The secret ingredient to moving on in life after combat

(Or, “Mourning the loss of what once was”)

Grief 2About the advice I am sharing today

This topic comes up behind the scenes more times than I can count. I have had more one-on-one conversations with caregiver spouses about this problem than I can count. While it can happen to anyone at any point in their life, it has a particular concentration within the wounded warrior community.

It seems to affect everyone at some point in managing life after combat…and those that embrace the advice I am about to share are the ones who ‘get ahead’ faster in the recovery process. Their marriages become stronger. Their attitude improves and infiltrates all the other areas of their lives.

It has immediate benefits but it takes time to fully incorporate into your life because it requires changing your perspective and mindset.

Those that don’t take the advice or resist are the same ones who are still struggling, or their life has taken a drastic downturn. Those that do take the advice are thriving. I take particular joy in seeing the very people I consulted with privately ….try it… and then give the advice to others and pay it forward because they can attest that it really works.

I am hoping you are, or will become, one of those pay it forward people.

So let me start by asking…

Are you mourning the loss of what once was?

It breaks my heart to the core when I see people wishing for the life they used to have. I want it for them too. Everyone has an element of the ‘good old days’ to reflect on or pine away at the memories. Ask any 40-something who was a high school football star and I am sure they will tell  you about their glory days. 😉

But in the case of dealing with life after combat, it’s an actual mourning process that I see. Spouses want their veteran to be the man they originally married but he’s forever changed. Sometimes they see glimpses of the man they married, and that reinforces their desire to see it again, and again, and again…but it never happens that way. They just see glimpses of what once was that tease them at the most unexpected times. It’s torture in the end.

More times than not, I see the spouse who is stuck wishing for the good old days getting hostile and angry. They are sad, depressed, withdrawn or have downright given up.

I am going to be very blunt here and share my observations and opinions. I found that most people who deal with this fall within these main categories:

  • The spouse who is antagonistic, critical, hateful and spiteful to not only their spouse but everyone around them. They are usually very young and don’t have the life experiences or maturity to see things differently or to have the advantage of developing their coping skills. They push their veteran beyond their limitations. They typically have fallen through the cracks in the benefits system and don’t reach out for community support because they don’t know the support exists. Their veteran’s medical care is lacking. They spend all their time complaining about their veteran than seeing their veteran in a different light. These are the ones I feel the most compelled to help, and in turn only a few can be saved. This leads to burnout and compassion fatigue on my part because I want so badly to help them see a different way, and more times than not they simply don’t have the tools to do anything differently.
  • The spouse who falls into the above category at some point in their journey, but they are fortunate enough to have a support network in place in the form of close family or friends who can influence their thinking in a positive light and are willing to LISTEN to the advice. They also have the advantage of community or VA support in the form of full benefits earned, proper medical intervention, and in some cases having mortgage-free homes (which relieves the financial burden that fuels the frustration behind a lot of these episodes of criticism) and/or the capacity to ask for help when they need it. These are the ones I have more success with in guiding to a more positive way of thinking.
  • The spouse who moderately falls into the first category and stays there, but in their case they have fallen into a coping mechanism of relying on the outside help without trying to help themselves, or making it their mission to take advantage of all the freebies they can find. They’ve given up on their veteran or see them as the enemy. Their veteran becomes a tool to get what they can out of others, or the spouse copes by escaping in other ways. They are the perpetual victim. These are the ones I have minimal success with, as they come in with an entitlement attitude that is hard to overcome, which in turn just pisses me off. 
  • The spouse who oscillates between negativity and positivity, but has the maturity and capacity to overcome these obstacles. They usually have been married longer than their peers or are older than their peers, or they have excellent coping skills to make up for any lack of experience. They are resourceful but aren’t takers. They want to help themselves. They are willing to listen. They take their “til death us do part” vows seriously. These are the ones that I have the BEST success with in guiding into a more positive way of thinking. 

When I have the conversations about this problem with ANY of the above categories of spouses, I try to reel the spouse in by sharing what I’ve learned in our own. I take many variables into consideration when giving my tailored advice, but one thing I do with everyone is this:

I share my own ‘ah-hah!’ moment. And that ‘ah-hah’ moment sometimes takes people by surprise. I tell them….

I had to grieve as though my husband died. 

Morbid? Yes. But it’s the truth.

It really comes down this core concept:

The man you married is now a different man. Much like the grieving process, you have to mourn the loss of that man you used to know. There are 5-7 stages to go through, depending on your situation, but once you get to the ACCEPTANCE stage (the final stage that opens to hope) you can move on. It’s like grieving a death, but in our case the person we are grieving is right there with you.

Read more about the 5 stages of grief

Read more about the 7 stages of grief 

Once you understand this, you can take that metaphorical pain and death and enter a new threshold. Your decision about which way to go next narrows down to two choices:

    1. Resist what is and become a victim.
    2. Yield to what is and become a victor.

I believe that two things helped me significantly in my transition to thriving in our life after combat:

  • First, I had already mourned the loss of the man I married because we were divorced at the time of his injury. I had already let go of the man I envisioned as my life partner. I learned to love the man he is NOW, not the one I wanted him to be. We have since remarried and our marriage is stronger than it was in the first time around.
  • Secondly, once I grasped the concept of yielding to what is…I learned to modify my expectations. In some ways I had to lower my expectations. In other ways I had to lift up my perception of what constituted a triumph in our life. Basically, I learned to celebrate the little things and let go of the big things that bothered me the most.

Like I said, it doesn’t happen overnight and I was not exempt from having these natural feelings. I would revert back to the wrong mindset from time to time, but each time I was fortunate enough to have the insight I needed to see the negative thinking for what it really was. In the course of all this I have a more mature love for my husband that runs deeper than anything I’ve ever imagined in my wildest dreams.

We are now almost a decade into our journey in managing life after combat. I’ve had a lot of time to practice this and observe the differences between those who do make it and those who don’t. That is NOT to say that those who didn’t make it had a failure in their part. Sometimes a marriage just can’t be saved. BUT, my hope is that by sharing what I’ve learned and asking those who do it to pay the advice forward, we can write our own stories of success in this thing called life after combat.

Sound off! Do you mourn what once was, or did you? Share your experiences and opinions in the comments section below!



About The Author

Torrey Shannon

My name is Torrey Shannon and I am a writer, author, blogger, movie consultant, speaker, veteran's advocate and Blue Star Mom. I am also a full-time caregiver and spouse of a wounded warrior. My husband survived a gunshot wound to the head in a gunfight in Iraq in 2004 after serving in the Army for more than 23 years. We spent three years of his recovery at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He has severe PTSD and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Dealing with the invisible wounds of war first-hand allows me to bring a human element to the problems our military communities face. Blogging gives me the chance to do what I love the most: write about life after combat and help create awareness and solutions for military members and their families. When I am not writing here, I freelance for a variety of publications and media outlets and am currently writing a book.