My son, 1st Lt. Danny Weiss, a Ranger, died Mar. 4, 2012 in his apartment off base. I kind of died that day, too. He’d served three tours, first as a young enlisted specialist turning 19 in Afghanistan, then as an officer.
All the ideas I had of who I was, of what I knew shattered the moment I learned my son had died by suicide. Slowly, I started learning how to breathe again. Slowly, I began to see how little I knew of the risks my son and other Soldiers were under of being killed by suicide. Slowly, I began to see that what I thought I knew was all wrong.
I now know that there are many ways to die. Many people suffer their grief in isolation, learning bad practices, not being able to function, particularly with the extra layer of suicide. I was more fortunate. I’d found a lifeline in the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors with other Gold Star families. I began to learn what had killed my son. I began to learn, through peers, that I could breathe again.
I found that the stigma about suicide started with me. I had the idea that one commits suicide, that it was a weakness to be fought through by “manning up.” It couldn’t possibly happen to my son. But there it was: A death by suicide. The strongest man I knew, or so it had seemed.
I learned too late how wrong I’d been. My son fought his battles and lost only the one. He fought what has been described as a physical psychic pain. He hid it from all around him. He excelled as a Soldier and leader while suffering profoundly. It is now unimaginable to me the strength he possessed to fight so many battles.
He hid it too well. And never asked for help beyond a few close friends. The night he died, I learned his call list was too shallow. It needed to be deeper. I know now that all Soldiers must be aware that the strength to ask for help is as learned and as practiced as cleaning a weapon.
And I know this: Proximity to deadly weapons gives few second chances. And my son was not afforded another chance.
So my education as a survivor of a loss by suicide began with my own post-traumatic stress. It is not a disorder. It is my life. I’ve been forced to learn to live with trauma well beyond what most know.
It takes practice. Here are some of the steps I’ve learned along the way (in no order):
1. Live only in the now. When your mind battles back or forward, breathe.
2. Acknowledge the reality.
3. Embrace, don’t avoid the pain.
4. Remember, the love did not die.
5. Get to know and take care of the new person you are. Find what works for you.
6. Forget finding out “why,” just search for it. It will help you learn the many whys.
7. Accept support and love from others.
I know the invisible wounds of PTS, traumatic brain injury and moral injury are challenging to see. We have to look harder. And the first, hardest look is at ourselves. Then we can look to the right and to the left and we can protect one another.
Training the body and the mind to a balance of well-being is a daily practice that will never end. Just like training the body, training thoughts and the mind takes work.
Let’s get to work.
An excerpt from the journals of 1st Lt. Danny Weiss
I left home when I was 17 and that sounds less impressive as I say it but it was something nobody did where I was from anyway.
I left home with an empty head, and that’s dangerous cause that emptiness screams to be filled up with nonsense or anything just so long as it’s filled like water rushing through a crack in the body of a boat or something.
I let myself fill up
and empty again
and in that I rebuilt myself as good as being born again.
But Christ it hurts to think back,
to think back to that life before what I am now.
To that innocence,
to that blissful emptiness,
to that wonderfully dull stupidity.
It was nothing then,
but it’s something now.
Editor’s note: To learn more about what it’s like to survive military suicide, read, “The ones they left behind,” and, “What parental suicide means for children.” Learn more about preventing suicide in “Suicide: Recognizing the warning signs,” and by visiting the Army Suicide Prevention Program, Military OneSource (800-342-9647) or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255).