The elderly man's eyes filled with tears that he couldn't hold back. I stood before him listening as he was transported back 57 years to a battlefield in Vietnam. The details, horror and helplessness of searching for his injured friend hadn't faded with time. He pointed to the specific places where blood poured from his buddy's body and recounted the exact words they exchange.
"Is it bad?", his friend asked of the wounds that poured with blood.
"It's bad", was all he could say in response.
"Do we have time for a smoke?" asked the dying man.
But they didn't. His life was snuffed out long before his cigarette.
57 years later tears filled his eyes as he recounted his helplessness. He couldn't save his friend - all he could do was smoke with him as he died.
He came home from war later that same year with no injuries. One of the "lucky ones" who made it through war with life and limb intact. Yet the wounds on the soul of a young man forced to witness the worst atrocities known to man remain. I wonder if life would've been different if he came home with visible scars. Would people have seen that he was still fighting for his life? Would he have received the compassion and care that he needed?
As good as it was to go home, his grief didn't end when he left Vietnam. In the years since the war, more veterans died from suicide than died on the battlefield. It turns out that they weren't so lucky after all.
Yet this man had beat the statistics. He came home from war, raised a family, started a business and persevered. 57 years later, he was out on a beautiful day with his adorable dog near the house he renovated and lived in with his wife for the past 50 years. Even so, his pain was real and his burdens heavy. He told me he never looked at life the same after the war and I could see from our brief conversation that his words were true.
I was a stranger that he met in a graveyard but he needed a listening ear. He didn't need me to have an answer or antidote for war and he wasn't asking me to remind him of God's goodness. He certainly didn't need encouragement to keep pressing on (as if I have a clue what it takes to live 57 years with memories from war). There was no positive spin or reminder of his blessings that could take away his pain. He simply needed me to witness his pain. He needed someone to listen to his words and believe that the horrors he saw were real. He needed me to know that the friends he'd lost still mattered.
When we parted company, I walked away reflecting on how grief and trauma - in all its forms - cries out to be witnessed. If only in a brief exchange with a stranger, grievers want to know that others see their pain.
Grievers are often seen as the lucky ones. They are the survivors who walk away from the accident, terrorist attack, or war - sometimes without visible scars. They are the ones who get to continue on in life while the lives of those they love were cut short. They are told they have reasons to rejoice and they probably do. Their lives may even be sweet again in time- maybe like the old man in the graveyard they will have a family, start a business and renovate a home.
But the internal scars will still be there; deep scars that don't fade with time. They carry pain that cries out to be witnessed - even 57 years later on a beautiful autumn day.