The sudden loss of a friend, brother, sister, parent, or child is a bear of a burden I do not wish on anybody. Unfortunately, these types of tragedies happen all too often in our world. The grief and pain inflicted by such a powerful wound is not something that ever completely heals but it does change its manifestation in your mind over time. You have to choose whether that moment is going to define you as when you took a turn for the worse, or as when chose to live the rest of your life in that person’s honor.
When my brother-in-law, SSG Jeremy Katzenberger, was killed on my first deployment, I had no idea the impact it was going to have on the rest of my life. I remember when I was bringing him home, during his funeral, and for years thereafter, people would go to a default response of, “I’m sorry for your loss but things happen for a reason.” It used to make me so angry. “How could you say something like that? Jeremy was a way better person, husband, ranger, father than I could ever hope to be.” Instead of saying this, I turned those thoughts inward, managed the best smile I could and replied, “thanks.”
Grief is such a funny thing. I remember when my 1SG and commanding officer told me about Jeremy’s death it wasn’t pain, sadness, or anger I felt. I just thought about my sister and their son being in Kansas City, not Savannah, and how the Army was going to have a heck of a time tracking them down. I was in shock for the next few days as I traveled home with Jeremy’s body. I remember getting his wedding ring back from one of his comrades who had taken it off of him prior to preparation of his remains. I remember the journalist who took a picture of Jeremy's flag-draped casket on the C-130 as we were waiting for take-off and, consequently, the Sergeant First Class who told the reporter politely he would rip his throat out if he didn’t delete the picture off his phone. I remember seeing my sister and their 6-month old son when I landed in Dover. And I remember that first drink I took as I sat on my hotel bed alone for the first time since I found out about Jeremy’s death.
The emotions overwhelmed me. Anger, sadness, grief, and more anger, coupled with drinking was a cocktail I used as a dangerous crutch for the first few years after Jeremy’s death. On the outside, I put on a smile and tried to stay the same outgoing person I had always been, but on the inside, I was slowly losing myself. I felt so much guilt. Why was I here and Jeremy gone? This question haunted my thoughts almost every waking moment.
I didn’t want to talk to anybody about it because I was afraid of appearing weak, mentally unfit, and I especially hated seeing the look of sympathy in someone's eyes when I would tell my story. These choices and turning my feelings inward led me down a dark road that eventually resulted in me hitting rock bottom.
From there, I had to make a choice. Am I going to let this destroy me or am I going to ranger-up and become the best version of myself in Jeremy’s honor? I wish I could take the credit for choosing the latter, but I give all the credit to finding my way back to a higher belief and my wife. I, also, wish I could tell you I have it all figured out and I don’t still have rough days, but that would be a lie.
I still have moments when a darkness of doubt and guilt come over me. Some of these moments are short and some are prolonged. The pain and grief are no longer sharp and penetrating, but rather dull and always part of me. The difference from then compared to now is I use it to fight to build my dreams and legacy. I use it to make myself a better husband, business owner, friend, family member. I look to Jeremy often for help from the beyond to show me I’m heading down the right path and often I get a subtle reply. I believe he does his best to keep me in the Lord’s good graces, despite me being undeserving.
I’ll end with this; it is easy to let the sudden loss of somebody you hold close to your heart become a crutch for destructive behavior. The harder right answer is to use that person’s loss as a motivation to build a dream worthy of his/her memory. I told my wife a few years back to never let me use my past suffering and experiences as an excuse for poor choices. It was the best thing I could have done. Minus a few days a year, she doesn’t put up with me feeling sorry for myself. I wake up every day and put in the hours to build something worthy Jeremy’s approval. One more for the Airborne Ranger in the Sky.
“Hard right, over easy wrong.”