The soldier’s grief

Roger Brooke, Duquesne University
[This is what I said at the Sunday morning service at Memorial Park Church in Allison Park, Pittsburgh during a service to welcome home returning warriors. The service was Christian, of course, but drew from the Soldiers Heart model and its archetypal understanding of the requirements for the warrior’s return. It was a moving service. Pastor Paul Becker and his team did superb work. The service was recorded and is available on their web site.]

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In his now classic book, Achilles in Vietnam, Jonathan Shay writes: “The emergence of rage out of intense grief may be a human universal; long term obstruction of grief and failure to communalize grief can imprison a person in endless swinging between rage and emotional deadness as a permanent way of being in the world” (Jonathan Shay, Achilles in Vietnam, p. 40).

Why do we humans grieve? Grief is the most original way of remembering the dead. Remembering the dead in grief is a way of honoring them, and, as the years go by, of honoring our ancestors.

Grief weighs us down, stabilizing our lives, reminding us that we cannot reinvent ourselves each day, but that we belong to a story that is older and larger than ourselves. Grief draws us into these wider narratives of meaning, in which our personal history is not something that belongs to us, like clothing which we can discard, but, rather, we belong to that history, to be taken up into our lives as a living destiny. In grief we are heirs with an inheritance to be carried to the next generation.

Grief brings the world closer, unlike depression, which pushes it away. Simple acts of kindness, or a dog’s friendly approach, mean so much to us. We are made tender in grief and intimate with the world.

The images which stay with us, of the dead at their best, are a mirror to the values we hold most dear: friendly, cheerful, tough, loyal, uncomplaining. When we remember the dead in this way we reaffirm our own guiding values. By honoring them in our grief we become better people, dedicated to a future that might be worthy of their continued presence in our dreams and memories.

We do not reach “closure” — that empty term of pop culture. What we can achieve is a way of living with dignity and generosity, recognizing the preciousness of the living to whom we remain indebted. Anniversaries and memorial rituals, such as this, are occasions of continued self- and communal renewal.