Suicide in the Armed Forces: Helping Grieving Military Families Pick Up the Pieces

Every day, three to four people contact the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) for the very first time seeking help and support in coping with the death by suicide of a loved one who served in our Armed Forces. They join the more than 4,000 people grieving a death by suicide who are already part of our community of care and support at TAPS, where we welcome anyone grieving the death of a loved one who died while serving in the Armed Forces.

More than 4,000 suicide survivors receive care and support from TAPS, representing 19 percent of the TAPS caseload of bereaved military families. However, the true number is closer to 30 percent, because many deaths initially classified as, "under investigation," or, "due to an unknown cause," are ultimately ruled suicides.

Life in the military can be stressful, dangerous and involve loss and trauma even during peacetime. Our troops have been at a high operational pace for more than a decade with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have cycled through multiple deployments and some of our troops have returned home from war with invisible wounds.

Each death of a service member or veteran leaves behind at least 10 people who are significantly impacted. This includes mothers and fathers, wives and husbands, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and so many others who've been profoundly affected.

The suicidal mind may believe that family members would be better off without the service member or veteran -- but nothing could be further from the truth. People experiencing a traumatic, violent and unexpected loss are at higher risk for anxiety, depression, insomnia and many other issues. Those grieving a death by suicide are themselves, two to five times more likely to die by suicide because they have experienced the death of a close loved one by suicide.

We have found that people find healing and comfort in peer support and connecting with others who experience a similar loss. After my husband, U.S. Army Brigadier General Tom Carroll, died in a military aviation accident in 1992, I found comfort and healing in talking with others who had experienced a similar loss. I founded TAPS in 1994 to welcome all those grieving a loved one who died while serving in the Armed Forces, regardless of where or how they died.

In those early years, we had only a few families with a suicide loss who were part of our community. But over time, more families grieving suicide losses turned to TAPS for care and support. I remember when Kim Ruocco, a widow who lost her Marine husband to suicide, arrived at our TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp in Washington, D.C. over Memorial Day Weekend in 2006.

Her two boys, Joey and Billy, were struggling with the question of how their dad, a decorated Marine Cobra attack helicopter pilot, could come home from the Iraq war and then die by suicide. He was their hero. Kim brought the boys to TAPS hoping they might find some healing and comfort in our Good Grief Camp program. Billy met a Marine who was volunteering with TAPS that weekend who had flown with his dad, who told him how his dad had helped him when he panicked while flying under enemy fire. Billy heard firsthand from this Marine how his dad had protected him by maneuvering his own helicopter into the path of the enemy fire and talked him through a dangerous situation.

The Ruocco family found help and hope at TAPS, and more and more families grieving suicide losses keep coming to us for care and support. Using her master's degree in social work, Kim Ruocco has led the efforts to build an incredible support program at TAPS for these families. This program provides wrap-around care and assistance. This fall we'll hold our fifth annual TAPS National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar in Colorado Springs, where more than 500 people will gather for workshops and support in coping with suicide loss.

These families often come to us isolated, hurting and suffering. They may carry deep shame about how their loved one died. Even their closest friends may not know how to help or support them. But TAPS does.

Society treats suicide losses differently than other types of military deaths. Loss can be very isolating with friends, co-workers and others in the community unsure of how to engage with the family after the funeral is over, and life returns to its everyday routine.

But for a grieving family, the journey of grief is just beginning after the funeral when the initial shock and numbness wear off. It takes, on average, several years for people grieving a traumatic loss to find a "new normal" and begin to restructure their lives.

Families grieving the death by suicide of a loved one worry that their loved one's life will now be remembered only for the way it ended, not for the way it was lived. And they ask one of the most perplexing questions of all: "Why?" I have often seen these families spend years seeking out information and assembling narratives that analyze what went wrong and how tragedy might have been avoided.

Many of these family members were eyewitnesses to their loved one's struggles and efforts to seek help. Others tried to intervene and wish they could have done something that led their loved one to healing and hope, instead of suicide.

In the caring community at TAPS, we give these hurting families a safe place to share, talk, weep, laugh and forge forward. We offer online support groups, real-time internet chats, individual peer mentoring and group seminars that help our survivors connect with others grieving a similar loss. TAPS provides casework assistance that helps them with difficult questions and guides them to find counseling and grief support services where they live. In short, we companion them as they cope with their grief and start their lives anew.

To help save lives and raise awareness about mental health, many of our families reach a point in their healing where they are able to share their loved one's story in a way that educates and informs. Many of our survivors will be speaking on military bases or at community forums this month about their losses and also about their own healing steps after their loved one died.

While many find these experiences empowering, other surviving families may find this month challenging because of the many messages about suicide in the media -- even though they are well-intentioned. Perhaps their death occurred recently or images in the media are stirring emotions for them that are linked to the loss. We always want to remind grieving military families that TAPS is here, 24/7 to offer comfort and support at 800-959-TAPS (8277).

By connecting survivors with each other for support at TAPS, we are able to help many hurting and grieving families remember the lives their loved ones lived in service to our country and find new meaning in life again. When talking about suicide prevention this month, do not forget these families or allow discomfort to make you miss their stories and message. TAPS is about honoring the life that was lived, and the service that was rendered -- we are not about passing judgment on the manner of the death or allowing that moment to define the person.