When I was writing the post Walking Point out of PTSD there was the story of a Marine that was haunting me. I would have added it but it took a while to figure out how to begin to do this story justice.
Friday I received a call from a woman trying to help a Marine heal from PTSD and survivor guilt. He watched a lot of his buddies die but one of them was almost too much for him to cope with.
They were in a Humvee when an IED went off. His buddy was laying in his arms and with his last breath, he said, "It should have been you." The Marine had just switched seats so he could see the map better. Imagine that. Imagine watching a friend die knowing you were sitting in the seat where he was killed just moment before. Then imagine your buddy blamed you for it. No chance to change his mind, change his words, no time to make sense out of what happened. He died that quickly.
How do you make sense out of it? How do you find peace after hearing those words? It may seem impossible but it is a story that has been told and retold since the beginning of war. One lives, one dies but it is the one who lived that carries the burden of the life lost.
No, God didn't need another angel. No, it wasn't his time to die. No, it wasn't God only gives us what we can handle. No, it wasn't about some kind of cosmic judgment. It happened. It happens in war. It also happens when someone listens to the urge to more out of the way inexplicably. It happens the way most things happen, on accident and not on purpose. The surviving Marine thinks his buddy was worth more than he was. He thinks his buddy had more right to live because his buddy had kids while he did not. So now he thinks he shouldn't have lived.
A soldier was sick one night in Iraq when he was supposed to be in a convoy. His buddy took his place jokingly telling the sick soldier, "You owe me one" as he walked away. Later that night when the other soldiers came back, one soldier walked over to him laying down and blamed him for the death of the soldier that replaced him. "He's dead because of you." He had been shot in the seat the sick soldier would have been in.
For my husband's nephew, it was a road in Vietnam. He went out on a sweep before he and his buddies had to go on patrol. He stopped to tie his boot when the bomb went off, killing both of his friends. Had he not stopped to tie his boot, he would have been in between them. The shrapnel in his body was the least of the wounds he carried from that dark day. It haunted him the rest of his life.
He got addicted to heroin. Back home he was involved in a drug deal that went bad. He didn't do the shooting but still went to jail. Afterwards it took years to get his life back together and even longer to get help from the VA. They didn't have veterans courts back then so he was among the thousands of Vietnam veterans put in jail instead of treatment. Anyway, Andy's claim was approved by the VA, he started getting help, got clean, fell in love again and was getting his life on track. He was having some problems with his back. The VA sent him for an MRI even though he had the shrapnel in him. It was canceled at the last minute. Around the same time the DOD sent him the records he asked for but was told his unit never existed. That was the last thing he needed to hear. It meant that his buddies died but he lived with that pain and now, apparently, for no reason.
He bought enough heroin to kill ten men, went to a motel, locked the door and pushed furniture against it. The next day, they broke into his room and found his body.
These are some of the wounds they carry with them no one sees but them in the middle of the night and haunting their days.
How many times do you hear the term "survivor guilt" and can't understand how deep that pain goes?
For the Marine in the first story, the soldier in the second and my husband's nephew, the stories are the same because people say the wrong things at the wrong times without thinking how those words will be heard. They want to make sense out of it so when they hear those words, that is the answer they live with the rest of their lives.
It is up to us to find the right words to help them to heal and that, that must be done without the quick-fix-shoot-from-the-hip crap they have been hearing far too often.
Don't try to explain what cannot be explained. You need to explain to them only what can be and the most important thing they need to hear. How to heal, how to forgive, how to forgive themselves and heal the pain they carry.