“Without a witness, it just disappears.” – the character of Charles in Taking Chance
The 2009 movie Taking Chance is based on the true story of Lt. Colonel Michael Strobl, a Marine officer who escorted the body of a fallen Marine, PFC Chance Phelps, back to his hometown from the Iraq War, where PFC Phelps would be placed to rest. If you haven’t seen the movie, I recommend it, though warn it is moving and often discomforting. The performances are riveting and knowing similar events were actually taking place made it more compelling. For several years, it was commonplace for my family to find me watching the film, completely enveloped in tears. They wondered why I would repeatedly subject myself to such sorrow. And my husband, having served in the Army and participating in his share of funeral detail, can only sit through the film with a great level of discomfort. I was preparing myself for sitting through the scores of stories I would often hear during my time working on military installations since 9/11. I wanted to make sure I allowed my own soul it’s rightful breathing space so that when sitting across from any warrior, executing my mission of bearing witness to their accounts, I could be fully present with their needs rather than being busy choking back my own tears. My secondary sorrow needed no comfort compared to the space their souls needed to heal. Thus became the mandate of my heart – to hold stories for warriors, offering respite from terror that had moved in to stay. To make sure the stories did not disappear and yet to provide a moment in their lives when the burden was shared and, hopefully, lessened for a bit.
As a psychotherapist-in-training, I spent many hours learning that “less is more” when it comes to talking in a session. I also learned that we cannot discount the power of empathy to evoke strong emotion in response to a life that is not our own. That can turn ‘listening’ into living as if it were first-hand pain. When a warrior finally decides to share a portion (and trust me, it’s always only a portion) of what they’ve seen in combat, the holding space for that story has specific requirements. One must-have is the ability to listen without reaction. The last thing a warrior wants to do is pour what they’ve been through onto someone else. My own soul’s work has to be done on a regular basis in order to maintain a foundation solid enough to sit steadfast when the warrior finally decides to trust the healing process. If I allow my own visceral response, warriors are likely to kick into caretaker mode and this would shift the responsibility from me to them. Ensuring that balance is the second necessity for the space. A warrior’s soul must find rest from responsibility even if only for the brief therapy hour. Because once they leave that space, they are back to bearing the weight alone again. My ultimate mission – to hold the story for them – is allowing them to create enough space between the trauma and their soul’s tendency to bear that weight. And in that space created, respite may be found. This all leads to the next requirement – a tolerance for the ambiguity that comes with having one’s soul “stuck” in combat. They’ve come home, but they’re not fully home. A part of each warrior’s soul remains on an outpost somewhere in the Afghan mountain range or on a dusty road hovered over the shadow of a fallen comrade. Because of this – there is an uncertainty for the warrior that asks “Will it ever be okay again?”. The temptation to offer a comforting “Yes” is overwhelming. And, at least in their minds, it may be false. So I don’t. Quietly I know that being okay and feeling okay are often different for a person.
“It’s going to be okay.” What does that mean exactly? In my younger days as a therapist I might have been compelled to offer hope in the form of those words – but mostly, to meet my own needs for comfort and to feel as if I was accomplishing something. But I know that in most cases, I have no hard evidence that any resolve will be positive, at least not in the beginning of the process. Even if, by objective count, all is okay, that often teases in the face of the person bearing pain. I have my own faith (most days), but I can only gently offer that to others. I’m not suggesting it is wrong to offer words of hope at times, but for me the timing must be impeccably clear. And it must be an honest hope. So the harder task for the therapist, or any comforter, is to build tenacity for sitting in uncertainty and not crumbling. The replacement for not telling someone “it will be okay” is to walk the steps with them toward that “okayness”. And for a warrior, it is always best if they experience the success of reaching okay for themselves rather than asking them to trust the promise of someone who may not have been where they’ve been. Watching the flow of tears from a hurting warrior is not easy. At times I believe the tears aren’t supposed to stop for a while. Those tears may keep the story moving at least for some time. The warrior needs to know he or she can shed the tears and still be a warrior. The toughest of warriors will endure intense firefights with insurgents, only to run swiftly from a single tear. Certainly, the tears cannot flow to the extent they disrupt one’s daily life, but the allowance of occasional sorrow keeps us connected to the story. It helps us connect to the whole of ourselves, which leads to living with integrity.
A new nation of trauma has been created. We have many stories coming home – being told to us one warrior at a time – sometimes one casket at a time. It’s okay to care. It’s necessary. It will be necessary for many years. For warriors and their families, this may mean a lifetime of needing others to help hold in awareness what they can never escape.
What is also necessary is the telling and hearing of stories. Stories validate. Stories allow others to bear witness, which is a necessary part of healing. As the Taking Chance character, Charles, reminds us – it ensures the person’s experience does not disappear. Many warriors already struggle with feeling a part of this civilian world when they return. When someone is willing to bear witness to our pain they agree to hold for us the weight of that pain while we shift and adjust. We shift our perceptions. We adjust to an ever-present awareness that the story will forever change how we negotiate our existence in the world.
Warriors are always in negotiation with their existence. The mandate of my heart has been to help them mediate that negotiation so that their souls can come home – down from the outpost, away from that dusty road, out of the shadows. And when they get here – home – my heart is open to keeping their stories for them whenever they’re ready.
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