The Mask of Being OK
Author: Sammi Hester
With the fall season fully underway, I find myself reflecting. My children and I have always loved the excitement Fall brings. With festivals, fires, and flavors, the senses come to life and new memories are made. For our family, Fall also signals the start of the holiday season, beginning with Halloween.
While I know not everyone celebrates Halloween, the topic brought to mind the masks that are often worn during this time. It is believed that the word “mask” first appeared in the English language sometime during the 1530s. It is derived from the Middle French word “masque” meaning “a covering to hide or guard the face.”
As I saw the meaning of the word mask, the connection to my own grief journey jumped out at me. In 2006, we lost SFC Richard “Sam” Hester to PTSD Suicide. It was my oldest daughter’s birthday and, after receiving “the knock” on the door during her party, I remember feeling as if I was instantly numb. As if I had stepped outside my own body. It felt as though I was watching this event unfold as if it were happening to someone else. The day before, I was a strong, well-organized woman who could multitask and run a school and a family without blinking. The day after, I honestly couldn’t remember to brush my own teeth. Things were so overwhelming, I almost felt paralyzed.
As I sat on the couch, staring out the window blankly for hours that night, what I mistakenly thought was that I had to “pull myself together” and “be strong” for my girls. I didn't give myself any grace or time to process. I immediately put on “the mask” that covered, hid, and guarded all my emotions.
As the day, weeks and months following our loss unfolded, I found myself wearing masks of all kinds, not that I realized it at the time. The masks, I would later understand, served as a protection to my psyche. They also served as armor while we navigated a very challenging trauma loss and grief journey. These masks allowed me to still be “mom,” to still put on the forced smile and help my kiddos feel that everything would be OK. These masks helped me “function” in the day to day.
Looking back, I wore a “mask of strength” most often. Even the smallest of tasks required thought and energy I didn’t have. If I pretended I could handle it all, surely that would make it so. All the questions that swirled in my head required someone who could function, and at the time that just wasn’t me. How would I support my girls through their grief? How would I handle making every decision? How would I do it all?
Day by day, people told me, “You are so strong,” but in reality, I felt like such a phony. Couldn’t they see I was falling apart? Didn’t they know I was not being the mom I used to be? We had more takeout than ever, my laundry piled up, my house was a wreck, coworkers had to repeat things multiple times, I couldn’t remember things I had just said the day before.
The mask of “being OK” became second nature. I found that when asked “How are you?” instead of being honest with others, I simply stated “I’ll be fine,” or “We are doing ok,” when clearly we weren’t. I told myself others weren’t really interested in knowing or hearing my real answer. Personally, I also knew that if I actually allowed myself to feel and process the emotions that were swirling non-stop, I would fall apart. I had to hold it together for my girls, so the mask of “being OK” was one I clung to tightly. I felt that being honest with myself about the anger, sadness, betrayal, hurt, loneliness and fear (and so much more) meant I had to accept reality, process this loss and what that loss changed about my future and my children’s future. I couldn’t do that alone.
After I connected with other Survivors through TAPS, I realized I wasn’t alone. I realized that others had the same fears, emotions, and experiences. Almost all of us wear masks as we walk this road.
Grief is a journey without a book of instructions. Many of us start our journey alone and scared. We put on these masks without intention as a way to preserve and protect our hearts. Over the years, as we move forward through grief the sting eases and the need for the masks lessen. I found that as I connected with other survivors and realized I wasn’t alone in these experiences or feelings, I was able to be more honest with myself and others. With a greater understanding, I was able to share emotions and feelings out loud without fear of judgment. With the support of others at TAPS, I was able to take down the masks and lean into being present and aware as I processed the trauma and grief. Most importantly, for me as a parent, I was able to model healthy healing for my sweet girls.
Of course in our day to day, we all still have moments that we wear masks. It is easy to slip one on without even being aware. What I love though, is that the moment I see another survivor and I know there is no need to guard or protect. There is a safe space with amazing people who will meet me where I am and walk beside me in love and support. As you experience this beautiful Fall season, my hope is that each of you have a moment to reflect and see how often you might be wearing those masks. Find your connection, your support and lean in so that you too can take down the mask you may have up guarding your heart. TAPS is here and ready to meet you wherever you are in your journey.
Sammi Hester is a member of TAPS Survivor Care Team and the surviving former spouse of SFC Richard "Sam" Hester.
Photos courtesy of Sammi Hester.