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Tragedy Leads Veteran to Support Others

Older woman and man in front of wood panels and arch decorated with green and gold

Army Veteran Michael Charzuk, here with his wife, Lawayne, found that mindfulness helped him cope after his grandson’s death.

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Tragedy, loss, and grief can literally bring us to our knees — and sometimes we rise up to an unexpected new path. Eighty-one-year-old Army Veteran Michael Charzuk faced a trauma that initially wrecked him but, ultimately, put him on a path to bring hope and healing to other Veterans as a Whole Health peer facilitator.

Five years ago, Charzuk and his daughter, Janet, were chatting with his 22-year-old grandson and namesake, Michael. The young man had just returned from a year as a Fulbright Scholar in Poland and had graduated college. As they were talking the young man collapsed and died from a ruptured brain aneurysm.

There had been no reason to think that Michael was anything but healthy with a bright future ahead of him. “Michael was just getting settled in [back at home], and he’d found the love of his life. They were planning their future,” Charzuk said. He and Janet (Michael’s mother) were traumatized and “absolutely devastated.”

VA grief counseling introduced mindfulness

Charzuk felt overwhelming shock and grief. “I knew that I needed help. I wasn't going to be able to handle this. You know, I was taught guys don't cry [that was] my generation,” Charzuk explained. His primary care provider referred him for grief counseling at the VA Northport Healthcare System where he was introduced to mindfulness. “I’d never heard the word ‘mindfulness’ before. But I’ve embraced it and tried ever since to make it a guiding force in my life,” he said.

Initially, he enrolled in the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction clinic. He continues to meet regularly with a group of Veterans who have completed the clinic to practice mindfulness and support each other.

Charzuk said mindfulness helps him acknowledge the sadness he feels about Michael and replace it with comforting thoughts. “I can think that even though Michael didn't live very long, he accomplished so much. And we had him for 22 years,” he explained.

Focused on his Whole Health — body, mind, and spirit

Through mindfulness, Charzuk was able to make other positive changes. “I learned about mindful eating. The facilitator mentioned the MOVE program, how I could lose weight or learn about nutrition…I signed up for chair yoga. It’s all part of Whole Health,” he said. Mindful eating and exercise helped him lose 35 pounds, and now “I weigh what I did when I was in the Army!"

Helping others helps to make sense of the loss

Charzuk’s enthusiasm and success in Whole Health led to an invitation to become a Whole Health peer facilitator. As a volunteer, he teaches the 2-hour Introduction to Whole Health course and recently completed training to be a facilitator for Taking Charge of My Life and Health classes to support Veterans on their own Whole Health pathway.

“After five solid years of the VA helping me get through one thing after another, the least I can do is try and give back a little bit to the VA and the Veterans that are coming behind me,” Charzuk said.

For more information about Whole Health services at your facility, contact your Whole Health facility coordinator.


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