Go in Peace
A documentary filmmaker discovers a healing process that helps veterans facing the end of life and struggling to resolve their past.
I never understood my father, Jack, a volatile, charismatic Dutchman until he was dying. One day, he was propped in his favorite recliner, much diminished by his lung cancer, when our conversation veered onto treacherous terrain. I asked him about his childhood in Holland. Out of the blue, he shared a story that woke me up to who he was and the reason for his restless soul. “When I was 14, me and my best friend strangled a German soldier in our village.” I responded with silence, offering him space: “He (the soldier) was probably only 17 and didn’t know why he was there. But he was the enemy, and we had to take him out.”
In my father’s unburdening, I heard a tacit plea for forgiveness and a re-humanization of the enemy he had killed. He’d never spoken of World War II, which he joined after escaping to Scotland, nor of that most intimate of killings that preceded his full-on plunge into combat. I am glad he got to take that one huge rock out of his backpack, although I know there were many more.
My background in hospice has taught me the importance of closure. At end of life, we yearn to leave with a clean slate, complete in our relationships. The moral weight of participation in war can cripple us. “I don’t think I really deserve to heal,” I’ve heard Vietnam vets say again and again. For veterans who have stuffed away the horror of combat, all that is unresolved rises up before them, demanding their attention as they’re dying.
After my father died, I set out on a quest to learn more about the spiritual impact of war and our role as civilians in healing the soul wounds of veterans with PTSD. If we understand PTSD as Post Terror Soul Distress, as it’s been renamed by Dr. Ed Tick, author of War and the Soul and Warrior’s Return, then our role is to provide opportunities for them to resolve their relationship to the past. That might seem overwhelming to most of us. But with knowledge comes compassion, so we can show up in a way that says, “I am ready to hear your stories, and will receive them without judgment.” In the words of Dr. Tick, “Veterans need to open the can of worms inside them or they will remain infected.”
My father, Jack’s, behaviors confounded me. Behind the tough exterior was a tender-hearted man who could not, however, reveal his own emotional hurt and vulnerability. The sound of children crying, even if they’d just tripped and grazed their knee, could make him crazy. He would shake and the pulsing vein on his forehead often looked set to explode. Sometime’s he’d bellow above the children’s wailing, “Oh, for ****’s sake be quiet!” In hindsight, I realize their screams triggered his PTSD. In his dying days, he was stoic, fiercely independent, and anxious for a “quick end.”
Indigenous cultures recognized how their warriors were changed and tainted by the bloodstains of war. They performed elaborate rituals to cleanse them and allow them to create positive new identities embracing the past. Our veterans return to a society which largely ignores or mistreats them. But we, individually, and in community can all play a role in their healing.
Go in Peace
The "Go in Peace" process provides a basic roadmap to help veterans find peace before they die.
1. Recognize the veteran in the person (once a soldier, always a soldier).
2. Understand the symptoms of PTSD, “Post Terror Soul Distress”
3. Create safe physical and emotional space.
4. Prepare yourself and find the courage to ask the difficult questions to open the can of worms.
5. Listen and validate.
6. Create opportunities for ritual for acknowledgement of grief and loss, purification, forgiveness.
7. Support opportunities for atonement.
Karen van Vuuren is a non-profit magazine editor and documentary maker. Her new film, Go in Peace! reveals the role of civilians in healing the soul wounds of veterans with PTSD.