Loss, Tragedy, and the Power of Healing

We are excited to share the last installment of a series from a family who dealt with tragic loss. We heard from Amanda and Tyler who shared their perspective on grieving the death of their beloved Ford, a Captain in the United States Marine Corps. This week, we are happy to introduce a guest blogger and friend, Kathryn Tappen, who shares her emotional story of losing several pieces of her puzzle and how she survived such difficult times in her life. We are grateful for this family’s insight into grief and their touching and wise words.

2014 was a year I wanted to forget. After five years of marriage, my husband chose to move on with his life without me. Throughout this difficult time, I relied on the strength of my parents, my sister, and my closest relatives and friends.

I had never experienced pain on that level ever before in my life. Anyone who has ever gone through a divorce knows the debilitating pain, the shame, the embarrassment, the overwhelming feeling of failure, and ultimately, the feeling of death.

I had lost the one person in my life who was supposed to be with me until death do we part, the person who knew me better at times than I knew myself. My best friend.

I had lost a piece to my puzzle.

One of the hardest phone calls I had to make was to my Uncle Tom right before a big family wedding in August 2014 to tell him that my husband wouldn’t be at the wedding, and I had to tell him why. I had kept everything so private and quiet up until I knew that the marriage was over, mostly because I was so ashamed and felt like everyone would view me as a failure. My Uncle Tom, my Dad’s brother, is like a second father to me. From a young age, he treated me as the daughter he never had. I always wanted to make him proud,I followed in his footsteps at Rutgers University, where he was a Hall of Fame football player and standout athlete, and where I carried on the Tappen tradition by competing as a Scarlet Knight in track and field.

That phone call was the first time in my life I had ever heard my big and strong Uncle Tom’s voice quiver. And yet, at the same time, I felt empowered by his words. Uncle Tom had also gone through a divorce at a young age. I guess along with everything else, we had that in common too. He shared valuable words of insight, knowledge, wisdom, and experience with me that I will never forget. I knew I could depend on Uncle Tom to help get me through this difficult time.

Five months later, on January 1, 2015, I lost my dear Uncle Tom to cancer.

Another puzzle piece, lost.

At this same time, my career was taking off. I had to smile triumphantly in the public eye, and yet I was dealing with so much personal heartache and pain behind closed doors. I wondered how I was supposed to get through each day.

A few weeks after Uncle Tom’s death, my cousin Ford, my Mom’s sister’s son and also a Marine, called me. Ford is like a brother to me. We grew up just miles from one another in New Jersey, and spent every waking moment together as kids. We would have cousin sleepovers, family barbeques, holidays, and everything else in between together. Those who aren’t close to their extended family may not understand, but in my family, these cousins are my siblings. I remember sitting on my balcony at the Marriott hotel in Charleston, South Carolina talking to Ford for the better part of almost two hours.

Ford, being from my Mom’s side of the family, called me that day to talk about the loss of Uncle Tom. While he only met Uncle Tom a few times, he had so much respect for him as a fellow Marine, and knew how close we all were to him. The conversation then went to my struggle with the loss of my marriage. Ford always has a way of being the rock in your life. He said something I’ll never forget: “Kathryn, on a scale of 1-to-10, you’re a 12. And anybody who is going to try to be with you in the future is going to have to get approval from me first, because no one is good enough to be with you.” At the time, I needed that. I felt so much better knowing that Ford had my back. We had the best conversation of our lives that day. We shared things with each other that no one else knew. We made plans to see one another later in March at my parent’s house in South Carolina.

Less than two months after our phone conversation, on March 10, 2015, Ford was killed. The Black Hawk helicopter operated by four members of the Louisiana National Guard and carrying Ford and six of his teammates in the Marine Corps Special Ops Command (MARSOC) forces crashed off the coast of the Florida Panhandle during a training mission. Three tours of active duty overseas, and Ford was gone on our own American soil. Ford was Captain of the elite MARSOC and a proud Naval Academy graduate. Basically, Ford was a bad ass American hero with three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as a Bronze Medal Recipient. But to me, he was my Ford, my cousin who gave the biggest hugs, had the loudest laugh in the room, the best sense of humor, and the guy who was going to protect me like a brother.

A third piece of the puzzle, lost.

I could write for days and pen thousands of words on how my life following Ford’s tragic death has changed. I’ll never be the same. No one in my family every will. The vivid images ingrained in my mind of burying an American Hero is tragic, ceremonious, regal, devastating, and beautiful, all at the same time. It pains me that so many families, like ours, have to bear this heavy cross.

I think about Ford’s parents and his brother every single day. I don’t know how my Auntie Mo, Uncle Wo, and cousin Tyler possibly get through a moment in time. But we are a resilient, strong family, and we continue to power along.

I have always been strong with my Faith and rely on prayer and God’s strength to help me through difficult times. At age 35, I can confidently say I’ve maxed out my calling minutes to the man upstairs!

Just last week, it was a beautiful warm, Spring day. I drove to the cemetery where Ford is laid to rest. I lay down on the grass above where he is buried, and cried. I talked to him for a long time. The birds were singing, the sky was crystal clear. I wanted to be close to him. I always do.

Anyone who has experienced great loss or tragedy in his or her life has undoubtedly asked “Why? Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this?”

I did the same.

Until I realized the power and strength of healing.

Life goes on.

There was a good stretch of two years of my life that was absolutely horrendous. However, I’ve come out on the other side of pain, tragedy, and heartache. I have learned so much more about myself, what my mind and spirit are capable of handling, and how resilient and strong I am.

I have also learned that leaning on the people around me is imperative. I have learned so much more about my parents, my sister, my family, and my dear friends through this tragic time. Opening up about the many great losses in my life and the obstacles and challenges I have faced, has brought me closer to people around me, whether they are confidants of mine, or complete strangers who hear my story for the first time.

I will never forget the sad, tragic, and overwhelming events of the past two years of my life.

However, they will not define me. Life, and I, must go on. Ford, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way. He would be so mad at me if I didn’t laugh the way I used to, smile my big smile, and carry on his great hugs with every new person I meet. Uncle Tom, would be so disappointed in me if I sat and sulked, if I thought, “I can’t, or I won’t” even just once. Unfortunately, we all lose a piece, or pieces of our puzzle. Life, changes in an instant. I look for the signs from God every single day to make sure I realize how precious life is. I never want to lose that perspective.