Author: Lalaine Estella
Peer Mentor Karen Hilliard, surviving spouse of Lt. Cmdr. Jeffrey A. Hilliard, and Sherry Jennings-Kevianne, surviving spouse of Sgt. Julian Kevianne, are decidedly two very different women. Karen, pictured on the left, describes Sherry as artistic and creative, while Sherry, on the right, says Karen is logical and business-like. But their differences matter little when they lean on each other’s strengths for ongoing support in their journey through grief.
Sherry: I’m not much of a phone-talking person, so we decided (communicating) on social media or text message was best.
Karen: My first contact with Sherry was in September 2017 via email. We learned quickly that we did not like email conversations so we switched to texting. Establishing a safe environment through email can be tough due to the lack of verbal and nonverbal cues, but somehow texting was easier for us. I sent her information about Wreaths Across America and soon after we were making plans to place wreaths on our husbands’ graves at Arlington National Cemetery in December 2017.
What it was like to meet in person:
Sherry: We met at Wreaths Across America. It was the first time I saw my husband’s marker and it was extremely emotional for me. But meeting Karen and the other wives there really helped a lot. My first impression of Karen was her physical attributes. She is very tall and has a very sweet and warm smile.
Karen: We agreed to meet at the cemetery. After placing my husband’s wreath in a different section, I went to look for Sherry and found her in Section 60. It was wonderful to finally meet in person and be with her as she honored the memory of Julian with his squadron mates. I was immediately impressed at what a giving person she is because even though she was dealing with her own pain, she supported others around her who were struggling, too. Going back to Arlington for the first time after burying Julian had to be very difficult for her.
How each would describe the other:
Sherry: Karen can be professional and business-like. She has a healthy balance in her life. It is something I strive for. When we met up again at the TAPS National Seminar, Karen was quick to take me under her wing. I did feel a little overwhelmed because it was my first time. But she assured me that I should pace myself and take it as I am able. She was quick to make sure all my needs were met to make me feel as comfortable as possible.
Karen: Sherry is extremely talented and very artistic and has worked at Universal Studios and Disney. She uses the energy from her grief in positive ways by creating artistic paintings, decorating talking sticks at the National Seminar, and she even made a personalized decoration for me. She is always reaching out to others and her kindness impresses everyone she comes into contact with.
When you knew you needed her:
Sherry: I knew I needed her when I woke up one night from a dream and was so saddened by it. I texted her and she quickly assured me: “You can’t change your dream. But now that you are awake you can change how you think, and know you’re safe.” That was a huge revelation for me—to know I could text at anytime and help would be there.
Karen: When we began encouraging each other through Facebook and texts. It is thrilling to know that someone thinks about you during the day and sends a quick note or tags you on Facebook. People can get too busy with their own lives sometimes but Sherry is very thoughtful to let friends and family know that she cares.
How she’s helped you:
Sherry: Karen and has helped me to become more practical in my thinking and not be so hard on myself. She has shown me how to navigate my emotional journey in ways I didn’t know how.
Karen: Sherry has helped me realize that the grief journey is always better when it is shared by someone who understands the incredible loss and darkness you feel during the early days. But she has also helped me realize how far I have come. It is important to look back and see that you are stronger than you ever thought you could be and to share this with others so that they believe that they will make it in this world too.
How she’s changed you:
Sherry: She allowed me to see that grief is different for everyone—it’s not one-size-fits-all. We all grieve differently and deal with it differently.
Karen: She has reminded me of the importance of staying connected with others who need the support of a caring community. I want to be connected and to focus on what really matters in this life. People matter!
One thing you’d like her to remember:
Sherry: I think I would like Karen to remember what a giving person she is. She is always good to me and talks to me not just about navigating my grief. We also talk about everything, like movies or the colors of our clothes—just fun girl things.
Karen: I would like Sherry to always remember that she is stronger than she knows, that the world is a better place because she is here, and that Julian would be so proud to see all that she has handled in her first year. Sherry Jennings-Kevianne is amazing!
Be Part of the Peer Mentor Program
The TAPS Peer Mentor Program equips survivors 18 months past their loss to serve as a mentor to fellow survivors looking for support from someone who truly understands. Our Peer Mentors are survivors who are trained by peer professionals to accompany others in their grief.
If you are an adult survivor and would like to be connected with a Peer Mentor, please call the National Military Survivor Helpline at 800-959-8277 and ask to speak with a member of our Survivor Care Team, who will walk you through the process.
Photo: Tara Ruby