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My Coast Guard
Commentary | Dec. 21, 2020

Healthy grieving: Chaplains can help if you're experiencing loss during the holidays

By Shana Brouder, MyCG Writer

Grief demands to be felt. With 2020 marked by tragic loss of life due to the COVID-19 pandemic, economic downturn, and social unrest—many of us this holiday season are dealing with grief at an entirely new level than before. It is more important than ever we find the way to work through our grief in a healthy way. 

“This has been an abnormal year to say the least,” said First District Lt. Cmdr. Chaplain James Ragain. “While the emotions people are feeling may seem abnormal to them, they are absolutely normal.” Reminding ourselves it’s okay to feel our emotions is extra important during this time. “People need to give themselves permission to take care of themselves—mentally, emotionally, social, spiritually, and physically.”

But taking care of yourself is easier said than done. Empty seats at the dinner table serve as reminders of those who are no longer here, because they have died or because they are isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic. While it is okay to allow yourself a moment to acknowledge the pain this may cause, Ragain emphasizes a need to honor the relationships of the past by connecting with others in the present when possible.

When self-care isn’t enough, it is important to reach out for help. Chaplains are a resource for individuals who don’t know where to start. Regardless of your faith background, chaplains are a safe place where you can be heard without judgement. They are not mandated reporters, so nothing you say will leave that space. 

Coast Guard chaplains host services and offer one-on-one counseling for members of all faiths.In addition to their pastoral role, Chaplains are also excellent advocates. “If I don’t know the answer or can’t provide that service, I will find someone who does,” said Pettigrew.

Chaplains can help you connect to CG Support, your local employment assistant program counselor, or outside therapeutic resources, medical or not. 

“When someone comes to my office grieving the loss of someone they love, I listen to them talk about this person and what they meant to them,” said Ragain. “Then I help bring them to the present by talking through what things they can do today to remember that person in a meaningful way.” 

The importance of looking towards the future is also echoed by Senior Reserve Chaplain of the Coast Guard, Chaplain Ronald Pettigrew. Following the death of his wife, Pettigrew was determined to preserve her legacy whenever possible. 

“When my promotion celebration came it was truly surreal my wife wasn’t there,” said Pettigrew, “but I wanted to use the opportunity to use her memory to encourage others as she always encouraged me.” Turning your grief into action can be a helpful way to work through the pain. Pettigrew suggests finding a way to show those connected to the person who has passed just how much they meant to you. “Write their child a birthday card every year, or pick up the phone and call their spouse,” suggests Pettigrew. “No one should go through grief alone.” 

In a nod to a beloved family tradition, Pettigrew gave away gift cards to service members he worked with prior to his promotion to captain. He instructed that the members use these gift cards to do something special with their partners. 

Focusing on connecting and staying in community with others while grieving was reiterated by each chaplain over and over. “It’s unfortunately easy to grieve alone in this COVID environment, said Ragain. “But we grieve best when we can be together—be connected.” Pettigrew echoed Ragain, emphasizing the need to be intentional. “Use the technology available to play a game together, watch a movie together, celebrate together,” suggested Pettigrew. “When we are focusing too much on ourselves is when we start losing.” 

Being in community shifts the focus away from ourselves and our grief. Pettigrew remembers his time at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the hospital for wounded soldiers. His time with Landstuhl was marked by servicemembers who - despite their medical circumstances - were constantly focused on others. “When I met someone new at Landstuhl, they usually asked five questions,” said Pettigrew. “Not one of those questions had anything to do with themselves—it was always about their sergeant, their captain, their corporal who maybe didn’t make it.” 

But grief is hard—no personality trait or job makes you immune from its effects. “It’s important to remember that grief is not a linear process,” said Ragain. “Many people know the stages of grief, but we can bounce between them over weeks, months, and even years.” When grief is fresh and new, it may be easy to remember this advice above. However, as Ragain points out, grief can come back when we least expect it. It is good to have some self-care practices in place that you can implement during times of stress, when grief is rekindled. 

“There are many support groups that focus on grief,” said Ragain. “We can help you get connected to one in the local area or help you find one online that is more specific in nature—like for people who lost a loved one to suicide.” Chaplains can also recommend books or podcasts related to grief that are religious or non-religious in nature. 

“We’re all like pressure cookers—sometimes we need to let off steam,” said Ragain. The chaplain corps is a trusted resource where you can vent, cry, make a plan of action, or some combination of all three. “The person coming sets the agenda, not me. I am just a listener—here to be what they need at the time.” 

It’s okay to need someone—it’s what makes us human. Pettigrew reflected on the ways his network helped him to work through his grief, especially around the time. “It was a blizzard in Milwaukee and yet I had friends and family drive hours and hours in the snow just to be there for me and support me,” shared Pettigrew about why his wife’s funeral was so humbling. 

Whether you are facing natural storms, or more metaphorical storms, know that there are shipmates and resources willing  to support you. Additional resources for those grieving can be found below.