(I am posting this early, hoping you might receive it by Valentine’s Day…)
This is my Valentine’s Day reflection. I had to make that clear, because when you saw the word “grieving” in the title and when you are actually reading this reflection, you might question: “What does this have to do with Valentine’s Day?” But, by the time you’ve finished reading this, I hope you will know the answer to that question.
Major Steven Beck, U.S. Marine Corps, was a CACO, a casualty assistance call officer. His duty was to inform a spouse or parents that their Marine had been killed. (I found this information from a Washington Post column [July 6, 2008] in George F. Will’s new book, American Happiness and Discontents. In this column, Will quotes from Jim Sheeler’s book, Final Salute: A Story of Unfinished Lives.)
The manual for CACOs says, “It is helpful if the (next of kin) is seated prior to delivering the news…. Speak naturally and at a normal pace.” Writes Will, “Sometimes, however, things do not go by the book.” Doyla Lundstrom, a Lakota Sioux, was away from her house when the two men in uniform appeared at her door. She had two sons serving in Iraq. One was a Marine, one a soldier. When she heard they had come, she quickly called her husband and screamed into her cellphone, “Which one was it?” It was the Marine.
Military personnel deployed in war zones, often leave behind “just in case” letters. Army private First Class Jesse Givens of Fountain, CO, wrote: “My angel, my wife, my love, my friend. If you’re reading this, I won’t be coming home… Please find it in you heart to forgive me for leaving you alone.” To his son Dakota: “I will always be there in our park when you dream so we can still play together… I’ll be there in the sun, shadows, dreams, and joys of your life.” To his unborn son: “You were conceived in love and I came to this terrible place for love.”
According to the Watson Institute at Brown University, the U. S. Military lost 7,057 men and women “in post-9/11 war operations.” That figure was from 2021. Another ominous statistic is this one: There have been 30,177 suicides among U.S. service members and veterans of the post-9/11 war operations. As terrible as those figures are, the fact remains that in the waning years of the “war operations,” in the words of one Marine, “the nation has changed the channel.” Many of us almost forgot that a war was going on and that thousands of individuals and their families were paying the ultimate price. Only occasionally did the nation get a glimpse of that price: every time they saw on the news or witnessed in person a flag draped coffin being escorted home.
In his book, Sheeler vividly describes one incident. A Marine CACO was on a passenger plane escorting a fallen warrior home. Another passenger, noting the uniform, asked if he were coming home from the war or was he going to the war. The CACO, a sergeant answered with the words he was taught to say: “I’m escorting a fallen Marine home to his family from the situation in Iraq.” Yes, the “situation”…
“When the plane landed in Nevada, the sergeant was allowed to disembark alone. Outside a procession walked toward the cargo hold. The airline passengers pressed their faces against the windows.
From their seats in the plane they saw a hearse and a Marine extending a white-gloved hand into a limousine. In the plane’s cargo hold, Marines readied the flag-draped casket and placed it on the luggage conveyor belt.
Inside the plane, the passengers couldn’t hear the screams.”
George Will concludes his column with the story of Sarah Walton, his assistant. When the army CACO came to her Arlington home, Sarah was not there. She had rarely forgotten the rule that a spouse of a soldier in a combat zone is supposed to tell the army when he or she is away from home. It took a while for the Army to find Sarah in her parents’ home in Richmond. Her husband, Lieutenant Colonel Jim Walton, West Point Class of 1989, was killed in Afghanistan. Writes Will: “This week he will be back in Arlington, among the remains of more than 300,000 men and women who rest in more than 600 acres where it is always Memorial Day. This is written in homage to him, and to Sarah, full sharer of his sacrifices.”
Why am I posting a reflection like this on Valentine’s Day? Shouldn’t I be writing about red roses, heart-shaped candy boxes, or God’s great love for us? I chose this topic of grieving because grieving is the other side of loving. Paradoxically, it is often the depth of our grieving that gives us a hint of the depth of our loving. When we grieve the loss of a loved one, regardless of the circumstances or even when the actual loss occurred—yesterday…last month… a year ago… 20 years ago—we’re witnessing to the mystery, power, and beauty of human loving. More specifically, through our grieving, we are saying:
Loving is the greatest power we possess…
Loving is the most important thing we do in our life…
Loving is the most challenging thing we do in our life…
Loving bestows upon us our greatest joys….
Loving, sooner or later, calls us to our greatest sacrifices…
Loving is fun… surprising… beyond reason… impossible to put into words…
Loving is the greatest gift we have been given by our Beloved God from whom all blessings flow…
And when the object of our loving is taken away from us through death, we grieve… in our own way… we grieve.
But for those of us who are Christian, we believe that one day our grieving will be turned into rejoicing. We believe that when Jesus danced out of that tomb on Easter morning, he somehow took all of us with him. So even when we are immersed in our grief, we can simultaneously believe we will see our loved ones again. Or, in the words of the poet John Shea, we believe that “the laughter of reunion leaps on the far side of loss.”
Did anything in this reflection touch your heart? If so, what? Why?
What has your own experience of grief revealed to you about loving?
Do you think we all, regardless of age or health, should write “just in case” letters to our loved ones? Explain your answer.
How are you celebrating Valentine’s Day this year?
PS: (I’m writing this Sunday, Feb. 13): Thank you for your prayers for this past weekend’s zoom retreat sponsored by the Portiuncula Center for Prayer in Frankfurt, IL. I enjoyed meeting some “old” friends (Sisters Elona and Melanie) and meeting new friends–including a number of readers of this blog. I also want to thank the three wonderful women who made this retreat possible: Sr. Mary Lou, director of the Center; Sr. Janice, program coordinator; and Megan, our IT professional who helped make everything run smoothly!
Happy Valentine’s Day to each one of you… and to your loved ones too!
I chose this 2016 video of a song from 1962: “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Written by Pete Seeger and Joe Hickerson, it is performed here by the Kingston Trio.
I encourage you to consider writing a comment below. I know my readers (and I!) really appreciate this sharing.