Always the alpha male, I was used to denying myself any show of weakness. I had to show strength, control and the ability to fix anything with a roll of duct tape. But I learned duct tape can't fix some things – like a broken heart or family relationships when there are differences in grief expression.
I lost my son, Airman 1st Class Jon Wesley Ganues, Jr., on June 2, 2009, to suicide, five days before his squadron deployed to Iraq. He was a security policeman stationed at Moody Air Force Base in Valdosta, Georgia. Wesley's death was not PTS related, but a result of a domestic dispute with his wife. His death came as a shock. I got the phone call while I was at work. I was stunned, numb and sick all at the same time.
My close friend at work, who was and is my brother in Christ, comforted me and prayed for me while I tried to process the news. I can remember calling Wesley's cell phone over and over, praying he would answer, and hanging on each word as I listened to him tell me to leave a message. My heart will forever have a tear in it from losing him that day.
Coupled with my grief, the dark circumstances of Wesley's death set me on a path of self-inflicted shame. I operated in a fog for several months and dreaded having to answer questions of how he died. It was the look people gave me that I hated most – that “How do I get out of this?” look of total discomfort. I've since learned how to put others at ease as I offer my story to them.
After attending a support group at Fort Lee, Virginia, and getting connected to TAPS, I started moving forward in my grief. My wife Maria and I attended our first TAPS National Military Suicide Survivor Seminar in 2010 with great apprehension. Knowing neither what to expect nor anyone there made us cautious of opening up to anyone the first day. However, as the weekend went on, we realized we were in the right place with the right people, who made us feel like family. Finally, we had found a safe place to cry, listen, talk, think and just breathe.
In August 2014, I found myself at a Montana Men's Retreat in Chico Hot Springs, Montana. My primary purpose for attending, I wanted to move past my lingering feeling that Wesley didn't measure up to those who lost their lives on the battlefield. I shared this the first night of the retreat. Many fathers quickly reassured me that my son was a hero just like their children. In my heart, he already was my hero and still is. The love for him is still very strong, and I miss him. I miss him so much.
That evening was a turning point in my grief journey, the directional change in my path that has allowed me to live again. In finding my “new normal,” I've also discovered that life doesn't have to be so gloomy anymore. I don't experience guilt when I laugh or have a good time with family, friends and colleagues. I'm living my own life and still remembering the life my son lived and the joy he brought to the world. Remembering his laugh and smile gives me joy still. Being able to live this new normal life and remember him without conflict is a great feeling.
I now have been to the Montana Men's Retreat three years in a row. It's not just about the fly fishing, horseback riding, horseshoes, breathtaking panoramic views and solitude. Lifelong bonds are made as the men find the perfect environment to freely express feelings, both verbally and physically. During those few days in the vast wilderness of Montana, a brotherhood forms. There are no judgments of comments made or emotions expressed. Our loved ones' lives and accomplishments are celebrated as powerful stories are shared.
The experiences have allowed me to explore my own feelings. I've bonded with other surviving men. I've learned that, in Big Sky Country, surviving a grief that seems unfathomable is best done with other men with the courage to face their own brokenness. I've looked around the room at a gathering or across the table while sharing a meal and have known that the face looking back understands. He understands that men are different from women, and we grieve and process loss accordingly. He understands the need to weep in secret, when no one can see or hear. No need for that in Montana; there, real men do cry. And we learn that crying is healthy and can be done anytime, anywhere. Even in front of others, including the women in our lives.
Supporting each other during these retreats comes naturally, and lifelong friendships are cemented. Support systems are created. Being told I helped someone else during the short time we were in Montana is humbling, especially when it comes from multiple people. I never know what I have said or done to make others feel that way, but it's that great, warm feeling that brings me back each year. Being told I made an impact during my first two men's retreats convinced me to become a TAPS Peer Mentor.
And the support I've gotten from these men spills over into my relationships once I return home. I now know it's okay to expect others in my life to support me just as I support them. My wife does a great job of acknowledging when I need that support. And the skills I have gained have allowed my wife and me to take one step, one day at a time as we journey through grief together. No duct tape required.
This article was originally published on the TAPS website. The Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors offers compassionate care to all those grieving the loss of a military loved one. Since 1994, TAPS has provided comfort and hope 24/7 through a national peer support network and connection to grief resources, all at no cost to surviving families and loved ones. See their website for more information.