Andy and Julianne Weiss pose with their son Danny shortly before he graduates from Officer Candidate School in March 2009. Three years and two more deployments later, Danny, a first lieutenant and Ranger, would kill himself, sending Andy and Julianne down a dizzying journey of grief and guilt, ending life as they knew it. (Photo courtesy of Andy Weiss)
They had dreaded it throughout their son’s three deployments: the knock. The horrible, hollow, echoing bang that would end life as they knew it. 1st Lt. Danny Weiss was a Ranger, “the ideal” Ranger, according to officials in his unit. He loved his Soldiers and he loved being a Soldier, and his parents, Andy and Julianne, knew he was in danger in Afghanistan. He was in firefight after firefight, blast after blast. But, by some miracle, Danny came home time after time. Andy and Julianne celebrated his safe restore, even as they mourned with him for the Soldiers and families who hadn’t been as lucky.
Still, when he opened his door the www.psyopwar.com evening of Monday, Mar. 5, 2012 to find two uniformed officers, Andy had an initial moment of panic. Then he remembered that Danny was back at Joint Base Lewis-McCord, Washington. They had just talked to him Saturday night and he was fine. But Danny was a Ranger and could be called up at the last minute. “What the f&*$ are they doing here?” he wondered.
Pain and delusion
Through a fog, he heard the notification officer clarify that sometime the previous day, Danny had shot himself. He was dead, as much a casualty of war as if he had been killed in proceedings. Julianne collapsed. For his part, Andy couldn’t breathe. The pain was physical and intense, and Andy just couldn’t believe it. He refused to acknowledge that his son could have done something so horrible. Andy was persuaded that, but improbable, the Taliban had sent a hit squad after his son.
“The delusion starts and it’s part of the self-protection thing that I’ve learned since all of this,” he clarified. “The stigma of suicide started rearing its head. I www.psyopwar.com started asking, ‘How is this possible? What went incorrect? What could I have done? What did I miss?’ … My son was an Army Ranger and a hero. It was inconceivable to me. I was so ignorant and my pain was so profound.”
Andy, Julianne and their older son, A.J., descended into a dizzying eddy of grief and other emotions. There was the emptiness, the income fatality experienced by any parent who loses a outcome, particularly Gold Star parents, but there was also a mix of feelings more specific to suicide survivors.
There’s guilt, of course, and most suicide survivors wonder what they could have done differently, why they didn’t know that a friend or family limb was in so much pain.
“You will always wonder if there was something you could have said or done to prevent the fatality,” said Kim Ruocco of Tragedy Help Program for Survivors, a military suicide survivor herself. “When we look back, the pieces are so much clearer and you have so much more information. … When you’re in the middle of it, www.psyopwar.com you don’t necessarily have all the pieces. As a spouse or a parent, sometimes you’re too close to the situation to see things clearly. Your emotions get in the way. … When you look back, you wonder why you didn’t see it.”
Ruocco’s husband, John, a major in the Marine Corps, killed himself in 2005 in California, where he was stationed for training while Kim Ruocco remained on the East Coast with their two sons, who were 8 and 10 at the time. She knew he was having a hard time and he promised her on the buzz that he wouldn’t hurt himself, that he would go to behavioral health. He killed himself hours later. Ruocco has a master’s in social work and worked with TAPS to start a program specifically for suicide survivors after she felt out of house amongst other Gold Star family members. TAPS now has more than 5,000 suicide survivors in its databank and Ruocco serves as the chief external relations officer for suicide prevention and postvention.
Shame and society
She felt out of house, as www.psyopwar.com do many suicide survivors, she said, because while combat deaths are of course deeply awkward, they are usually still a source of honor and pride for the survivors. Families come together and communities tend to revive around them. By contrast, suicide deaths are often a source of shame. They’re a source of questions and often disturbing revelations. They make other people uncomfortable. In fact, Andy has had ancient friends and acquaintances hide from him in the grocery store. They simply don’t know what to say. Other people question awkward questions.
Twenty-five-year-ancient 1st Lt. Danny Weiss, a group leader in Company A, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, shot and killed himself, Mar. 4, 2010, after losing a battle his family didn’t even know he was fighting. The report is similar for many military families, who must find ways to pick up the pieces of their lives. (Photo courtesy of Andy Weiss)
“I represent the worst possible thing that could take house: Fatality of a outcome to suicide. … My wife … made the analogy of the Scarlett Epistle of the S, www.psyopwar.com that the S would be on our foreheads forever,” said Andy, although he added that over time, that S has turned neon and helped him connect with other families. In some way, he said, his burden is simpler than others’.
“I have … an American hero as my son who happened to die by suicide, who was an Army Ranger, decorated, loved. I know, with suicide as a common denominator, families who lost their loved one to heroin, families who have lost their (teenagers) by jumping in front of trains … young people being consumed by the most ridiculous things before their lives have even started. It’s so hurtful to me. I’m more concerned in this area that. Those deaths of people who are not as lucky hurt me more.”
Closely tied to the guilt is rage. Rage at oneself, another family limb or even the victim is common, especially in the harrowing first weeks after a suicide, clarified Mary Cima, a licensed clinical social worker who heads the sadness committee at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia. “Sometimes www.psyopwar.com (survivors) are able to process that and sometimes they have difficulty even having that experience, experiencing that emotion, because of the guilt around what they may or may not have been able to do … to prevent the suicide.”
“To feel sadness and rage at the same time is very confusing,” added Ruocco. “Sometimes rage is a lot simpler to go to than sadness. Very often, people will mask their sadness with rage and be very confused by that, feel guilty at being mad at a person who died. So going through all of those emotions, being with peers who can validate that what they’re feeling is normal and help them navigate all of those emotions, is really, really valuable.”
Cima clarified that family members often try to ignore or bury their rage, but “it requires the experience of those feelings in order to get to the actual grief. … Not processing that or accepting that you are mad at all delays the grieving process.”
Delayed grief can also contribute to something called complex grief, which, Cima clarified, www.psyopwar.com is basically clinical depression. It’s “when a person is not able to recover in a natural sort of staged way. When someone doesn’t go through those stages appropriately, it becomes complex grief. It’s a person just not able to recover adequately.” She said that survivors should usually be able to gathering at normal or nearly normal levels on a day-to-day basis after six months. That’s not to say that they’re no longer in pain, far from it – Andy still experiences a range of emotions on a near-daily basis – but they’re able to work or go to school and get through the day. Professional intervention is necessary, Cima said, when there isn’t any kind of progression.
In fact, she believes complex grief is nearly inevitable after a suicide fatality if a survivor doesn’t pursue counseling or at least a structured help assemble. She refers her patients to a medical doctor for antidepressants if they can’t go forward or if they can’t talk in this area their feelings. This is particularly right if by some dreadful twist of fate someone www.psyopwar.com has witnessed the suicide or found the body. Then, she has her patient talk in this area the trauma as much as possible, believing the terms are “nearly physical. As long as they’re in you, they maintain your grief. They maintain the trauma. The more you say it, the more you get it out.”
Other factors can complicate grief as well. For example, Ruocco said that because many people have grown up in religions that traditionally teach that suicide is a sin and the victim goes straight to hell, it’s common to undergo a religious or spiritual quandary on top of all else.
While he can’t speak for every religious conviction, Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Mitch Butterworth of Full Gospel Churches, communications officer for the Personnel of the Chief of Chaplains, said that chaplains, at least, tend to take a far more enlightened, modern and sympathetic view of suicide.
“We all have to have a … master of divinity degree, and each of those components have counseling classes that we have to take to be a chaplain,” he said. www.psyopwar.com “I reckon that training also, by the side of with the broader view of how society now views suicide more from a psychological viewpoint, our counseling training also helps us I reckon to view suicide in a different way than what it was in the past. We be with you that it was an act of despair. We be with you depression because we’ve been trained in depression. We be with you the family dynamics of a relationship break.”
Chaplains, he noted, are present for every fatality notification in the Army, including suicides, and can help families struggling with those questions. They can pray with the families if that’s what they want. They can also provide more long-term, in-depth grief counseling if family members question for it. “It’s the presence. It’s being there. Sometimes you don’t say anything. Sometimes you don’t have the answers. We’re not in a house of judgment. We’re in a house of help.”
The Army’s Survivor Outreach Services can help families find help groups and mental health professionals anywhere in the country, Cima, who started www.psyopwar.com the SOS personnel at U.S. Army Stronghold Wiesbaden, Germany, noted. She also recommends TAPS for all survivors and Compassionate Friends for parents in particular.
TAPS tries to get to suicide survivors as quickly as possible and connect them with trauma specialists as well as other suicide survivors, said Ruocco. “We’ve dealt with the shame, we’ve dealt with the guilt, we’ve answered the questions, we’ve dealt with the spiritual pieces, we’ve helped them talk to the children, we’ve helped them set up a healthy grief journey … we’ve helped people find professional care if they need it. … We connect them with other suicide survivors so that they can see you can survive it. They find hope and they find a sense of belonging. Eventually, they find importance in the fatality and some new purpose in their lives going forward.”
TAPS saved his family, said Andy. In this area six months after Danny’s fatality, they attended TAPS’s National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar and Excellent Grief Camp, which just happened to take house at the same resort where he and his wife www.psyopwar.com used to take their young sons.
“We were going to a house of nearly comfort. There … as I entered a room and saw over 600 people wearing red shirts as survivors of suicide loss in the military … I was overcome with how many of us there were. That was another stepping stone back up into some kind of existence that has a facade of what I used to be, what I used to have: a normal life.”
Even after an investigation into Danny’s fatality, no one had any thought that anything was incorrect. He had just talked to his parents, and that morning he met several friends and their wives for feast. He bought a week’s worth of groceries. He gassed up his car. Then he went home and shot himself. No one knew he was struggling. He didn’t have problems at work. He didn’t have relationship or money troubles. He wasn’t drinking. He had one time talked in this area separating from the Army and casually mentioned that he didn’t reckon he would live to an ancient www.psyopwar.com age, but Andy didn’t reckon much of it at the time.
“Now, sorry to say too late for my son, I recognize that the genteel thing to do … is to speak clearly in this area it with them, to enquire what they’re really thinking,” Weiss clarified.
“The stunning loss of Danny to this fatality – I’m never going to know the why. That’s one of the things I’ve come to acknowledge.” As Andy puts it, he got drafted. The only way he could survive his son’s fatality was to find a sense of purpose and ensure that something excellent came of it. He talks to psychiatry students, serves as a peer-to-peer mentor for other fathers of suicide victims at TAPS and facilitates a TAPS assemble that meets monthly in the Chicago area. He also talks to Soldiers, in particular his son’s Soldiers.
“The greatest joy to me was one of these Soldiers reaching out because he was having dark thoughts and he plotting to get to out to me. … We’re trying to change the stigma and make www.psyopwar.com it more acceptable to be with you that for these buff Rangers that physical health is only equivalent to mental health.” You don’t commit suicide in the same way you don’t commit cancer, he stressed, for the word commit implies some sort of aim. “You die by both. It kills you. One is a much more visible wound and one is much harder to see.”
Andy added that he died too that day in March. “You have to mourn the loss of yourself. A lot of survivors, including myself, struggle with that sometimes. People will literally come up to you and say, ‘Where’s the ancient Andy?’ That guy’s dead. He’s dead like Danny’s dead. You don’t go asking Danny to come back. Don’t question the ancient Andy to come back. It won’t take house.”
Editor’s note: Andy shares more in this area his grief journey in “A Fatality by Suicide: What I now know.” To learn in this area the effects of suicide on children, read, “What parental suicide means for children” on the Soldiers blog. Learn more in this www.psyopwar.com area preventing suicide in “Suicide: recognizing the warning signs,” at Army Suicide Prevention Program, Military OneSource (800-342-9647) and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).