Writing About Traumatic Events

How many times have you heard people say in the aftermath of a traumatic event: “I just can’t talk about it right now.”  They are mute, as if the right words have not yet been invented to pinpoint their feelings. Some eventually find expressive relief by writing poems, essays, memoirs, keeping a journal or even describing what happened on Facebook.  Those who are visually oriented may speak through the creation of a painting or other art project. There are no rules or even guidelines for self-expression at the boundary of trauma but many who have been through the experience say that describing it to another person does help. Finding the words Our body tells us when we’re ready to unpack and codify feelings, to put words or other artistic expression around painful experiences. For some, even recollection of the experience can stay tucked away for years and emerge years later, perhaps when another life-changing event dredges up old memories. A Vietnam War veteran once shared with me that he didn’t speak about the war he experienced until years later when his son was about to be deployed to Desert Storm in the early 1990s: “It hit me like a ton of bricks – my son might be about to experience the same horrors that I had witnessed. I had to start talking, sharing my own experience, after twenty years of silence.” Owning the story Sometimes the burden of owning the story is so great that there is a need to fictionalize and tell it as if it happened to someone else. It can take months or years to become comfortable with the telling.  Whatever the starting point, be kind to […]

Christmas in the 1950s: A Celebration of Memory

When I grew up in Old Mystic, Connecticut in the 1950s, my family attended a former meetinghouse in Ledyard founded by the Rogerene Quakers in the 18thcentury. Both of my parents had descended from Rogerene followers and both were born at home in Ledyard in the early 1920s. Over time, religious practices at Quakertown changed from their simpler early belief of a God within each of us to a “church” that was more evangelical and fundamentalist. For a kid, the best part of attending Quakertown Church was that Christmas was a cause for an exuberant celebration.   Sometime in the early twentieth century, the weekly worship service had become mainly music and lots of “praising” with people jumping up spontaneously to shout, “Praise the Lord!” They would mention the sick and needy during the praising and ask for blessings. Some people, overtaken by the Holy Spirit, rolled on the floor in the center aisle while speaking in tongues, a nonsensical language (to a child’s ear) over which the speaker supposedly has no control. For me, it seemed like a curious venting of adult emotion. These were folks who had disavowed dancing, smoking and sinning in general but this rave effect on Sunday morning was allowed. Kids didn’t speak this language but grownups appeared to feel better after the attack of tongues subsided. When they got back to their seats, often with assistance, they would be smiling and perspiring At Christmastime kids could have fun, too. There were trees laced with paper chains and ropes strung with cranberries and popcorn at the front of the church. Choirs and soloists sang […]

A Veterans Day Remembrance

Tuesday, November 11, 1968 was cold and stormy in Connecticut and it was barely light when my father drove my husband, Army Captain Dave Crocker, Jr., and me to a tiny airport in Groton where Dave would board a small prop plane for the first leg of his trip to Vietnam. I was probably not thinking about the fact that it was also the fiftieth anniversary of the armistice in 1918 that marked the cessation of hostilities on the Western front of World War I. Fifty years seemed like more than two generations to me at age twenty-one. My grandfather had fought in the British Army in World War I and he died in 1955, another lifetime ago. Three years in the trenches of France took an unspoken toll on him but he survived for enough years to succumb to the sequelae of the wounds, deprivations and mustard gas he suffered between 1915 and 1918. Today, November 11, 2019, I’m imagining how my grandfather must have received the news of that horrible war’s end. I’m wondering if he heard the news in the hospital in Malta where he eventually recovered enough to come back to the U.S. and marry my grandmother, or if he was still limping through the freezing mud in France when the Armistice was announced. I was only eight when he died so I don’t think he had the opportunity to advise me about the risks of marrying a soldier going off to war.  And, as I’ve heard from many family members of veterans, he didn’t reminisce about the war.  Even my father […]

The Vietnam War – Fifty Years Later

  May 17, 2019, marks the 50th anniversary of the death Captain David R. Crocker, Jr. in Vietnam. We were married on June 9, 1966, the day after his graduation from West Point. Each year, remembering his death on this date reverberates through whatever I’m doing. This “anniversary” is the only aspect of the experience of his loss that feels anchored in time. Each year I note the weather, then and now, and who I am, presently. I remember that in 1969 it was finally becoming spring-like and trees were blossoming, although it had been chilly in the northeast like this year. By Memorial Day, when his funeral was held, we were jettisoned into summer with temperatures in the 90s. My great-uncle wore a black suit and passed out from the heat when we gathered in the cemetery. I would have liked to have shared my secret then with Uncle Ephraim that Dave wasn’t really being buried that morning. Perhaps he wouldn’t have collapsed from sadness and the sun. Only our letters and other memorabilia were in the coffin. Dave’s sister and I would take his ashes to the Eiger in Switzerland later that summer. It was my attempt to control uncontrollable events. I remember the commencement of disbelief and grief back then as I reabsorb the chain of events from long ago; the notification, the decisions, the identification of the body, the acceptance that it had really happened.  Each year since, at this time, […]

Wanted: Words That Describe Experience

How many times have you heard people say in the aftermath of a traumatic event: “I just can’t talk about it right now.”  They experience a muteness, as if the right words have not yet been invented to pinpoint their feelings. Some eventually find expressive relief by writing poems, essays, memoirs, keeping a journal or even describing what happened on Facebook.  For those who are visually oriented, they may speak through the creation of a painting or other art project. There are no rules or even guidelines for self-expression at the boundary of trauma but many who have been through the experience say that describing it -somehow- to another person does help. The Process of Healing Our body tells us when we’re ready to unpack and codify feelings, to put words or other artistic expression around painful experiences. For some, even the recollection of the experience can stay tucked away for years and emerge later, perhaps when another life-changing event bumps up against old memories. A Vietnam War veteran once shared with me that he didn’t speak about the war he experienced until years later when his son was about to be deployed to Desert Storm in the early 1990s: “It hit me like a ton of bricks – my son might be about to experience the same horrors that I had witnessed. I had to start talking, sharing my own experience, after twenty years of silence.” Owning the Story Sometimes the burden of owning […]

National Gold Star Spouses Day, April 5, 2019

It was a muggy July evening in 1946 when five women, whose husbands had died in World War II, traveled to Hyde Park, New York, to meet with a soon to be war widow, Eleanor Roosevelt. Mrs. Roosevelt later wrote in her news column, My Day,  “…they came for supper, and then went to Poughkeepsie the Lafayette Post of the American Legion had given them permission to use a room… It was a small meeting, though the casualties among servicemen from Dutchess County were pretty high.” In fact, more than 175 men from Dutchess County alone were killed or missing in action  by 1945. These five young widows had first met together in Marie Jordan’s apartment in New York City in 1945 to talk about how they might band together to support the needs of all war widows and their children. Losing a spouse in combat meant also losing income, medical care, commissary privileges and even a place to live if they lived in military housing. Most had married young and had no job training. They had little or no resources from the U.S. government and often relied on the charity of family and friends. Out of desperation they formed a support group called the American Widows of WWII.  Their appeal to Mrs. Roosevelt was auspicious. When FDR died in 1946, she counted herself among them and became one of the original signers of the group’s charter. The name was changed to Gold Star Wives of America in 1948 (GSW) and the mission expanded to seek benefits for both the spouses and children of persons who died in combat and/or as a result of service-connected illness. [caption id=”attachment_823″ […]

Veteran’s Day 2018: Grief and Gratitude 

On Veteran’s Day, November 11, 1968, my husband departed for the Vietnam War. I was twenty-two and could not fathom that he might not return. That rainy Tuesday morning, fifty years ago, would be the last time I heard his voice. September 2018. I’m at an airport hotel in Atlanta, Georgia, where three giant, air conditioned buses are loading veterans and family members for a trip to the Infantry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia, a US Army post where many trained for the infantry.  I have a front seat, right behind the driver. Most people have boarded already but the seat next to me is still empty and it seems I’ll be traveling the one-hour plus journey without a seatmate. I know several veterans of the Vietnam Triple Deuce at this reunion of the 22thInfantry Regiment Society – especially the guys of A Company who served in Vietnam during ‘68 and ‘69. They knew my husband, Captain David R. Crocker, Jr., as their beloved Company Commander. When he was killed in a booby-trapped Viet Cong bunker on May 17, 1969, the entire unit grieved and had to be taken from the field for several days. I didn’t know any of them until we met, by chance, in 2006 and they opened a window to our shared past. Since that first reunion in Omaha, I’ve met them at reunions around the country every eighteen months. More and more veterans of the Triple […]

The Gift of Story

Child development professionals agree that reading and telling stories to children builds motivation, curiosity and memory. It also helps children cope during times of stress or anxiety, and creates a relationship with books and fosters a sense of being loved and nurtured. As a small child, stories and books were a slim bridge between me and my father. After I became an adult, they were a life-line. He could be an eloquent speaker if he was engaged in a discussion about the interpretation of some bit of Bible scripture, but he was not a conversationalist with his children about everyday events. Most evenings after supper, he withdrew into the Encyclopedia Britannica until it was time for me and my brothers to go to bed. Then, at our bedside, he magically became an animated storyteller of tales by Thornton Burgess, along with Bible stories. I don’t remember that he held a book but it was dark. As I pulled the covers up to my chin in the blackness of our tiny room with barely enough space for our three small beds, he would start with a dose of biblical lore, perhaps Daniel in the lion’s den or Jesus with the moneylenders, and then launch into the adventures of Sammy Jay, Blackie Crow, or Mr. Toad. The details were colorful and precise. I could see the forest creatures in their hats and vests as Dad spoke, and I imagined them cavorting in the woods outside our window. The next day my brothers and I combed the backyard for evidence that Uncle Billy Possum or Bobby Coon had been there as Dad had described. My older brother might spot a […]

National Nurses Week 2018

During National Nurses Week we acknowledge the excellence and dedication of those who choose the nursing profession. It begins each year on May 6th and ends on May 12th, Florence Nightingale’s birthday. I grew up surrounded by nurses in a nursing home that my family owned and operated from the mid 1940s until 1960. We lived in a small village in Connecticut and my mother’s skills as a Registered Nurse also made her the go-to person for emergencies  – cuts, burns, broken bones, head injuries and even emotional problems. I remember my mother calmly cleaning and dressing a bloody wound after a neighbor fell from a ladder and, on another occasion, carefully positioning a child’s possibly broken leg after a fall from a tree. Eventually, a doctor might arrive. But watching my mother and her colleagues in action, day after day, offered me firsthand knowledge that nurses were unsung heroines who never hesitated to respond to an emergency. Nurses in war zones and military settings have done their job quietly and largely unnoticed as well, putting their lives in peril on the battlefield for centuries. Yet, little is known about their experiences in war or exactly how many participated. Appropriate financial remuneration in the nursing profession has also been meager and long in coming. Only at the end of the twentieth century did nurses’ pay, both in military and civilian life, begin to become commensurate with the risks and responsibilities of their jobs. Many women served as nurses during the Revolutionary War, but they are barely mentioned in history books. The Second Continental Congress, heeding George Washington’s advice to […]

Thanks for the Hope!

The evidence that people have hope for a more peaceful and compassionate world can pop up at some unexpected moments. Our local independent bookstore, Bank Square Books, is offering an unusual window display as we make our way through the holidays. Rather than using precious window display space to tempt the passerby to buy beautiful books, they have created a tableau of hundreds of small, yellow post-it notes – each describing something the contributor is grateful for. From across the street, it looks like a constellation of tiny square stars.  Up close, it is a delightful collage of how people pay attention to goodness surrounding us. At the end of this unsettling and frightful year, this window is a small oasis in the middle of downtown for the community to eavesdrop  on a collective sprinkling of grateful moments, each just a few words. David Schiller says in The Little Zen Companion that words can never be a substitute for experience. “Reading about fruit just isn’t the same as biting into a warm peach. But give the words time to work, and you might find – not the truth, but a glimpse.” Many people are struggling to survive tragedies, abuse, precarious life situations, and how to understand what actually is true. What action can we participate in that will keep our sense of communal hope alive when one tragedy is followed by another and another? After the mass shooting of children and teachers in Newtown, Connecticut, Deepak Chopra offered some suggestions for behaviors that can give hope to those who are suffering and feeling hopeless. He suggests that we should pause over […]