surprised just how fast you’ll find someone you can relate to.” I groaned inwardly and dragged my feet to the registration table. A girl who looked close to my age handed me a swag bag. I looked at her lanyard that read “NAVY" and “ADULT CHILD” next to her name. “Oh my gosh!” I almost squealed. “I’m an adult child, and my dad was Navy too!” She laughed and said “Yeah, well I’m a little different. My dad died a LONG time ago. I barely remember him.” (insert wide eyed emoji). This girl and I became so close that if it weren’t for Covid, she would have been at my wedding.
That was just the beginning. Actually, that was part two of the “magic”, which I came to find out was more of a rule than the exception with TAPS. Part one got me to Nationals in the first place.
On January 10, 2013 I was in the early stages of outlining my book and knew I needed to connect with others who lost loved ones in the military. As I browsed my Facebook feed that day, I noticed a blog post one of my friends had “liked” written by Amy Dozier in North Carolina. Amy shared the raw and real pain of how her husband, Jon, was killed in Iraq just 5 years earlier about a month after their daughter Emma turned one year old. She grieved that Emma didn’t get a chance to know her father and expressed hope that somehow her daughter would be able to develop a bond with Jon as she grew.
Though Amy and I were complete strangers, I felt compelled to connect, so I sent her a message. I boldly said that I didn't understand how it felt to get that knock at the door, but I grew up in her daughter’s shoes and might be able to shed some light on emotions that her little girl could possibly face.
I didn’t expect to hear back and didn’t for over a year. Amy found my email in her “other” inbox and accepted my friend request on my dad’s angelversary. We started to chat back and forth. The two of us shared similar grief, similar anxieties and ironically, the same birthday (I’m three years older). She’s become one of my closest friends of all time. I can count on one hand how many people seem to “get me” like Amy does. And... she told me about TAPS.
Sunday May 29 2016 Arlington Virginia
I’d been in the thick of extreme emotional growth that I couldn’t have imagined. In just two short Seminar days, I dare say I was pushed forward several years in the healing process. On the third day I went to a Godwinks class conducted by TAPS Founder, Bonnie Carroll. Chairs were set up in a massive circle in the hotel ballroom as a microphone was passed to participants. Those from different faiths and agnostics alike shared beautiful and miraculous experiences where it seemed obvious that their heroes were reaching out to them from the other side.
It was a powerful class! A young blonde, blue eyed widow named Pamela silenced the room as her grief-racked voice said “I buried my husband two months ago.” As she spoke, I had the thought to go talk to her. Yeah right, I was probably the last person she’d want to talk to since I knew nothing of her pain. I ignored the impression.
The final Godwink of the class was shared by a beautiful Polynesian woman named Ursula. She spoke of the connection her son had with his father who was killed in a plane crash just 28 days before he was born. “You’re talking to her.” I’d become very familiar with my dad’s voice and knew when he was adamant about something. “Whatever it takes, make sure you talk to her!” he said as he all but pushed me to the other side of the room where Ursula stood. I thanked her for her story and sacrifice. Within about 90 seconds we learned that we only lived 6 hours apart by car and shared the same Christian faith.
By then, lunch was being served in the main ballroom so we went together. We passed Pamela on our way. “Allicia, introduce yourself.” Pamela was talking with three people. “Nope. Not gonna happen.” I was not about to awkwardly interrupt in order to awkwardly “not” relate.
I got my plate, sat down and waited for Ursula. Pamela was standing alone with her back to my table. “Allicia...go.”
“Got it, Dad.” I walked over to her and sheepishly said “I heard your story in Godwinks and wanted to let you know that I’m sorry for your loss and for what it’s worth, if you ever need to talk to a stranger, I’m here.” Pamela was real and gracious. “I don’t know if I made any sense in there. It’s been tough! I found out his headstone is up and haven’t felt ready to go yet but I probably should.” I handed her my number. “If you need someone to go with you, let me know. I’m staying a couple extra days.” “Um thanks, I appreciate it.” I was sure that was the end of that until she texted me the following day.
Fast forward to the present day. Amy and Emma have been my TAPS roommates since that first year. I’ve stayed at her parents house and we have plans to run a race now that I live in her neck of the woods in the South. Pamela and I ran the Cape Cod Ragnar with TAPS and went to Virginia Beach, Busch Gardens, and Vegas to celebrate her birthday at Ursula’s home. Ursula has hosted me more than once. She and I shared the stage at events and ran the Saints and Sinners Half Marathon together. Remember the trip to New York from my last blog post? Yeah, that’s thanks to the Godwinks class.
Pamela and Ursula were even the witnesses at my wedding. Godwinks, TAPS Magic and Unlikely Earthly Angels landed me in a squad of four and several other treasured friends who are family to me. Our motley crew couldn’t be any more different. The power of shared tenacity and empathy born of grief has bonded us as unlikely sisters: the quirky Irish brunette from Utah, the philanthropic redhead Southern Belle, the blonde blue eyed Italian businesswoman from St. Louis, and the gold medal bodybuilder Samoan Chief from Vegas. From the shadows of shared grief that none of us wanted to be in, we found light in each other. We’ve shared adventures, tears and far more laughs. And there is so much more to come!
God knew we needed each other. I’m convinced our angels were instrumental in bringing us together to help us all heal.
This Memorial Day makes two years in a row that we won’t be walking the sacred grounds at Arlington together. I’m already missing their hugs and our lively conversations as we skip classes. My heart longs to be there, yet rejoices in our continuing growth. Since we last saw each other, homes have been purchased, new relationships have been formed. I even got married and moved to the East Coast!
Though I am experiencing unlikely grief for that Memorial Day tradition, I am excited to pick back up again, hopefully next year, where the reunion with my Unlikely Earthly Angels will be even sweeter!