With more than 4,000 American military casualties in Iraq and 2,000-plus in Afghanistan, war deaths have become sadly familiar news to many Americans over the past decade. To young Ivy League graduate and aspiring writer Artis Henderson such concerns were distant – until she met and married a soldier.
Henderson had finally accustomed herself to the challenges of life on the edges of various military bases when, at the age of 24, her husband, Miles, was killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq. In her new memoir, Unremarried Widow, Henderson succeeds in putting a personal face on the sad realities of such a loss. Here she talks with Monitor books editor Marjorie Kehe about her unexpected role as a military widow.
Q. Is losing your spouse through the military different in some respects from losing a spouse otherwise? Or is grief simply grief, no matter how the loss occurs?
I want to say that losing a spouse through the military is different. I'd like to point to the factors that make it particularly hard – the public nature of the death, the often brutal way a soldier dies, how losing a spouse in the military also means losing a way of life.
But I remember sitting in my grief group week after week with widows whose husbands were lost in ways very different from Miles. It was a group sponsored by the local hospice, so many of the men had died of illness. One in a motorcycle crash. Another from suicide. I remember sitting in that circle listening to the other women and thinking, It's all hard. No loss is more bearable than another.
Q.. One thing that is perhaps different for a military widow is that, before it happens, there is the pervasive thought that it might happen, whereas the possibility of separation by death seems remote to many married people. Do you think that this advance warning makes it easier in some way when the loss actually occurs?
On a psychological level, no. Even when we think we can anticipate a loss – when we're sure we know how it will feel – our imagined approximation comes nowhere close. It's like the difference between a scale model of a building and an actual skyscraper.
But in a practical way, a military death is easier. The Army made sure Miles took care of everything before he deployed. He wrote a will, he bought a life insurance policy, and he spoke to both me and his parents about what would happen if he died. These are preparations everyone should make, but few of us do.
Q. How do you feel about the way the military treated you after your husband's death? You were invited to attend a presentation/explanation discussing how it happened. Was that helpful? Anything you think should/could have been handled differently?
The military has been very generous with me, and I am grateful.
The official briefing where I learned the details of the helicopter crash was a necessary but painful part of the process. I know many military widows who found it a relief to learn the circumstances of their husband's death. But me? In the end, I wish I knew less.
Q. Do you hope your book will speak to others who have lost their partners? If so, what would you hope they might take away from it?
Yes, absolutely. I hope they recognize some of their own sorrow in what I wrote. Grieving is such a lonely process, and sometimes I think the most helpful thing is simply to know that other people are hurting like we are.
Q. What do you think you would be doing today if Miles were still here? How different would your life be?
This is a question I ask myself every day. Would I still have had the courage to pursue writing? Or would that dream have been lost in the day-to-day hurry of marriage and – I imagine – raising a family? For the longest time, I tried to weigh this life against that old one and ask myself which one I would choose.
But finally I had to stop asking. The answer never changed.
Q. What would Miles say if he were here to see this?
When we were living in Texas, Miles sent me a bouquet of flowers with a card that I still carry in my wallet. He wrote, "Things will be alright. Relax and enjoy now! Life is always going to be an adventure with ups and downs wherever. Just live it and love it."
I think that's what he'd say.