War Baggage

There have been books and lectures written on veterans and the dying process.  I have witnessed a variety of cases.  The issue has to do with baggage left unprocessed. These are men and women who pushed down their experiences and suddenly on their death bed, the strength to suppress is gone and the issues come catapulting to the surface.  Practically this takes on two forms – either hallucinations and delirium that is out of control, or tears and weeping that won’t stop.  The former is an attempt to still suppress, the later is the cleansing experience of finally dealing with the memories.

I’ve been meeting daily with a patient going through this catharsis.  He served in WWII, never spoke of his past and prided himself for being a “man’s man” and showing no emotion. Suddenly he has found himself crying constantly. Everything out of his mouth comes back to war. He admitted to direct responsibility of the death of men, which has haunted him throughout his life. Today he said something that put in all in context.

My patient was injured in the war and therefor exited active duty by way of a hospital. The General in command of the hospital met with he and 4 others who were also injured to honor them with medals, as well as encourage them.  The final words he received from this high ranking official were, “Remember, the first time you ask for help…you’ve lost”

Through tears at this retelling, my patient said “and I never did ask for help”

Startling to me, this message of strength equated with self reliance. It explains a lot of the man he became and the man who sits now unable to stop the tears.

The message I share with him today is the opposite; that I see strength and courage in his ability to work through his past. That what he is doing now takes more of a “man” than hiding it away. That the tears are the evidence of healing and wholeness.  I think the first time you ask for help…you’ve won!

image from PBS.  Copyright © 2007 WETA, Washington, DC and American Lives II Film Project, LLC. All rights reserved

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