When a Military Parent Dies While Serving-Helping the Grieving Family

When a military parent dies while serving, their child may express their grief through behavior changes. This can be especially true for children who experience communication difficulties. Parent Center staff may get a call from the surviving parent when the child’s grief has a negative impact at school.

For example, school staff aren’t always aware that grief can express itself as negative behavior, and may discipline the child. Sometimes staff think that grief-related behavior is a symptom of a child’s disability and their problems are ignored. At other times, school staff may decide to have a child evaluated or re-evaluated for special education, when their behavior needs a different type of help.

Military children have also been bullied by classmates after their military parent’s service-related death, with the bullies acting out of their own discomfort and anxieties, and sometimes based on opinions about the military or war.

Any of these circumstances can result in the surviving parent calling your Parent Center. Here are some tips for talking with that parent in ways that respect their loss and their military culture:

  • Acknowledge the family’s loss: “I understand your wife died. It must be difficult for you and the children.” (Try to avoid saying “I’m sorry for your loss”.  Some military families interpret this as pity, rather than sympathy.) After the initial contact, when talking again with the surviving spouse, ask “How are you doing today?”  This shows you understand that grief is a process and some days are better than others, and that your earlier expression of compassion wasn’t just for form’s sake.
  • Don’t ask how the military spouse died. Military-related death is frequently covered by media, and results in intrusion into the family’s privacy.
  • Avoid comparing your life experiences to the bereaved spouse’s (“I remember how painful it was when I lost my dad”).

You don’t have to treat the bereaved spouse with kid gloves, but if the loss is recent, the family’s grief and stress level might mean you need to be the person reaching out for follow up.

In addition to your work with individual families, you might find it helpful to address the situations described above in workshops and training for military families.

The following installation-based programs provide Parent Centers with extra opportunities to do outreach to military families. Program points of contact can get your information to families when they need it most. You can suggest families use these resources if they aren’t aware of them:

Survivors Outreach Services (SOS):  this office provides each bereaved family with a dedicated person to guide them through the available agencies and help them get the benefits and supports they need. Usually located in an installation’s family support services office, such as Army Community Services, Fleet and Family Services, Airman and Family Readiness Services, or Marine and Family Programs. Find SOS programs using the Interactive Maps on our website.

Families OverComing Under Stress (FOCUS): Family Resiliency Training for Military Families: This program originated in the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, and was expanded to serve a number of Army and Air Force installations.  Not available on every installation, but there is an online component. Locate a local program through an installation’s family support services, such as Army Community Services, Fleet and Family Services, Airman and Family Readiness Services, or Marine and Family Programs. Get the contact number by using the Interactive Maps on our website.

Military Family Life Counselors (MFLC) and Child and Behavioral Youth Counselors (CYBC): free, highly-qualified, professional counselors available to active-duty and National Guard families.  These counselors offer short-term, non-medical counseling for challenges that rise from the circumstances of military life.  They may be contacted through an installation’s family support services office such as Army Community Services, Fleet and Family Services, Airman and Family Readiness Services, or Marine and Family Programs. Find them by using the Interactive Maps on our website.

Family Advocacy Program (FAP) (external link) -may be important when the stress of the military parent’s death becomes overwhelming for the surviving parent.  The program works to prevent domestic abuse and child abuse and neglect. Use the interactive maps on our website to contact the installation’s EFMP Family Support Office if you believe the family’s situation might be helped through this program.

National Programs and Resources for surviving family members:

Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) (external link):  many resources, especially Supporting Children and Family Survivors of Military Line-of-Duty Deaths (external link). Not only for families: Parent Center staff can learn a lot about military life and culture on this site.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network: resources for Military and Veteran Children and Families (external link). Parent Centers and other professionals may be interested in their toolkit The Road to Recovery: Supporting Children with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Who Have Experienced Trauma (external link). (Contact the Branch for information about a program currently using the toolkit and working with children of veterans who have intellectual or developmental disabilities).

“Talk, Listen, Connect: When Families Grieve” is a resource kit from Sesame Street for military families. Bilingual in English and Spanish (all in the one kit).  Available from Military OneSource (external link).

Tips for responding to a military death retrieved from:

Bushatz, Amy, 4 Tips for Talking About Military Death (external link)

Operation We Are Here, Insights in Caring for Loved Ones of the Fallen (external link)