A spouse of a service member never knows what her or his future will bring. In fact, sometimes the only thing that is certain is the fact that nothing is certain — even whether your loved one will make it home.
For Kellie Artis, an Army wife and managing editor of The Millie Journal, that’s been her reality for years. She has two children with her husband who, for the past number of years, has been serving in the military. She told Dearly that living in constant fear of that phone call or visit was just an unfortunate facet of life in the service.
Though nothing could have prepared her for what occurred at another serviceman’s funeral.
“There’s nothing worse than a sparsely attended funeral,” she said. Because of that, her community of military spouses make sure to support each other, even when it feels impossible:
“Being able to reflect back on the stress that we unconsciously operated under is profound. [After] my husband joined a different unit, it seemed like, those two years, we suffered so many casualties. We were constantly in and out of the chapel whether we knew them or not. I attended at least six services of people I personally knew. You want to be there to support, but you’re like, ‘Oh my God, am I next?’ It’s almost like survivor’s guilt on the spouse’s side.”
Artis said she and other members of the military community try to attend as many funeral services as she can because, if nothing else, you would want the same outcome for your own partner.
She’s been to more than she probably cares to count. In fact, she’s been to so many that her 16-month-old son doesn’t even stir at the sound of a bagpiper:
“There’s always a bagpiper that plays, so I sat on the end in case I had to get up and leave. One of the men who mans the chapel came by and told everyone that bagpipers are coming and told me that babies normally react, but my son didn’t even stir. It’s like he’s heard this so often it’s not registering like a loud and scary noise; he’s heard this since he was in my womb.”
One encounter during a receiving line, however, was unlike any other encounter she’s had at a service. She told Dearly she was giving the family of the fallen her condolences in the receiving line when she noticed a hand touching her son who, she wrote, has irresistible hair:
“When I looked down and someone was petting my baby. It happens all the time, so I never notice. But look down and follow the hand, it’s this older hand, and it’s an older woman standing next the widow — it was obviously his mom.”
That’s when it all hit Kellie:
“I had never considered that side of the loss ever until then, and it’s exactly what she was thinking because it was exactly what I was thinking. No one else would have registered it, she just smiled at me and she could tell I was tracking what she was thinking, and she didn’t want to draw that out in me because I was starting to get really upset. She was just thinking back about my little baby, and how her son used to be a baby boy, too. “
She reflected on the moment in the blog post, writing:
“I felt a pain so tangible and utterly foreboding that I almost cried aloud. I imagined exactly what she was feeling. She was transported back in time to when her son had sweet, newborn hair. Hair that formed in her womb and had yet to fall out and take its shape. Hair that she brushed, cut, and shampooed on a baby she no longer has. A fierce sorrow rose up inside me that is the stuff of nightmares. But this was a nightmare she was currently living out. She shed no tears — simply smiled a demure, exhausted smile, and exhaled pure grief.
My tears flowed, my body shook, and she knew.”
Kellie told Dearly that one moment boiled down to one thing — connection:
“I see it as a blessing because it gave me perspective. I think about it often, every time I look at [my son] or my daughter …”
Artis told Dearly she didn’t know the fallen soldier personally, but she did know of him. She has not, however, been in contact with that woman since the brief emotional encounter they shared.
When asked what she would want the woman to know, Artis said:
“I would just want her to know, maybe on just a level of motherhood, that I see her, I recognize her, and her sacrifice is not in vain. It was for a greater purpose, and it was worth it, and she, as a mother, left a mark on me — her strength. She was grateful, she was poised, and she was proud. If anyone on this planet can say that [dying for our country] is worth it, and she is standing there saying she is proud, that means it’s worth it.”
Although the moment was fleeting, it’s touched even more people than just Artis — military mothers and spouses have personally reached out to her, thanking her for sharing the touching story. Loss and grief is an undeniable part of life, however, with the grace of empathy and compassion, beautiful, lasting moments like Artis’s may come out of it.
If you, or anyone you know, is in need of resources after losing a loved one in the military, please visit Operation We Are Here.