By Joanne Steen, MS, NCC

Adjusting to life during a pandemic has been a struggle for all of us. As the weeks have dragged by, we’ve watched the infection rate and death toll rapidly increase; witnessed the emotional toll COVID-19 has taken on the healthcare profession, and saw miles-long food lines of hungry Americans, all while we’ve been living under quarantine restrictions and growing more antsy with each passing day. Each of these events is unsettling on its own, but together they’ve added up to a heap of negative changes and unconventional losses that are hard to absorb in just a few weeks.

One segment of the general public, the 250,000+ family members who have lost a service member in the line of duty, struggles in a different way with the repercussions of this pandemic. Called Gold Star families, these individuals are finding that COVID-19 has pushed both their love-of-country and grief-related hot buttons. As a remarried Gold Star widow, I felt something familiar about my reactions once COVID-19 reached American shores, and recognized this familiarity as grief, even though my late husband was killed in the line of duty more than twenty years ago. After reaching out to the Gold Star community, I found I wasn’t alone in feeling this way.

Why would Gold Star families be impacted like this by the coronavirus pandemic? Let’s take a look at what’s happening in America because of COVID-19 through the lens of a Gold Star family member.

Gold Star families are protective of America.

Speaking as a Gold Star family member, we hold America close to our hearts, especially when she’s wounded. We are patriotic and proud. And we take any type of threat to the country personally, because our loved ones gave their lives in service to protect and defend it.

We hate to see America wounded or threatened, regardless of how it happened.

The crisply-folded American flag that once covered our loved one’s casket was presented to us “On behalf of a grateful nation” and fused us to the nation and flag in ways that only another person who has received one can understand. Trust me, I know.

9/11 is in the news again.

The last national tragedy that brought America to its knees was the September 11th terrorist attacks of 2001. Anyone of age on that fated day experienced the terror of that attack on our homeland and can undoubtedly remember the rampant fear and anxiety, especially in the earliest hours, days, weeks, and months. In today’s world, once COVID-19 invaded the country, the benchmarks of 9/11 were used as comparisons to this current national trauma: the death toll first, then response modes, and now models of moving forward.

Many Gold Star families view 9/11 as the touchstone to life-changing loss, for it’s the primary reason many of their loved ones volunteered for military service.

And in the compelling words of one anonymous Gold Star father, “Bin Laden signed my son’s death warrant on 9/11,” referring to the Al Qaeda leader who ordered the 9/11 attacks. This father’s sentiment nailed the feelings of many. The passage of time has not lessened the emotional intensity of 9/11 for many Gold Star families and when that day is referenced in the global media the intensity returns anew.

Gold Star families are sensitive to loss and grief.

Many people are sensitive to loss and grief and Gold Star families don’t corner the market on it. However most families of the fallen can identify with a number of COVID-19 death characteristics: the inability to be with their loved ones in their final moments, or the fear that he or she died alone; no chance to view the body and “see for themselves” the reality of death; no control over autopsy decisions or burial options, and a national identity attached to the loss, such as “COVID-19 deaths” or “line-of-duty deaths.” Any of these familiar circumstances undoubtedly pushed buttons in Gold Star families. I know one or two did with me.

What we as a nation don’t recognize as losses are the changes brought on by the pandemic. While you may not initially think of them as losses, the COVID-19 safety measures are losses. And each adds a tinge of grief to our overflowing bucket of anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and now traces of grief.

What are the losses that are added to our anxiety buckets? Apart from the personal loss of a loved one or the financial loss of a job and income, some others are:

  • Plentiful food and supplies
  • Praying together in churches, synagogues, and places of worship
  • In-person schools and universities
  • Shrinking 401k’s and other savings
  • Amateur and professional sports
  • Social gatherings
  • Outdoor recreation
  • Safety for the future
  • Clothes shopping in a store
  • And haircuts!

It’s not a complete list and you can surely personalize it. But these losses all add up—big and small alike. And when we have things that are taken away from us, we feel grief, which is a normal and expected reaction to losses of any kind.

Grief isn’t a dirty word, so let’s call our feelings for what they are, then plop them into our anxiety bucket for COVID-19.

Speaking again as a Gold Star family member, we’ve had our share of traumatic loss and grief, but Gold Star families are strong. And tough. We have stood in the face of traumatic death and, not only did we survive, but we persevered. And grew stronger by doing so. Was it easy? No. Did we stumble and fall a couple of times? We sure did. And in failing a time or two, we learned that two steps forward and one step backward is still progress.

America will survive this pandemic; cope with the unknown obstacles that lie ahead, and move forward with the spirit and gumption she’s known for. How do I know this? Because America, just like her Gold Star families, is strong. And tough.

A compassionate guide to help Gold Star parents cope with the grief and loss of their military son or daughter.

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