Dear Wendy
Dear Wendy

Your Turn: “My Boyfriend Lost Two Marines in His Unit”

In a feature I call “Your Turn,” in which you, the readers, get to answer the question, I’m presenting the following letter without commentary from me:

My boyfriend and I have been together for about three years, two and a half of which were long distance (we just ended our LD portion almost two months ago and are now about 40 minutes apart). He is in the military, so I feel very happy to have this time together while we do. Anyway, there was recently a very tragic accident in his unit, resulting in the loss of two Marines. To say we are heartbroken (in different ways) is an understatement and I cannot imagine the pain the families must be feeling right now.

I did not know these Marines personally, but my boyfriend did; he is also currently working closely with the families to get their things in order. I want so very much to be supportive to the families, but I am worried I just don’t know how to do it correctly. I know that may sound silly, but this is the first time something like this has hit so close to home, and I know it sadly won’t be the last. I would love to help in any way possible, but I also don’t want to be a creepy outsider/intruder on what is such a personal matter. But I feel like my boyfriend could have easily been in their place, so I really feel for the families. Of course, I am taking all my cues from my boyfriend, so I won’t do anything outrageous, but would still like to do something. I also want to be supportive of my boyfriend through this difficult time, but he tends to clam up in these situations so it feels hard sometimes.

What can I do? Is letting him know I’m there for him enough? And, I have tried asking my boyfriend, but I’m not getting the feedback I need. I thought not being LD anymore would make this easier, but I just feel so clueless in supporting loved ones through times of loss. — Military Girlfriend

22 comments… add one
  • Budj

    Budjer October 3, 2011, 3:07 pm

    I’m not in the military…but from what I can tell the families of the troops are very accepting and friendly to other family / loved ones of servicemen/women.

    I can’t tell you explicitly what to do because that really depends on the situations you find yourself in with your bf when you go to help these families out, but just being a helping hand (listening, talking, moving, packing, driving, running errands, etc) with anything during this troubling time I’m sure would be appreciated.

    I guess the point is…play it by ear…unless they suspect you are a weirdo that gets off on other peoples emotional pain I don’t think you have any thing to be insecure about.

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  • thatswhat-she

    Meg October 3, 2011, 3:07 pm

    I think the “right” thing to do here (if there even is one) has a lot to do with the culture of his unit. My first instinct was to say that you should be there for your boyfriend, making things as easy on him as possible (ie helping out w/ day-to-day chores, bring dinner occasionally, etc so he doesn’t have to worry about that stuff), but to leave the families to grieve since you’ve never met them. The thing is, I’ve never been a military family member, but the sense I have is there is some kinship there, whether or not you have actually met. So my gut here says that you could reach out to them- send sympathy cards, bring a meal, offer to run an errand or watch small children to give the widowed spouses a break. This will help them through this tough time, but also show your boyfriend that you are feeling his pain too.

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  • avatar

    artsygirl October 3, 2011, 3:10 pm

    LW – everyone processes grief in a different way so there is no easy answer to your question. My best suggestion is to make sure you are available and supportive to your BF. Let him know that if he wants to talk about the accident then you will be happy to listen, but I would make sure not to push. Chances are he is already talking to grief counselors on base and then he has to help the families of his fallen comrades, so this is probably something that takes up a big part of his day. Therefore rehashing it to you might not be something he wants to do at this venture. Good luck.

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  • avatar

    Turtledove October 3, 2011, 3:31 pm

    Being supportive to your boyfriend will be a big comfort to him. You don’t need to talk to him, and you certainly don’t need to push for him to talk– just be a physical comforting presence for him right now and be extra snuggly when he seems to need it.

    As far as the families, it’s difficult to take your cues from him when he’s not been forthcoming, but have you explicitly offered him your help? Your boyfriend would be the person best able to tell you how welcome you would be right now. You could say something like, “I know this isn’t something you want to discuss in detail right now, but I’m here for you and I’d like to be there for the families in whatever capacity will best help. I’d be glad to make a few meals, run errands, or watch the kids if that will help. Just let me know if there’s anything I can do or if I should just butt out.” I say offer specific tasks you’d be willing to do since so many people will say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” But then it can still be awkward to ask.

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  • avatar

    MiMi October 3, 2011, 3:44 pm

    As much as your impulse to do something for the families is to your credit, mailing a sympathy card with a short, non-gushing message to each family is what is appropriate since you are not the spouse of a unit member and you did not personally know the deceased. It may seem like you’re not doing enough, but sympathy cards are kept and re-read and shared and do bring continuing comfort.
    Supporting your boyfriend is your active role in the aftermath of this tragedy. Take your cues from him, don’t press for answers or actions – he really can’t deal with any more right now. If he wants you to attend the funerals, do so. If he doesn’t, don’t take it personally. He will come out of emergency mode sooner or later and be more available to talk to you and to hear what you have to say.

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  • avatar

    Jenny October 3, 2011, 3:51 pm

    Hi LW. I’m married to a Marine. I would recommend contacting your boyfriend’s unit’s Family Readiness Officer. The FRO may be able to give you suggestions for how you can help — like cooking hot meals for the family or other donations you could make. Don’t be afraid to send them a card and offer your condolences. People get through these situations with tons of love and support.
    As far as your boyfriend, he’s going to need some time to process this. Marines have very unique relationships with their fellow Marines that we on the outside really can’t understand. Don’t push him, and be ready to listen when he’s ready to talk. Like another commenter said, take your cues from him. The best thing you can do for him right now is just love him and support him.

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    • avatar

      WatersEdge October 3, 2011, 7:45 pm

      LW, I’m also a military spouse. I agree about the FRO. Oftentimes there are already systems in place that help the families of fallen service members that swoop in and take charge in these situations, and they may or may not need your help. Often there is training involved… if getting involved in these situations appeals to you, you can get trained up for (sadly) next time.

      Take good care of your boyfriend and be as helpful as possible to him so that he can go give his all at work. Military work is very emotionally draining, so a good support system at home can make the job infinitely easier on the service members.

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  • theattack

    theattack October 3, 2011, 4:22 pm

    Don’t push your boyfriend to talk to you about it, because he’s likely dealing with real trauma and grief over this. Suggest to him to visit a social worker that’s available to him through the military (like on his base, or something). He’s almost certainly not seeing one, because military culture is not an environment that accepts mental help very much. But let him know that it’s okay, and it might help to sit down and see what resources are there. Maybe you can look into it for him.

    I don’t know much about how military families operate, but every family grieves. Let your boyfriend know that you want to be there for him and the other families, and ask him to tell you if he knows of anything you can do. But be careful not to push it too much or it will appear that you’re making it about you and not them.

    As someone who recently lost a family member, these are some things I think could be helpful. Take food to the families, not just before the funeral, but after as well. Most days no one is going to feel like cooking, and that lasts long after the funeral. Put the food in containers that they won’t have to return to you, like those disposable tin pans, so that they’ll have one less thing to worry about. When you take the food by, offer to do the dishes for the family members, take out the trash, and water the plants. Bring by things like paper plates, plastic forks, paper towels and toilet paper, because they’re likely to have a lot of visitors and won’t want to do dishes and make store runs all the time. Those are some things people don’t think about as often. If you can think of anything else, offer to do it! People won’t usually let you know if they need something unless you’ve been offering to do specific things. They’ll know you really mean it if you do.

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    • avatar

      Kerrycontrary October 3, 2011, 5:20 pm

      I agree that helping out with the daily chores can really assist someone in a time of grieving. A lot of times when you tell someone “let me know if you need anything” it can still make them feel like you are being an imposition. Instead saying “Hey, let me take the kids for two hours on Saturday”, offering to do laundry that day, or just doing their dishes while you are sharing a cup of coffee can help a lot. Otherwise, I think the most important thing you can do is be there for your boyfriend. My sister and my boyfriend are in the military but thankfully they havn’t had to face this situation yet.

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      • avatar

        Kerrycontrary October 3, 2011, 5:21 pm

        *like they are being an imposition. Man I can’t type today.

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  • caitie_didnt

    caitie_didn't October 3, 2011, 4:34 pm

    I really think tangible assistance is the best thing the LW can offer since she is an “outsider”. Home-cooked meals, laundry, house and yard work, grocery shopping and babysitting are probably the best gifts the LW can give the families right now.

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  • avatar

    KD October 3, 2011, 4:47 pm

    First, let me say I am sorry for the loss in your boyfriend’s unit. I’m also a military girlfriend (Army), but I have very little experience with loss and death, military or otherwise. My advice would be to be his support as best you can, whether he’s better talking it out or would benefit from you picking up a chore or two just to lessen his stress in some way.

    However, I do know a good site you may want to forward this to: militarysos.com. It’s for the spouses and significant others of military personnel and it can be a good place to look for advice. Hope this helps, stay strong!

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  • fast eddie

    fast eddie October 3, 2011, 4:06 pm

    As a Viet Nam veteran I can tell you that anything you do to express your sorrow to the families of the fallen will be appreciated. A card with a note gently offering to assist will be well received. Send a card via your BF to his unit. It’s important that our soldiers know that someone cares about all of them. There’s simply not enough of that. They cry for their lost comrades also, especially the commanders.

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  • avatar

    Steph October 3, 2011, 5:33 pm

    Hi LW,
    I sympathize with your position. My sister is in the Marine Corp, so I know that every time I hear someone has passed it saddens me. I do know however, that in my sister’s unit there is a family readiness officer that talks to families and ensures that issues get resolved. You could speak to your Marine’s readiness officer and see if there is anything that you can do to help. They will likely be in touch with the families and know if there is anything that you can do to assist the families. Just let your Marine know that you are there and don’t be overbearing. They have a bond with their units unlike any other and he is likely hurting very much, but doesn’t know how to express it. Best of luck!

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  • avatar

    Rachelgrace53 October 3, 2011, 5:48 pm

    I love reading such sane and sincere questions that I couldn’t help but reply. LW, first of all, I think it’s so sweet that you want to help so badly. I’m the exact same way where I feel so much compassion that I always want to help no matter how well I know the people involved. I think just the act of making sure your bf knows you’re there to support him will be a big help. Give him space but be available. Do practical things for him. Cook for him, give him a back rub, take care of his laundry. He’ll be busy and probably not wanting to think about “to-do list” things.

    And since you’re not close to these families, the most appropriate thing is for you to have him let you know when something comes up that you can help with. Maybe if you could tell him to ask the families about practical needs like errands, cleaning, and meals. Those would be perfectly appropriate and appreciated things you could do. In my experience though, it’s good for the families to stay busy with the “getting things in order” until the funeral is over so they can hold it together. So don’t be discouraged if they say they don’t need help yet. They will most likely accept more help once the dust settles.

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  • avatar

    HmC October 3, 2011, 6:25 pm

    LW- commenters have already offered some qualified, detailed advice for you, and I have no personal experience with military loss. So, I just wanted to add one general idea that I took away from a Thanatology class (study of death and loss). Many people experiencing a close personal loss can come to feel extremely isolated- those around them are so unsure about what to do and afraid of doing or saying something “wrong”, that they altogether avoid the people who are experiencing the loss. It’s almost always a good idea to show love and support in whatever way you can, and if you don’t have a close personal relationship, then just offering your condolences can be healing. Making food or doing chores are great ideas too, I’d maybe see what your boyfriend thinks about doing those things with you. Doing something proactive like that to help may even help your boyfriend in his grieving process. Just an idea. Not everyone works through feelings like these verbally.

    I’m sorry you and your boyfriend are going through this LW, all the best.

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    • theattack

      theattack October 3, 2011, 8:20 pm

      I agree with you. My grandfather who used to have visitors multiple times a day now has them only once every couple of weeks since my grandmother died. People get freaked out and don’t know how to react, but sometimes visitors are exactly what the survivors need. They need to be reminded that there are other people who care about them and who they can associate with. Losing your loved ones AND acquaintances at the same time is a BIG loss. The LW should consider whether or not it’s appropriate to just go visit the families occasionally. Think about just going to visit and sitting on the couch for a while, or calling to see if they want to do a puzzle with you. They might not have time for it, but it’s something to think about.

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  • Lyra

    L October 3, 2011, 6:36 pm

    Though I am not directly connected to the Marines via family or significant other, I do know that they are fiercely proud and loyal towards their country and their colleagues. They would die for each other without question. They become so close to each other that it becomes a family.

    From what I’ve witnessed, Marine families are just as proud and just as tough. Marine spouses and significant others know the true meaning of the term “long distance relationship”. I doubt that the families of your boyfriend’s fallen comrades would ever ask for help directly. Your heart is in the right place. Ask your boyfriend if sometime when he’s visiting the families that you can come with just to meet them and let them know that you are there for them if they need help around the house or just someone to talk to. Like other comments previously stated, let your boyfriend take the lead. He will know when they need your assistance.

    I would like to reiterate what others have said that your boyfriend needs your support too, as I’m sure you know. I would just sit down and talk to him to let him know that if he needs you to be there for him in this difficult time, you will be there. He will grieve in his own way. Just let him come to you when he needs you.

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  • avatar

    meaghan October 3, 2011, 8:28 pm

    Most bases have organizations creattd by the SO of the soldiers so look into those. Keep in mind this loss is something you cannot feel for him, and right now he’s probably facing his own mortality. Tag along if it’s appropriate when he’s helping the families, and offer your condolences and support.

    You haven’t been there long so you probably lack the standing in those circles to do much more without overstepping your bounds. Keeps lines of communication open with your MSN, but do not pressure him. It’s a thin line I’ve had to walk with my soldier too.

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    • avatar

      meaghan October 3, 2011, 8:29 pm

      Man* darn phone.

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  • avatar

    Kare October 4, 2011, 12:16 am

    This brings back some memories. My brother got out of the Marines a year ago, not too long after he was involved in something. He was in an explosion that killed everyone except for him. We didn’t reach out to the families because we had never met them and that is something my brother would not be comfortable with. But here is what the experience has taught me:
    1.) Never ask questions. Don’t ask about anything military related. Don’t ask how he feels, what he thinks, etc. Wait for him to talk to you. I don’t ever ask my brother about the explosion, but every once in awhile he will open up and tell me about it. Sometimes it’s more detail than I really want to know, but I listen anyways. If he can live through it, I can at least listen. (On an unrelated note, please encourage people in general to never ask a veteran how many people they’ve killed.)
    2.) Be prepared for PTSD and Survivor’s Guilt. My brother was diagnosed with PTSD and depression. The PTSD isn’t what I expected. My brother has readjusted to civilian life, but some things are different. He has trouble sleeping because of the injuries from that day and because of the nightmares. He used to love war movies, but now they cause panic attacks. He can’t watch people play Call of Duty. Some people have it worse. My cousin was in the Army and in Afghanistan right after 9/11. He has had flashbacks where he thinks the enemy is knocking on the front door when it’s really his sister. I’m not trying to scare you, but I just want you to know the wide range of PTSD. The biggest issue for my brother is survivor’s guilt. My brother felt (and I think sometimes still does) guilty about being alive. He has told my parents and me on separate occasions that he wished he would have died instead of his friends. Things like that are heartbreaking, but I remind him I love him and am happy he’s still here.
    3.) Keep an eye out for alcohol and drug abuse. From the stories I’ve heard, Marines like to drink. Since you are no longer long distance, it will be easier for you to observe his behavior. My brother was drinking a lot once he got back to his base. My family lived far away and there was no way for us to intervene. Once he got out of the military, he began self-medicating with Xanax and hydrocodone. When we confronted him, he explained that he began taking pills to sleep without having nightmares and to help with the pain he’s had since the explosion. I’m not saying this happens to every Marine, but it’s not uncommon either.

    I wish you and your boyfriend the best. It will not be easy, but with time it will get better.

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  • avatar

    Bossy Italian Wife October 4, 2011, 11:05 am

    Grief is one of the strangest emotions I have ever experienced. When my husband and I lost two family members under the age of 30 last year (sadly, within a month of one another) it ushered in a time of grief that took us off track. He became angry with the world, while I embraced life with a renewed sense of meaning.

    Obviously these reactions could not have been more juxtaposed, and this lead to a lot of conflict between us. I completely understand your mystification as to what you can do for your boyfriend, who you love and care for on a deep level.

    I think that talking about it is extremely important…. men (at least in my own experience) have a tendency to bottle up their grief and feel unable to express it. Treat him with a lot of tenderness right now as he is going through this and suggest that he talk to someone (professionally) about his feelings.

    I think that activities are really helpful as well; for instance, you could suggest that you two do something tangible to express your grief, such as making a tribute video, throwing roses into a nearby stream, or making a framed collage with pictures and things that remind you of the two and putting it at their graves. If these don’t’ work for you, think of something unique to do–anything that can help him express himself and his feelings, even if it isn’t through words.

    Also, be patient. It took my husband months and months (and therapy) to be able to express the depth of loss he felt, while I felt very able to express myself and talk with friends and family. Everyone grieves in their own way and there is no map.

    There is a great study, though, that says that the worst of grief, no matter how great the loss, is generally over within 6 months ad people can generally begin to piece things back together and feel more hope after that. Hang in there, LW. You sound like a very caring and loving person and I have faith you can be what he needs.

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