“While my husband was in Iraq, I imagined the knock at the door.”

First published on July 7, 2007

While my husband, a Navy chaplain, was in Iraq with the Marines, I imagined a knock at my door. I imagined uniformed Marines telling me that my husband was dead. I imagined the funeral. I did this regularly until my husband was safely home in my arms.

I thought I was the only one with such a morbid imagination until I began researching my book about military families, “While They’re at War”. Chaplain Jeffrey Watters described how he and other chaplains on Fort Bragg, NC, had noticed a wave of grief sweeping through the families on the homefront.

“They were exhibiting the same symptoms as those who are grieving over a loved one with a terminal illness,” Watters told me. Then he listed the symptoms.

My mouth dropped open. I’d had many of those symptoms during my husband’s deployment. I had cried in the shower, sometimes felt like I couldn’t get enough air, and one day in church had an almost uncontrollable urge to get up and run out. Not only did I not know all this craziness had a name — anticipatory grief — I didn’t know there were techniques to cope with it.

It turns out that anticipatory grief is common among homefront families during a wartime deployment. We’re so afraid of losing the one we love that our bodies start to react as if they’re already dead. The symptoms include:
— tightness in the throat or chest
— shortness of breath
— sensitivity to loud noises
— forgetfulness and difficulty concentrating
— agitation and restlessness, like an anxiety attack
— extreme hunger or lack of appetite
— crying jags
— headaches
— insomnia
— drug use or excessive drinking

Grief is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s a normal human emotion, and grieving people typically move through five phases: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance and hope. Not everyone experiences all these phases, and they may not occur in that order. But any of those responses are normal, even if the one you love is alive and kicking.

Different coping methods work for different people. The number one way to cope: Connect with others who are going through the same thing. You can do it in person or online. Visit for suggestions on how to find support.

Do things that make you feel close to your deployed service member. Write a love letter. Record a message. Fill a care package. It’s like spending time with them.

Volunteer. Helping others or making the world a better place not only keeps you busy and hooks you up with a team that shares your values — it actually releases chemicals in your brain that make you feel good. That’s a real plus when a deployment is bringing you down.

Remove the things in your life that make the fear worse. Turn off the news if you have to, and stay away from rumor mongers — you know, those people who can’t wait to tell you about the latest roadside bomb they just heard about.

Journal. Write down your fears. Once they’re outside your head and down on the page, you may find it easier to set them aside along with the journal.

Feed your spiritual side. During a wartime deployment, the stakes are high. Our loved ones are in a life and death situation. That tends to make us think about what really matters in our own lives, so a deployment can be a time of spiritual seeking. Go ahead and seek. Wherever your spiritual journey takes you, your life will be richer and deeper for having gone there.

Breathe. Most of us use only the upper third of our lungs. When we’re stressed, our breathing gets even more shallow. Yet most of the capillaries that take oxygen to rest of the body are down at the bottom. You need to clear out that stale air to increase the amount of healthy oxygen in your body and give yourself energy. So take a deep breath, then exhale until you’ve pushed all the air out of your lungs. (Smokers will sometimes see a puff of smoke come out, even though they haven’t had a cigarette lately. That’s how long the air sits down there!) Do this five times in a row. Then be still and observe the changes in your body. Gradually increase the number of exhalations over time until you can do ten in a row.

Thought control. Imagine your thoughts are like boats passing by on a river. Whenever a negative thought pulls in at the dock, gently push it away and replace it with a positive thought. Design your dream house in your mind instead, or picture your favorite grandmother, or anything that you associate with happy times.

Like I said, while my husband was in Iraq, my thoughts kept turning to the funeral. I’d try to shove it out of my mind, but it kept on lurking like a monster in the closet. So one day in the shower I just pulled that monster out and let myself walk alongside it step by step, from the knock on the door, to who I would call, to the funeral service and beyond, crying all the way. After that, The Worst That Could Happen seemed manageable. I thought, “I can handle that.” Of course, if it had really happened, I have no idea how I really would have handled it. But walking myself through it gave me a feeling of control at a time when I felt as if I controlled very little. So that was helpful for me. Others find it’s more helpful to just not go there. Do what works for you.

For most of us, just knowing about anticipatory grief, knowing we aren’t crazy, is the best coping tip of all.

Knowledge is power.