A Father’s Grief

Author: Lee Vincent

Finding a Game Plan to honor your loss

What’s the first male response to trouble? Get in there and do something right away, of course. But you can’t do anything about a warrior who is already dead, which leads to the next natural, manly move: write off the loss and move on to something else. This is how men have always coped with reality and how we survived and got our families sheltered and fed, after all. But when we are blindsided with a heartbreaking, stunning loss, these traditional ways will backfire and only aggravate our pain sooner or later—even years later.  

Rose (Pixabay)

Men who are confronted with the death of a son or a daughter need to realize as soon as possible that our usual male tendencies may not be all we need. The fact of death itself should tell us that the normal ways of coping with life aren’t enough. My lifelong ways of handling trouble would lead me into one of two mistakes: either pretending I’m completely okay or pretending that my young Marine didn’t permanently own a huge piece of my heart. Both would be lies—lies to myself and to everyone who knows me.

When the Marines came to tell us that our daughter, the glorious Lieutenant Lara “Vinny” Vincent, had died in a plane crash, my wife Susan and I had to drive 100 miles to tell our son. In those two hours of seclusion in our Suburban, I saw that I needed a plan like I had never needed one before. We would take control of the situation and use every mental resource we could think of. We would stay a step ahead of all the sad rituals and extremely uncomfortable events to come. Miraculously, Susan and I were able to make these kinds of decisions in the first days and weeks of our catastrophe. But it is never too late for those who have long since buried your beloved warrior to find some peace, some small but priceless joy, to take action, and begin to think new thoughts. 

Drive away blame.

My Vinny died in peacetime, when most of the military deaths seem to come from highway accidents, training incidents, and airplane crashes. Military airplanes are more complicated than civilian aircraft. Pilots must constantly practice, and mishaps are just part of reality. Every weekend multitudes of servicemen and women are driving great distances to see loved ones and find recreation. Then they rush back hundreds of miles to meet their curfew. Almost every weekend someone dies.

A dozen times a day you may think you “lost” the 20 years of work and emotion you invested in your son or daughter. We are bombarded with regrets of someone’s heedless mistake, of the apparent pointlessness or futility of an accident or homicide. We can’t always keep away those thoughts of what should have, would have, could have been. Yet these thoughts don’t do anything for us but increase our pain. Instead, we must forever know there is no futility or shame in the death of one whose living had so much merit. We must never stain their merit with negative judgments. And we must never let our sorrow over what they could have been take away any of the glory of what they already were.

Be proud of your loved one.

Before Marine Officer Candidates School, my daughter went through basic training as a private at Parris Island Recruit Depot. She wanted to learn the life of the enlisted Marines she would someday be protecting. I realized at the graduation that every private who completed that arduous training, regardless of class rank, had already achieved something amazing, something far beyond the rest of America’s youth.

We have the right to spend every day of our lives showing our pride in our loved ones, regardless of the details of the death itself. Because every one of those we love had already risen far above the rest of our society in character, courage, honor, and ability. And not an atom of their achievement can ever be lost or taken back. We all know this. Someone has surely told you this truth already.

Start exercising your pride. No matter how long you have been grieving, make a point to hold your chin up in pride for part of every day. Your deceased warrior deserves it. He or she has earned it. If they had lived, they would be proud today of who they are and what they are doing. Now it’s our duty to be proud for them.

Make your own celebrations.

There were three separate services in Florida and Massachusetts before we finally buried our Marine’s ashes at sea. On the Coast Guard cutter that took us from Woods Hole, Massachusetts to open sea near Martha’s Vineyard, we brought along four Episcopal priests, but I gave the homily oration myself, followed by my wife Susan’s upbeat celebration of our daughter. Sue ended her words by leading the Marines in a hearty “Oo-rah!”

Since that day, we have done several things to celebrate the amazing life that our Vinny lived. We have planted a tree in her honor near our town’s Veterans memorial. A prize fund in our daughter’s name was established at Boston University’s Marine Science Program where she had been an unforgettable young scientist. Now my wife and I run an ever-expanding specialty plant sale every June that yields a good contribution to the prize fund.

Understandably, you may not have done all these things yet. But you can. You can still hold a memorial event at your church or club any time, any year. Then you can speak your own words and say everything you wish you had thought of before. You can rent a hall and have a party for all of your loved one’s friends, set up a picture display, and get them to write their sentiments in a book. Buy two or three inexpensive pocket recorders, so they can dictate their memories. You can turn the past into some kind of a future. You can take charge of your grief, even if you can’t make it completely go away.

Get together with others.

I was amazed at how much better I felt after the several TAPS National Military Survivor Seminar weekends I attended between 1999 and 2010, and I would sure like to have more dads, brothers, and sons join me in the hotel sports bar next May. 

Crystal Gateway is a comfortable hotel, very large, with lots of quiet places, a pool, and a gym. You can spend the whole weekend alone with your thoughts in your own little world, if you wish. Or you can take the opportunity to talk, and you might find yourself laughing more than once. In TAPS you are sure to find friendly listeners—others who are pleased to hear about all the things you don’t want to talk about at work and in your social circles at home.

My co-workers and my Rotary Club might feel uncomfortable if I pulled out my pictures and started talking again about how fabulous Vinny was and how much I wish I could have a beer with her tonight. But in one of the lounges at our hotel, surrounded by our TAPS family, sharing memories and pains with others is as easy as munching the pretzels.  

By Lee Vincent, surviving father of Second Lieutenant Lara Vincent