Q: Tell our readers about your background and the motivations behind writing We Regret to Inform You: A Survival Guide for Gold Star Parents and Those Who Support Them.
Joanne Steen: I once had it all, a happy marriage to a handsome Navy pilot, an exciting engineering career, and a new home with a sunny bedroom that begged for a crib. Unfortunately, fate intervened one Friday afternoon and turned my world upside-down. By the end of that awful day, I was a military widow. This was not an identity I sought or a lifestyle I chose.
Life does go on; it just goes on differently. Over time I changed careers, fell in and out of love, and after September 11, 2001 and the looming threat of war, I found myself co-authoring a book I longed for when my own husband was killed in the line of duty.
One day, after speaking at a military conference, a Gold Star mother asked when I was going to write a book for the parents of fallen service members, so I did.
Q: Military loss is often a sudden, traumatic event that the general population usually has misconceptions about. You confront several fundamental preconceived notions about military loss, but which do you find the most significant and why?
Joanne Steen: There are three common misconceptions about military loss and surviving families.
The first misconception is that military personnel only die in wars. Combat deaths embody the ultimate sacrifice because those service members have given their lives in the active defense and protection of our country. More than 7,000 military personnel have died in the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars since September 11, 2001. During this time, roughly 16,000 service members have lost their lives in other military operations including on peacekeeping missions, maintaining operational readiness, from accidents and mishaps, by suicide, or from illness and disease.
The second misconception is that military families are prepared for the loss of their loved one. I know from personal experience that families are never prepared for “that knock on the door.” While we’re aware there’s a possibility this may happen, we know there’s a much higher chance our loved ones will return home safely. After all, they’re in great shape, well trained, and part of the best military force in the world.
The third misconception is that the military takes care of its own. The military does provide constant support from the time of notification through the military funeral and memorial services. It also provides support through the casualty assistance process, which typically lasts anywhere from 30 to 90 days and the various service branches offer long term support through their individual outreach programs. But military grief has a long shelf life and families of the fallen often have a hard time within their civilian communities where little is known about how to best support them.
Q: Memorial Day, observed on the last Monday of May, honors our fallen service members and today typically functions as a three-day weekend filled with sales, vacations, and barbecues. In your opinion, is there a more meaningful way to commemorate such a solemn holiday, given the fact that the premise is the remembrance of the fallen?
Joanne Steen: Those mega sales and backyard barbecues are here to stay! But in a three-day weekend, there’s time to attend a remembrance ceremony. Most local communities have some sort of memorial service. If a remembrance ceremony isn’t your thing, check out a Memorial Day parade. For more active individuals, consider a local Run for the Fallen, where you’ll run in honor of a fallen service member.
If you’re more of a stay-at-home type, then get your family and friends to observe the National Moment of Remembrance at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day. Whatever you do, just remember to take the time to pay homage to our fallen servicemen and servicewomen.
Q: What are some common mistakes people make on Memorial Day and how can our readers avoid them this holiday?
Joanne Steen: The biggest mistake I’ve noticed is when people use the phrase “Happy Memorial Day.” We hear this on social media; see it in advertisements, and even in recipes for special Memorial Day foods. Gold Star families find that phrase offensive. We have a tendency to wonder why anyone would wish us a “happy” day when Memorial Day is a federal holiday designated to pay tribute to service members who have donned the uniform and died in service to our country. We all would take offense if someone wished us a “Happy 9/11.” The same goes for “Happy Memorial Day.”
Q: What do you hope your readers’ takeaway from We Regret to Inform You?
Joanne Steen: I believe Gold Star mothers and fathers will find it a trustworthy guide for surviving the traumatic loss of their military child, coping with their profound grief, and developing the resilience to move forward in life while remembering their child in healthy ways.
Relatives, friends, and support providers will find what they need to know about military grief and loss and will also learn proven practices on how to best help the grieving both now and in years to come.
Learn more about Joanne Steen and We Regret to Inform You here.