Coping with Grief
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James Elmer Henderson III
Early on the morning of November 29th, 2023, before the light of the new day marked the sky James, my father, left this world and journeyed on to the afterlife. Though I cannot begrudge him the journey since he had been unwell for several years and his strength was ebbing, it does not lessen the pain of having lost him. We can take some comfort in knowing his parents, mother Peggy and father James alongside his brother Russ were there to welcome him.
Those left behind to await the time when we shall see him again include his wife Erin, his children Jill, James, Heather, Sean, Holly, Jaimi, and Melissa, and his siblings Jeanette, Gail, Stan and Larry. I can say with confidence his passing has shaken us all, that we collectively thought him indestructible and stubborn, so stubborn that even death itself would claim him only when he was good and ready. Wishful thinking perhaps yet we believed it and perhaps it was that belief that has made his passing so much harder.
Writing this is difficult, one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. How do you sum up a life in a paragraph, or two or twenty? It is impossible. There are no words yet written to fully encapsulate the meaning of a life lost, but I will do my best to try.
My father's life story is a complicated one, but one that began August 16, 1948, and filled with love, laughter and boyhood hijinks. Ever ready with a joke, he made his family smile, he respected his father, adored his mama and was protective of his siblings. It was this instinct to protect which inspired him to join the service as a young man and become a Marine, just like his father, only months later he would be shipped to Vietnam.
At just 20 years old my father was really barely a man still full of boyhood dreams and perhaps a boyhood expectation or glorified idea of what it meant to be a soldier, to fight a war and to serve his country. But like with so many men just like him the reality of war packs a mighty blow, harsh, unrelentingly, brutal, ugly and inescapably honest in a way only our veterans of war can ever truly fathom. Within 30 minutes of his arrival on the ground he witnessed the death of two fellow soldiers. In less than 3 full days he had been in three combat situations and seen the death of six more soldiers.
Three days, three days and he was irreparably changed, and he knew it. He felt his laughter wither within him and felt anger take its place; the loss of a friend would leave him forever feeling he should have fallen alongside his fellow soldiers never to come home again. Despite this he was a dedicated soldier who fought hard for the men beside him. And he did so until he was wounded, wounds that would see him medevacked back to the US. His wounds were severe and required a 3 month stay in the hospital. During that time of recovery and even through the rest of his life my dad never spoke of the many awards given for his honorable service, those awards included but are not limited to- National Defense Service Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Vietnamese Service Medal, Good Conduct Medal, Vietnamese Campaign Medal and a Purple Heart.
He had left the war but soon realized it had not left him. Drugs and alcohol became his solace an escape from the guilt of having survived, to dull the pain of memories that would not leave him. My father, I can tell you fought these demons until his passing, though he almost never spoke of it, but I knew the memories haunted him, knew his dreams took him to a place he wanted only to escape. He denied it of course, but I saw him running in his sleep.
His belief that he was undeserving of life affected the whole of his adult life. It affected his relationships and got him in trouble. But no matter how hard he tried, he could not shake those who loved him. An outside observer might question our loyalty or how fiercely protective we were of our father, but we instinctively knew his truth. We knew our father came home from the war a broken man, we knew he believed he did not deserve fixing, that his wounds were the kind you cannot see, and we loved him all the more fiercely because of it.
My dad spoke very little of his time in the war and some of the details I have shared are from his own writings on the subject and are shared with you now in the hopes that we all remember that our war time veterans, no matter how long they served, are in fact given a life sentence and are deserving of the outmost respect.
My dad made mistakes, he had regrets, and relationships he felt he had failed and wished he had mended. And even though he thought he lost it, he was still the funniest person, his jokes or special phrases will be something we will forever cherish, remember at family functions where we'll retell them and probably argue over who is saying it right. Then we'll cry... but we'll laugh too.
At the end of it all the only thing you need to know is my dad was a good man, he loved his family, he LOVED his children, adored his grandchildren and he was a United States Marine.... "Oorah"