Sep 06, 2022

“Thank you for your service.”

How many times have those words came out of your mouth or into your ears?

What about, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Both are meant as kind gestures. And both force a simplistically positive response—even when the receiver will almost always have magnificently complex feelings that he or she pushes a little further down with each “you’re welcome” and “thank you.”

So, what are we to say instead? Ignoring our appreciation for another’s service to our country or ignoring another’s loss isn’t a good solution either.

Imagine you were in John’s shoes (keep reading) or Christy’s shoes, what would you want to hear from strangers, family, and friends?

Quite possibly, you’d want to hear nothing at all—you’d want to see support from those you love and who love you. You’d want the friend who sees your struggles and steps into action by offering a hug, a walk, sitting with your kids so you can take an uninterrupted shower, or providing company as you watch a movie together.

You might like to see that others are with you when you need it most. Having a friend who says, "Call me anytime—day or night—I’ll answer." I can attest to the value of this approach having been on both ends of the 2 am texts and calls because the thoughts and images wouldn’t leave my mind and I just needed to know someone was there. Being able to offer the same support to friends provided me with the same level of comfort I felt making the calls years earlier to different friends. I didn’t need a speech prepared or have the perfect words to say. I just needed to be present and take the call.

The more comfortable we become with “just being,” the more authentic the exchanges we can have with family, friends, clients, and strangers.

I have the privilege of sharing “John’s” story with you today. As a leader, John is there for “his people.” As a husband and father, John is there for his family and they, particularly his wife, are there for him.

"John's" Story

As the eldest of two boys with a father who was regularly away on military assignments, John was a natural leader in the house. Undoubtedly, John learned empathy from his mother. She was present and gave her full attention to her children. She was the mom playing catch and taking the hard pitches from her grown child. “Mom could throw a baseball harder than anyone else,” he said.

In all the stories that John told me, the most unsettling loss of all was that of his mother due to cancer just a few months into his military service. It was a seismic shift—a change that moved his foundation. She was his grounding. She was always there for him. And then, she was gone.

In his lifetime of military service, John has experienced horrific experiences. He was at the Pentagon just hours after it was hit on 9-11. Seeing the devastation at Ground Zero one week after it was hit was awe sickening. As he rounded the corner at Ground Zero to a small opening of the disaster, he literally stopped his phone conversation. Buildings were still burning. Chaos was still looming. This was his first experience understanding how easily a human body is pulled apart.

John described his first tour to Iraq almost like an out-of-body experience. Seeing body parts left on the wall leaves a person to wonder if it could possibly be real. It was almost “cartoon-ish,” he said. Your brain stops reacting to the gruesome reality after a while.

Like many soldiers, marines, sailors, airmen, and coast guardsmen, John came back home and continued with life. He became friends with his neighbors, one of which was a professor who specialized in PTSD. They shared conversations about how two people could see and experience the same thing and one be ok and the other goes off the deep end—John being the one who was “ok.”

A few years later, John was back at war. He spoke of the men who died and the vivid details of their lives and families. He knew the families and was all too familiar with the dreaded question, “was the loss of my child worth it?”

John went back to school next. It was night and day difference. Nobody paid attention to what he was doing. He could go to class or not. There was virtually no structure or accountability. The pleasantries of his peers who gave the “thank you for your service” line with no understanding of the events he had experienced were draining. After a couple months of this alternative world, a student used the word “hominin” during class and he lost it. "Why not use simple words, why be so academic?!"

He remembers feeling lots of anger and realized it was time to talk to someone. His old neighbor could have been right with some of the PTSD stuff, he thought.

Death continued to follow him. Watching death from behind a screen of an air attack was no less impactful. Back home, he was surrounded by suicide—lots of suicides. John was angry. Angry that people could make a long-term decision based on a fleeting moment.

After seeing so much death—in the moment, immediately after, and the lingering effects through survivors—how can John be "ok" and remain so focused on creating moments of "wellness?" His response is that he has learned a “strange compartmentalization” of which I fell right into the perfect demonstration of laughing at the end of a story that ended with a suicide bomber.  He smirked, “See? Every time I tell that story, the room bursts into laughter. Somehow we disconnect the human element.”

I am a trained therapist, I should have known better. Why did I laugh at something so gruesome? Why, I decided, is because I am human. By getting stuck on a particular image, we stay in that mental room. When stuck in the 'parlor of death,' we start seeing all the other horrific details of death and the hurt in our own life. But, if we leave the parlor and continue down the hallway to the office or family room, we can shut one door and open another. It is easier to stay present in the family room if we shut the other doors. Most of us keep trauma in the cellar and only rarely visit when absolutely necessary…ignoring the cellar for too long can lead to all sorts of plumbing and foundation problems, though.

But alas, keeping doors shut for too long is not productive.

John was feeling rudderless. He was trying to live in too many rooms. He had a foot in the office where he maintains order and creates optimism. Another foot was in the family room darting between being the husband who provides family stability, love, and security and the father who conveys strength and courage to his child who moves schools every several years.

Ultimately, John found grounding in faith. Faith that brought organization and structure. Faith was his guide as they walked freely down the hallways together and peeked into rooms to make sure things were operating and Faith guided him back to the rooms he enjoyed—namely, the family room. No room (even the cellar) is ignored with Faith. Faith shows which rooms need general maintenance and which rooms are in need of renovation and rejuvenation.

Leaders do not often have the opportunity to let their guard down. They protect all of the rooms, shutting and opening doors for others.

I asked John who else he had told his story to and he responded, “maybe nobody straight through like that.” So, why did he bring an acquaintance down the hallways with him to peek into all the rooms circling in his head? Why was he willing to tell me his story from start to finish? “Because you asked,” he said.

That's it. I did nothing more than walk with him through the halls as he told his story. I made no assumptions of which rooms were the "bad" rooms to avoid or the "good" rooms to have a seat and stay for the day.

People are drawn to those with high empathy. People who hear and see them. Not their guarded self from a particular room, but their true inner self who wanders the hallways. People with high empathy are exquisite listeners. They take in the burdens of others. They are excellent at being present, caring for others, and showing understanding, care, and acceptance. By showing these characteristics toward others, people naturally assume that they are "ok."

Rarely are empathetic leaders asked how they are doing or if they want someone to walk the hallways and peer into rooms with them. It's hugely cathartic as John described the experience. Even those of us who are good listeners sometimes need someone to hear us—to walk down the hallways with us and be our guide to know how long to peak into certain rooms to make sure problems are not bubbling up and ultimately guide us back to the rooms that provide us the most joy and fulfillment.

To John, I offer, "Wow. You have a lot on your plate. My family appreciates the security you provide to us. Can I buy you a coffee and chat for a bit?"

Professional Application

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