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Learning to Live with Loss

a group of people stand in front of flags

The Bereavement Counseling team at the Columbus, Ohio Vet Center: (from left) G. Scott Johnson, PhD; Roseann Umana, PhD; Mark Madry, MSW; and James Sizemore.

Coping with loss is a very personal, sacred experience. Handling the lifestyle changes that result from losing a loved one may seem significant when compared with the emotional toll that a loved one’s death can have. It is not something that has to be experienced alone, though.

Every military family is aware of the distressing prospect of seeing a uniformed Casualty Assistance Officer at their front door. VA realized the importance of offering help right away and maintaining that assistance for as long as the family member needs it.

The Vet Center Bereavement Counseling Program offers support and counseling services to parents, siblings, spouses, and children of service members who have died while on active duty. Counselors are ready to offer assistance when are contacted by the Casualty Assistance Officers or when they receive a referral from a concerned friend.

The program standard is to contact family members within two hours of receiving the referral and make a face-to-face visit within two days.

“To sit with somebody who’s experiencing that much grief is very humbling and makes you aware that, in an instant, you could be in that situation,” said Dr. Roseann Umana, bereavement counselor at the Columbus Vet Center. “The first visit, I expect I’ll be there for a couple of hours, because they need to talk.

“It’s very intense — I feel pretty tired when I leave,” she added. “It’s not technically difficult, in terms of [counseling] skills, but it’s emotionally difficult. I have to go there knowing that I can’t fix it, because this is not a fixable thing.”

“Everybody has their own relationship with the deceased — so they all need their own time to deal with the loss.”

— Lisa McLaughlin, social worker and bereavement counselor at the Raleigh, N.C. Vet Center

Counseling Lima Company

In 2005, a Columbus-based Marine Reserve unit suffered staggering losses during their deployment to Iraq. Lima Company lost 48 Marines — many of them lived near Dr. Umana’s Vet Center.

The Columbus bereavement program saw an influx of friends and relatives in need. Dr. Umana and her team of counselors led a multiple family bereavement group for two years.

The bereavement counselors were able to become a part of the Lima Company family, supporting them as they reconfigured themselves around their lost family members. Group and individual counseling were the first offered as a part of the all-encompassing support services offered by this unique Vet Center program.

“We’ve seen 44 families — and sometimes that’s spouses, sometimes that’s parents, sometimes that’s siblings. I’ve even had fiancés that have come in. And some of these families are fractured, so we have needed to assign more than one counselor to a family,” Dr. Umana said.

For as long as the family needs them, counselors offer assistance with everyday things like job placement and picking out a new school. Counselors are also familiar with the VA system so they can help navigate families through the benefits enrollment process and setting up counseling services.

Bereavement counselors have learned to become flexible in the face of family dynamics and the very personalized grief process.

“Everybody has their own relationship with the deceased, so they all need their own time to deal with the loss,” said Lisa McLaughlin, a social worker and bereavement counselor at the Raleigh, N.C. Vet Center.

“Sometimes they come in and there’s pressure to get a lot of things off their chest — and then they may come back later. People come and go as they need to, that’s encouraged.”

In the case of the families and surviving members of Ohio’s Lima Company, Dr. Umana said she has remained in touch with some support group members. The father of one Marine shared his story of coping:

“People look at me now that it’s been 5-6 months since my son’s died and ask, ‘Are you OK?’” he related to Dr. Umana.

“I wasn’t sick and I’m not going to get better,” he replied. “It’s more like somebody ripped my arm off — and I really liked my arm and I’ll really miss it.

“I guess what I have to do is become the best one-armed man I can be.”

“The goal is to get them stabilized, at least as functional as they were before [the death],” Dr. Umana said. “To move from being just devastated by the loss to re-formulating their definition of themselves, so it incorporates the loss of this person they loved. That’s the transformation I try to help them with.”

The “psycho-social” program

Involvement in the program on the part of the family members is voluntary. Program founder and VHA’s Chief Readjustment Counseling Officer Dr. Alfonso Batres explained that this was the best approach to gain the trust of grieving family members.

“The word ‘counseling’ comes with a certain connotation,” he said. “Grieving is a normal response and we are not there to infer that they have a mental health problem.”

Dr. Batres describes the Vet Centers as a “psycho-social” program where Veterans and their families can turn for help with their problems. While society is often in a rush to move on from death, counselors who volunteer for the Bereavement Program are screened and trained to help a mourner figure out how best to memorialize their loved one.

“It’s been an open learning process from the start,” he said. “We did not anticipate the amount of social services these families would need. We triage the families, provide counseling where needed, then we link them up to [local community] services. We’ve networked with local community agencies, like TAPS [Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors], so people don’t fall through the cracks.”

Attention to the needs of Veterans and their families was the impetus for this program. Families who found comfort through the services of the bereavement counselors have made their local Vet Center their home.

“At the Vet Center many of us have a really close connection to the military, so this is extremely meaningful to us,” said Dr. Greg Inman, Team Leader at the Raleigh Vet Center. “So it’s an honor to share in their grief, their journey.

“In order for you to be helpful to the family, you have to be present. You have to hear the painful story — oftentimes you hear it over and over again — but you have to hear the story.”

Related Link:
  Vet Center Bereavement Counseling