Walking Together Through Our Grief

Author: Jennifer Burns

The definition of “mentor” is “a trusted counselor or guide.” The word that stands out to me the most is “trusted.” When going through a tragedy, we are often spoken to with cliches and half truths to make us feel better, such as, “They are better off where they are now. You are young.  You will find someone new and move on.”  Someone may say, “Just put on a happy face, and soon you will get over this.” While some of these statements aren't necessarily “lies” they aren't what we need to hear when we are in the midst of our pain and grief. What we long for is someone who doesn't have all of the answers for us but listens to our hearts and let us cry when we need to cry. I know this because it is what I longed for when I lost my husband. I didn't want someone who was constantly trying to fix things or cheer me up, I wanted someone to acknowledge that my pain was understandable and if I needed to scream or to cry then they would be right beside me, screaming and crying with me. This is why I decided to be a Peer Mentor.

Survivors Embrace

I lost my husband 1st Sgt. Ronald R. Keeling to suicide on Jan. 11, 2009. I remember receiving a phone call from TAPS, but I didn't know who they were, and I was so tired of talking to investigators and high ranking officers about what had happened, so I ignored the phone call. Several years later, I was determined to use my own tragedy to prevent other soldiers from taking the same path my husband did. I knew that my “mission” was to get involved with a suicide prevention program and work with soldiers and their family members. However, I was met with a lot of red tape. Every phone call I made and every person I spoke with pointed me to TAPS. I was frustrated because I didn't want to be involved with the aftermath of death but the effort to prevent it. But, I called TAPS, and I am so thankful that I did!

I was told that the best way to use my own tragedy to help others was to become a Peer Mentor, and I was put in touch with Don Lipstein. I told him my desire was to help soldiers stop from choosing suicide and to help families look for signs and symptoms and learn how to get help. I shared with Don that I wasn't sure being a Peer Mentor was the right fit for me. He was so kind and graciously enlightened me to the fact that a lot of survivors are at high risk of taking their lives and that I could potentially prevent other suicides by being a Peer Mentor. Suddenly, my eyes opened, and I realized there were plenty of times after my husband passed that I dreamed I could go with him, too. Maybe being a Peer Mentor would be a good fit for me, and maybe I could use what I had been through to help others.

I signed up to become a Peer Mentor and went through the online training. I then attended the training in Colorado Springs at the National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar in 2013. Shortly after, I was matched with my first mentee. I remember being so nervous when I made that first phone call. I knew from firsthand experience how vulnerable survivors are during those first few months. I wanted to help someone, not say the wrong thing and make things worse for them. Then I remembered what it was like when I was in their shoes and how I longed for someone to just come beside me and say, “I know what you are going through and it sucks, but I will be here for you every step of the way!” It may not have been the most eloquent or meaningful expression, but it was just what my mentee needed to hear. I have walked with her through her grief for over a year now, and we continually say to each other, “It just sucks.”

I tell all of my mentees that I will never lie to them. If they have a question, I will always give them an honest answer. I refuse to sugarcoat anything because too many other people try to do that in our lives. When I say that I will be there for them every step of the way, I mean it! During that first year, so many people let us down that we start to not trust anyone. So, when I say that I will call them, I call! I take mentoring very seriously because I know how desperate I was for someone who understood me, and I imagine that my mentees are just as desperate.

Being a mentor isn’t just about helping others through their grief, it is also about helping myself. I find comfort in walking with others through their grief journey because often times I am not just taking their hands, but they are taking mine as well. When I reach out to them, they reach out to me as well. By sharing my story and my experiences with them, I learn things that help me with my grief and also things that hinder my healing. We walk this journey together, hand-in-hand and step-by-step. In the dictionary, a mentor is a “trusted counselor or guide,” but my definition of a mentor is a “trusted friend and a heart healer.” We are never alone as we navigate through this grief journey, because two is always better than one!