Guest Post By Michelle Moskiewicz
A child’s death is horrific in any situation. Combining that with being thousands of miles away from the nearest family members, having to repeatedly explain the death to people who have never met your child, and worrying about deployments shortly after can be a recipe for disaster to mental health, grieving correctly, and a family’s wellbeing.
When our infant son died just shortly before he turned three months old, our world came collapsing down, and these are the five things I learned about child loss in the military.
1. Your relationship with your Chain of Command will make or break you during this time.
You need to understand that the COC or Chain of Command will be involved in every critical situation you are involved in. The Chain of Command can be compared to a department head or manager in the civilian world. My Staff Sergeant was the first person I called while we were en route to the hospital. I was hysterical, but even in my hysterics; I knew I was going to be late to work if I also made it in that day.
My husband and I both had an amazing local command element when our son died in 2013, and by the time we had been brought back to hold our boy for the last time, my Staff Sergeant, my Gunnery Sergeant, and my husband’s Sergeant Major were at the hospital.
It is crucial to have a good working relationship with your local Command and the family advocate that works hand in hand with your Commanding Officer. These are going to be the individuals deciding leave or time off procedures, informing the necessary individuals, and deciding everything for you when it comes to the military, while you are home grieving.
Related: Infertility In The Military
If your command is lacking in any way, your child’s death can disrupt everything. Many things in the military are up to the “Commander’s discretion,” which means he/she will decide when you return to work, what your responsibilities will be when you return, and determine if (and how soon after your child’s death) you will be chosen for deployments.
2. There is not a particular type of leave used for grieving parents.
If you are in any way affiliated with the military, you know about “E-Leave” or “Emergency Leave,” which can be used in cases of dire family emergencies, death, etc. and you also know that these days will be taken from your “annual leave” accrued throughout the year.
If you are not affiliated, “Annual Leave” days are like paid vacation days, and military members earn 2.5 days a month, which can be used for vacation throughout the year or as pre- and post-deployment leave to spend time with loved ones before or after deployments.
The Marine Corps, to this date, has no policy in place for the loss of a child, so they follow the DOD (Department of Defense) procedure and place child-loss under use for “Emergency Leave.” Of course, this too falls under Commander’s discretion, which means there are a couple of options that your Commander can utilize about your leave.
The command can charge you the days, which would mean those days would be deducted from your amount of available leave, and if you were to take more than possible, you would have to go “in-the-hole,” depending on the amount of time you have left on your contract.
Alternately, your Commanding Officer can even make your appointed duty location your home, giving you time to grieve and get into your new normal without making you deduct any of your leave time. Once again, this is where having a good working relationship can come into play.
3. Know about your benefits and how to use them.
When our son died, I had no idea that he had a life insurance policy through the military (SGLI) as our dependent. We found out when our funeral home director told us. The guidelines for eligibility are as follows:
Family SGLI (FSGLI) coverage provides life insurance coverage for the spouses and dependent children of all Active Duty, Ready Reserve and National Guard members who have full-time SGLI coverage.
A “dependent child” includes any unmarried child in one of the following categories:
− natural born child
− legally adopted child
− a stepchild who is a member of the Servicemember’s household
− unmarried child between the ages of 18 and 23 who is pursuing a course of instruction at an approved educational institution
− a child who became permanently incapable of self-support before age 18
− a stillborn child whose death occurs before expulsion, extraction, or delivery, and not for the purposes of abortion, and:
• (1) whose fetal weight is 350 grams or more; or
• (2) if the fetal weight is unknown, whose duration in utero was 20 or more completed weeks of gestation, calculated from the date the last normal menstrual period began to the date of expulsion, extraction, or delivery.
****Family SGLI Procedural Guide Version 2.7 – April 28, 2016
In our case, we were not able to receive benefits until we were able to submit an official death certificate with a cause of death (our son’s took six months). Because of the nature of benefit eligibility, it will be essential to work closely with your Admin office as some situations, such as stillbirth or miscarriage after 20 weeks will not necessarily have death certification, but will still be eligible for benefits.
Related: The Death Certificate
If your child is enrolled in DEERS/RAPIDS (a computerized identifying and reporting database for the DOD), be sure you have read the paperwork you were given and fully understand everything. Ask questions if you must.
Also, it will be helpful if you find a funeral home that understands how the policy works and will wait for the benefits to be paid before collecting the payment. The average person does not typically know how expensive a funeral is, and the additional burden of worrying about costs is so hurtful.
Know that you can use your benefits to see base counselors, mental health, and grief counselors off base with a referral. After the loss of a child, it can be difficult to admit you need help coping, but it will be tremendously essential for you to understand that these benefits are available to you when/if you need them.
4. You need to be your mental health advocate.
Your Chain of Command can decide when you need to come back to work and what responsibilities you will have when you do so, but you need to remember that you just suffered an incredible loss, and unless they have been through it themselves, nobody will understand and the grieving period can last years.
You need to be aware of your mental health and your abilities while grieving. If you need to take a person in your command aside and let them know you are not comfortable doing something because of the state of your mental health, do so.
There are family counselors, therapists, and mental health doctors available to you that will cost you nothing and these individuals can refer you to an off base clinic if it is warranted. Remember, saying that you need help will not affect your career; it shows that you are responsible enough and self-aware enough to recognize the need.
While you are seeing these individuals, you cannot be deployed or sent somewhere that will disrupt your medical care, so as long as you are keeping your command informed of these appointments (you do not need to tell them what it is for), you will be taken care of.
5. Your Brothers and Sisters-In-Arms are going to be there.
In the time of loss, people will show their true colors and child loss is no different. It wasn’t our family who was able to take care of us in the first few days after our son died; it was our brothers and sisters in the military. The outpouring of love and affection was astronomical.
They brought food when we didn’t feel like eating; they dropped by the house with cards and flowers and sat with us in silence. Our son, though not even three months old, had a gathering of over three hundred people at his funeral, 99% of them wore a version of their Dress Blue uniform. Even deployed friends had flags flown over foreign countries in his name.
Though they will never fully understand your loss, they will grieve beside you, as if they had lost one of their own. Your brothers and sisters in uniform will hold you up while you have crumbled to your knees in grief because we leave no man behind.
About the Author: Michelle Moskiewicz is currently a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps in North Carolina, where she lives with her husband, Kyle, twin Rainbow boys, Liam and Brentley, and five dogs. She joined the loss community in August of 2013 when their first son, Chance, passed away from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. You can reach Michelle at Hope For Chance.