by Elaine Wilson, AFPS
Oct. 15, 2010
I was hard-pressed to hold back my tears last week as I spoke to several amazing women who had lost a military loved one to suicide.
They told me their stories in a hotel lobby, surrounded by strangers who were rushing past to meetings or hauling luggage to their rooms. But they barely noticed, lost in memories that triggered laughter, and tears, as they scratched away at the surface of their terrible loss.
These women, along with more than 200 other family members, had traveled to Alexandria, Va., for the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors Suicide Survivor Seminar and Good Grief Camp. TAPS is a nonprofit organization dedicating to helping survivors of fallen military loved ones.
This seminar is the second one TAPS has dedicated to suicide survivors, and participants range from parent to spouse, sibling to battle buddy, but all lost a military loved one to suicide, some as recently as a week ago.
One of the women I spoke to, Miranda Kruse, had lost her Navy husband to suicide nearly five years ago after a long-term struggle with anxiety and depression. He was the “love of my life,” she told me.
After his death, Kruse was gripped by the isolation and loneliness that so often follows a suicide. Her family and friends didn’t know what to say to her or how to offer her support. Depressed and alone, she barely left her house for two years.
“Loneliness is so horrible after a suicide,” she said, her eyes welling up with tears. “Thereâ€™s such a stigma and everyone wants to point a finger.”
She eventually turned to TAPS, and found the comfort and support she so desperately needed. TAPS is founded on the concept of survivors helping survivors, and trains survivors who are a few years out from their loss to become mentors to others. And seminars, like the one Kruse was attending, offer an opportunity for people to learn coping skills from experts and, more importantly, form lasting bonds and support. TAPS “got me back on my feet again,” she said.
Kruse is now committed to helping others avoid the same loneliness she felt in the days, and years, following her husband’s death.
As we spoke, one of Kruse’s best friends rushed up to her along with Kruse’s three children, who picked at the plate of sandwiches and fruit she had gathered for them earlier. They gathered close, a newfound family, and a far cry from the isolation she had described just moments ago.
Near Kruse sat Judy Swenson, who had flown up from Texas to attend the seminar. Like Kruse, Swenson had suffered a similar terrible loss several years ago.
Her son, Army Spc. David P. Swenson Jr., mired in debt and depression, took his own life about five years ago.
The soldier had driven to his sister-in-law’s house one night and his superior had called Swenson looking for him. She went to talk to him and explained he’d be absent without leave, or AWOL, if he didn’t return that night. He told her he missed his old unit â€“ he had recently transferred to a new one â€“ and was just too tired to return.
Swenson talked to him of duty and responsibility and he conceded and left that night. That was the last time she saw him alive.
“One of the hardest things — and there are many things that are hard — is my son begged me, ‘Please don’t make me go back,’ she said, the sadness and regret so evident in her eyes.
Her son shot himself that night.
Swenson was seized by grief and sought help from TAPS. TAPS is her family now, she said.
“TAPS is where I can talk about Davy,” she said. “People care; they didn’t know him, but they care. It’s not just lip service — it’s heart. There’s nothing like it anywhere.”
Bonnie Carroll, TAPS founder, called the organization a “safe place.” “This is our home, our reunion, our chance to be together,” she said.
For more on these amazing women and the TAPS seminar they attended, read my American Forces Press Service article, “Suicide Survivors Find Comfort With TAPS.”