Navy SEAL's Family Copes with Loss and Life a Year After His Death

Megan Ernst sits for a portrait in her home in Virginia Beach
Megan Ernst sits for a portrait in her home in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on March 12, 2024. Her husband, Michael Ernst, died during a training accident in Arizona in February 2023. (Billy Schuerman / The Virginian-Pilot)

Megan Ernst and her two young children were eating dinner on Feb. 19, 2023, when four uniformed sailors and two Navy SEALs knocked on the front door of their Virginia Beach home.

“If they are at your door, there is no hope,” Ernst said, shaking her head as tears trailed down her cheeks.

Michael Ernst, chief special warfare operator, died in a training accident while performing a high-altitude, low-opening jump in Arizona. He was 36 and had been assigned to Naval Special Warfare Development Group, also known as SEAL Team 6, based at Virginia Beach’s Dam Neck Annex to Naval Air Station Oceana.

More than a year since her husband’s death, Megan Ernst said her focus is on healing her family and remembering her husband for more than the uniform he wore.

“First and foremost, he was a dad. He was my husband,” she said. “And he was a good, kind person.”

The couple met while attending college from 2004-08 in Ohio. They reconnected years later at a friend’s wedding, and in February 2013, Megan Ernst found herself visiting Hampton Roads. At the time, Michael Ernst was assigned to Virginia Beach-based SEAL Team 10.

The pair married in December 2014 at the chapel at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek. They welcomed a daughter, now 6, in 2017, and a son, now 4, in 2020. For the bulk of his Navy career, the family has lived in Virginia Beach near his East Coast-based assignments.

“It’s funny to think about the perception of what being married to a SEAL is like versus the reality,” Megan Ernst said with a laugh. “It is not romantic in any way, shape or form. They are gone all the time. They are stressed out a lot.”

Throughout their relationship, Michael Ernst deployed for more than six months on three occasions. There were times they went weeks without communicating and, due to the nature of his job, she often was left in the dark about where he was and when he would return. When he was not deployed, Megan Ernst estimated training pulled him away for a cumulative six months per year.

He kissed his family goodbye on Feb. 17, 2023, with the expectation that he would be home a week later to celebrate his birthday and settle into a slower-paced work schedule that revolved around his family. With 13 years of naval service, Michael Ernst was working toward becoming an instructor, she said.

Then … the worst.

“I was blindsided,” Megan Ernst said. “Never in a million years would I have thought that they would show up at my door on that training trip. Never.”

She said life was a blur in the weeks after his death.

“The machine that is the military starts,” Ernst said. “It’s so sad but they know what to do and how to do it when this happens.”

Michael Ernst’s unit, the Navy SEAL Foundation and the larger Hampton Roads military community swooped in to tend to the family’s every need. A dignified transfer happened at sunset the day after his death. One week later, a memorial service was held at the Little Creek amphitheater, just down the road from the chapel where the couple had married.

In late March, the family buried him at Arlington National Cemetery.

“That was my worst day,” Ernst said through tears. “It was so final. The image is burned into my head of them giving my son the flag — his little baby hands reaching out for that flag.”

She said she hopes her husband will be remembered as a family man — who prioritized his loved ones above all else — and as a dedicated Navy SEAL who excelled in his professional endeavors. His accolades included three Combat Action Ribbons, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal and a Silver Star, which was awarded in 2021 following a successful hostage rescue.

But more than anything, she hopes he is remembered for his kindness.

“That’s what I keep telling my kids. You know why 1,700 people showed up at his memorial? It is because he was kind — not because he was a Navy SEAL,” she said. “It’s because he was kind and he was a good person.”

Ernst explained to her children, who were 5 and 2 at the time, that “Daddy went to the stars. Daddy went to heaven.

“But my son didn’t understand that that wasn’t a location. It wasn’t like Florida or Arizona or wherever,” Ernst said. “He didn’t understand that Daddy was not coming back.”

The family began therapy to help cope with their loss, but helping her children understand their father’s death, Megan Ernst said, will be a lifelong process.

“It will be lifelong for me, too,” she said.

‘Grief is enduring’

For military families, the loss of a loved one because of service-related incident is like living their worst nightmare, said Andy McNiel, senior adviser for Tragedy Assistance Programs for Survivors. The national nonprofit, also known as TAPS, has provided resources for 30 years to families grieving the death of a military member or veteran.

The loss of a loved one, McNiel said, is a major disruption that shakes the bedrock of families — including their routines, rituals, responsibilities, values and faith. Unique to military families is that the death of service member often means the family loses connection to the military community, McNiel said.

The concept that grief is a set of stages that are a minor disruption for a short period of time before someone finds their footing and moves on isn’t reality, he said.

“Grief is enduring and just becomes a part of their life,” McNiel said. “We continue to love those people who died, so it’s really like a transition to that relationship. It doesn’t end, it just shifts to something different — one of remembrance.”

Her grief, Megan Ernst said, has been intense and constant.

“You are in the greatest pain of your life and trying to function, yet take care of these two little people and make them feel comfortable and safe when you don’t even feel safe,” Ernst said.

But her responsibilities as a mother to two young children has taken precedence.

“I would give myself a certain amount of time to just be on the ground,” she said. “But after that time, you have got to get up and you have got to do laundry and go get groceries.”

Cheyenne Malmstrom, a fellow Navy SEAL spouse, stood by her friend through the past year’s darkness. They’ve grown close since 2018 — experiencing pregnancy, deployments and life milestones together.

“A part of her died along with him that day,” Malmstrom said. “She hides it well, but she lost her person that day and no matter how much time goes on, that hole is always going to be there.”

Malmstrom said it was a delicate balance to give Ernst the space to grieve and also be there to lift her up when she needed it most. At times, that meant silently being there. And other times, it meant helping with tasks such as exterminating spiders or planting trees.

The Ernst family suffered another loss last June when their 9-year-old dog, Gus, died from bone cancer. Gus was Ernst’s companion while her husband was away.

“Losing him felt like losing a last connection to the life she knew before Mike died,” Malmstrom said.

‘Ten years is what I got’

The Ernsts cling tightly to their memory of their husband and father. They watch home videos of pillow fights, family outings at the park and the children playing in leaves stirred up by their dad.

Each night, the kids gather at the kitchen island to play “High, low, what the heck, and what would Daddy love,” where they share details of their day. On a nearby counter, a digital photo frame flashes images of the life they shared with him. Across the kitchen, his espresso machine sits on the counter of his beloved “coffee corner.”

Coffee, Megan Ernst said, was never her thing. But now she drinks one cup a day.

She feels closest to her husband when she cuts the grass because he was meticulous in caring for the yard. She said she will probably never wash his clothes kept in a laundry basket in the bedroom — although his scent will fade in time.

“Ten years is what I got with him,” Ernst said, her voice cracking. “But that has to last me a lifetime.”

In honor of her husband’s 38th birthday, Ernst arranged a 3.6-mile community run with coffee and doughnuts in February at a local park. It coincided with the one-year anniversary of the last weekend she saw him. She invited members of their military family to participate —and share memories of him.

When she hears stories from people reevaluating their life because of her husband’s impact, the loss hurts less.

“I think my worst fear is that he’s going to be forgotten,” she said. “But I will never forget him.”

‘She loves them for me’

About a week after his death, Ernst said she watched a video of her husband giving a speech in April 2022 at MIT as part of the Sloan Fellows master’s degree program.

“SEAL is what I do. It is not who I am,” he said in the video.

The 30-minute talk, which was shared with The Virginian-Pilot, summarized his life, including why he joined the Navy, his commitment to service and the kind of leader he strived to be. But through it all, he referenced his love for his family and the resilience of his wife.

“I am gone for about 150 days a year. That is 150 days that Meg is a single working mom, essentially. These kids love her, and she loves them,” he said. “And she loves them for me when I am not there.”

Megan Ernst has watched the video countless times, so much so that she has memorized her husband’s closing remarks. The point that has stuck with her is when he spoke about what to do when faced with insurmountable odds.

“You can do nothing and let it consume you, or you can start to do something, even if you don’t know what that something is,” Michael Ernst said.

It is a mantra, Megan Ernst said, that she uses to get through each day.

The mother tells her children “Daddy loves you” every day as they learn to navigate life without him. Ice cream is not eaten, silly jokes are not made and laser tag is not played without someone saying, “Daddy would love this. Do you think he is jealous?”

“Probably, because he loved ice cream,” Megan Ernst said with a laugh, recalling the previous conversation with the children.

As she laughed, she subconsciously twirled her husband’s gold wedding band dangling from a delicate chain around her neck. A framed display of his stars and achievements hung on a wall nearby while the trifold flag handed to their son rested on a mantle in the kitchen.

“I know there are more bad days to come,” Ernst said. “But the time in between when I’m just on the floor crying is getting longer and longer.”

Where to find support

Tragedy Assistance Programs for Survivors

TAPS chapters across the country offer grief support, which nonprofit senior adviser Andy McNiel said focuses not on healing, but on adapting to the reality that a loved one has died and the grief that loss brings. The Virginia Beach chapter meets on the second Wednesday of each month. For emotional support or to connect with resources and programs, military or veteran survivors can call a 24/7 helpline at 800-959-TAPS (8277).

For more information, visit

©2024 The Virginian-Pilot. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Story Continues