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Grief and Loss of a Loved One

Grief is a natural response when a loved one dies. How you grieve depends on your personality, your life experiences, the nature of your loss and your coping style. While there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there are healthy ways to cope and survive the pain and find your new normal as you continue on your life's journey.

Here are some ideas to help you process your loss so that you can move toward healing and begin to rebuild your life.

Connecting with your casualty assistance officer

Your casualty assistance officer, or CAO, serves as a liaison between you and the service branch. Make the most of your relationship with your CAO. He or she understands the military environment and is aware of available support from various resources. Assigned exclusively to you for an indefinite period of time – until you determine that assistance is no longer needed – your CAO helps with:

  • Funeral and burial
  • Initial compensation (death gratuity)
  • Insurance, annuities and other payments
  • Social Security and tax benefits
  • Health and dental care benefits
  • Other benefits (commissary and exchange benefits, basic allowance for housing, education, state benefits)
  • Investigations

Accessing long-term care

Eventually your casualty assistance officer, or CAO, will return to his or her primary job full time, but not until matters relating to a survivor’s case have been answered and all entitlements and benefits are being received. However, assistance to you does not stop here; for longer-terms support:

  • Your CAO should connect you with your service’s long-term case management program, which will have expert case managers and counselors available to assist in the years to come.
  • You may access support groups, grief counseling, benefit assistance, milestone management, financial counseling to assist with budgeting, investing, estate planning, tax issues and other long-term benefits.
  • To find your service’s long-term case management programs, contact:

Becoming an active griever

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors encourages the bereaved to be active, not passive, participants in grief, and to consider these four tasks of grief, developed by psychologists William Worden and Therese Rando:

  • Accepting the reality of your loss. The first task of grief is breaking through the denial to an understanding that the death has occurred and can’t be reversed.
  • Mourning the death of a loved one. Although distracting yourself from the pain might temporarily make you feel better, a broken heart must heal. If you don’t allow yourself to grieve, your sorrow may return in more painful ways.
  • Adjusting to the environment in which your loved one is missing. It can take time to fully appreciate the new roles that you’ll need to take on and the skills you will need to learn. Reach out for support when you need it.
  • Forming a new identity. Be patient with yourself as you form new social connections and slowly try to create an identity that is not intertwined with your loved one.

Getting support

You will need the right kind of support in the days that follow the death of your loved one. The following resources can help you and your family deal with grief and other challenges you may be facing and direct you to other services available to service members and families.

  • A Survivor’s Guide to Benefits: Taking Care of Our Families (PDF) describes the responsibilities of your casualty assistance officer, offers information about memorial services and funerals, lists survivor benefits and contains links to resources. You may download a copy of this for free from Military OneSource.
  • The Days Ahead helps surviving family members by providing resources — including listings of support organizations and programs, books and websites on grief and loss, and advice for coping with the loss of their loved one.
  • Healing Your Grieving Heart After a Military Death contains 100 practical thoughts and ideas to help survivors understand their unique grief in the days after a military death. It was written by a military widow who is also a retired Air Force Reserve officer and founded the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Surviving family members may order this book from Military OneSource.
  • National Resource Directory is an online partnership for wounded, ill and injured service members, veterans, their families and families of the fallen and those who support them.
  • Veterans Affairs bereavement counseling is provided at community-based vet centers near the families. It is offered to all family members, including parents, spouses and children of service members who died in the service of their country.
  • TRICARE mental health care services are available for you during times of grief. Outpatient psychotherapy is covered for up to two sessions per week in any combination of individual, family, group or collateral sessions.
  • Military OneSource offers information, resources and non-medical counseling to meet the needs of military family members who have lost a loved one. Help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week by telephone or internet.