Growing through grief

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Christopher R. Morales
  • 673d Air Base Wing / Public Affairs

Imagine a wound so deep it gnaws at the senses – days, even months after. Some days the pain can be ignored, but others, you can’t get it off your mind. It wasn’t properly treated, so now it festers. Everyone sees the bandages and assumes it is taken care of, but it has yet to heal.


On a Sunday in June, while working a special duty assignment, then-Staff Sgt. Jessica Tabor, 673d Air Base Wing Equal Opportunity noncommissioned officer in charge, received a phone call from her commander.


“Why would he be calling me?” she thought.


“I need to tell you something about your superintendent,” he said.


“OK, what’s up?” she replied.


“Well, he killed himself,” he answered.


Shock, followed by a whirlwind of other emotions and questions, filled Tabor’s mind as she tried to wrap her head around the situation. She abruptly lost a fellow Airman, a supervisor and close friend. The three-person EO office was reduced to only two.


“It just doesn’t make any sense,” said Chris Dojka, 673d Air Base Wing EO office director. “To this day, it just doesn’t make any sense.


“We talked about a way ahead for the office,” Dojka continued. “Him being the SNCO, and me, being the director, what we were going to do to get this office going forward … and that was the last conversation I had with him.”


After the news, EO had a lot of work to do, and that kept them busy as the loss swelled in the back of their minds.


“The workload, it just keeps coming and doesn’t stop,” Dojka said. “There are moments in time when you try to wrestle with it, but there are a few days where you are just numb.”


Tabor’s special duty assignment was cut short by six months after the event so she could resume her role as the much needed NCOIC of EO. When she got back, she hit the ground running and performed her duties nonstop to exhaustion distracting herself from the strong emotions beneath the surface.


“Some days are harder than others, especially in a job where I have to tell [others] that you need supervisor support, that you need to rely on the people you work with, and that you need to be there for them,” Tabor said. “It was a really hard pill to swallow.”


Throughout that experience, Tabor felt more alone than she ever thought possible. She did not know what to do in this unique circumstance, but focus on work.


“I feel, on the subject of suicide, no one knows what to do [and] no one wants to talk about it,” Tabor said. “My emotions are unique to me, but I kept myself busy and looking back that was probably the worst thing I could’ve done.”


Others would ask her ‘how she was doing’ and she would reply with a ‘fine’ or ‘fine some days and sometimes not,’ but most conversations would end there. Tabor said she felt nobody wanted to have a conversation about the recent event.


Her actions were not out of the ordinary according to a former Air Force suicide prevention manager.


“I think the grieving process is complicated and is so unique to each individual that it might be difficult for our friends and family to understand what we are going through and know the right thing to say,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Michael McCarthy, 673d Medical Group Mental Health flight commander. “It is very common for people to experience a wide array of emotions, to feel like they are doing well one day and not so much on another.


“That type of dysregulation might be confusing … and when people don’t know what [the griever] needs, they tend to back away,” McCarthy continued. “When we don’t know what we need, we tend to isolate ourselves.”


Two months after the event, the loss affected her to the point it was becoming more difficult to sleep and focus on work. She found solace in a visit to the Mental Health clinic.


“It was probably the best thing I could’ve done, and I wish I would’ve done it sooner,” Tabor said. “There was no judgment, I walked into the door and he asked ‘what’s going on?’ I just broke down and he really walked me through those emotions, and how to make a difference based on how I’m feeling and the impact it made on me.


“I took that chance,” Tabor said. “… And now I’m a little more clear-minded and able to get my mission completed to the best of my ability because I sought help.”


Before Tabor sought help, she attended her supervisor’s funeral and even gave a eulogy. One of the final lines she remembered was, ‘If I get promoted, it’s because of how he assisted me and helped guide me in my career.’


In July, Tabor made technical sergeant. Her promotion ceremony was in October. She remembered it was incredibly difficult because, in her eyes, the new stripe and rank was a testament to her supervisor’s guidance and a reminder that he is gone.


One of the key things she said she has learned through this experience is to ask more than how someone is doing when something is wrong.


“I want to be that person [to talk to,] and if you don’t want to talk to EO, you can talk to Jessica,” Tabor said. “I want to be there for the people who have issues instead of shying away from issues like people have in the past.”


There is a difference between greeting someone with a generic question and opening conversation by asking about specific things in their life to get to know someone.


“If we just assume someone is doing well and all we’ve asked is ‘Hey, are you good,’ we might have missed something,” McCarthy said. “Most of the time people are embarrassed when things are not going well.


“When you ask ‘How are you doing,’ and they say ‘fine,’ and you go on about your business, there is nothing wrong with that at all, but that can’t be it,” McCarthy continued.


In addition to providing that helping hand to others in need after an event in their lives, it is also important to engage before.


“So often, especially when it comes to the topic of suicide, we are crisis-focused,” McCarthy said. “When something has happened we need to intervene and be really supportive for the survivors who are dealing with this grief. If that is when our preparation starts, then we have not prepared for suicide.


“If we are doing suicide prevention when someone tells us they are suicidal, we’re not doing suicide prevention anymore, we are doing suicide intervention,” McCarthy continued. “Prevention occurs before there is a problem, and that is constantly.”


Constantly keeping up with your Airmen, Soldiers, coworkers, friends and family can help provide the tools needed to combat their temptation before considering suicide because sometimes there really aren’t any signs.


“The skills we’ve all learned from basic training on up about being a good wingman and addressing adversity directly and honestly in a way that’s thoughtful and prepared is how we become good leaders,” McCarthy said. “Good leadership is good suicide prevention.”


That is exactly what Tabor plans to be, by engaging, listening, empathizing and sharing so no one feels as lonely as she did. With time, she said she would like to mention this experience during her EO briefings as a learning tool.



“This is the reality: people commit suicide,” Tabor said. “We cannot shy away from it, we have to talk about it for the people who are left behind. If I can tell my story and impact at least one person in a room of 400 then maybe that’s one less person who is going to hurt themselves.”