It’s been 8 years since my husband died in service, but the grief still lingers for our family

This first-person article is the experience of Monica Bobbitt, a military widow, writer and bereavement advocate in Ottawa. For more information on CBC’s First Person Stories, please see frequently asked questions.

Last May, on the eighth anniversary of my husband Dan’s death, our son brought his granddaughter to visit his grandfather’s grave at the National Military Cemetery for the first time.

It’s heartbreaking that little one – whose middle name, Daniella, honors his memory – will never know his grandfather Dan. He would have been an incredible grandfather, just like he was an incredible father.

Dan Bobbitt with this son Connor on the day he was born in February 1996. (Submitted by Monica Bobbitt)

But she will never hear him sing a ridiculous song he composed just for her, never know the comfort of his hugs or benefit from the wisdom of his advice. The sacrifice is generational; Dan’s death will affect our family for generations to come.

A man in uniform on a tank.
Dan Bobbitt in Afghanistan in 2007. (Submitted by Monica Bobbitt)

Dan died in a military training accident in Alberta, crushed under the weight of his LAV III in a rollover. In the days following her death, I quickly learned that there was so much I didn’t know about grief.

We don’t talk enough about bereavement in Canada. Death is always seen as something to recover from; mourning a series of steps to complete. Neither is true, of course.

I now know that grief has no timeline and is certainly not linear. The death of a loved one fundamentally changes us. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if my husband hadn’t died. Dan’s death forced me to make my physical and mental health a priority, which I hadn’t always done.

It took me a long time to come to terms with the fact that in many ways the best version of myself was born out of my husband’s death. And it hasn’t been easy along the way.

A family photo during a hike.
The last family photo taken before Dan’s death. Left to right: Dan, Katherine, Elizabeth, Monica, Connor, with their dog, Ginny. (Submitted by Monica Bobbitt)

soldier through sorrow

Twenty-one years as a military spouse prepared me to run a household on my own, but it didn’t prepare me to be a widowed mother of three grieving teenagers. There were many difficult days and months as we struggled to navigate our new world without Dan.

Military wives are considered strong and resilient, able to juggle all the curveballs life throws at us.

For a while after Dan died, I hid behind a stoic facade. He was the commander of his regiment and I had a duty to be strong, not only for our children, but also for his soldiers and their families. Fortunately, the regimental chaplain saw through my facade.

If I really wanted to help others, he argued, it was far more important to be authentic than to be stoic. I heaved a sigh of relief. Sometimes we just need someone to tell us it’s okay that we’re not okay.

A smiling woman in civilian clothes and a man in regimental uniform sit at a dinner table.  Both wear poppies.
Monica, left, and Dan Bobbitt attended a military appreciation event ahead of Remembrance Day in 2013. (Submitted by Monica Bobbitt)

I turned to writing to help me make sense of it all. Eventually, I returned to school to hone my writing skills and then again to deepen my understanding of grief and bereavement to better support and care for others facing significant loss or death.

Under the chaplain’s encouragement, I began to share my story with other members of our military community. I tried to normalize the conversation about grief. I was humbled and honored that so many people in turn allowed me to bear witness to their own grief. In doing so, I believe we help each other heal.

A woman in front of a tomb decorated with poppies.
Monica’s daughter, Katherine, laid a poppy at her father’s grave on Remembrance Day 2020. (Submitted by Monica Bobbitt)

Life after Dan

It’s been eight years since Dan died – a third of our eldest daughter’s life. Soon it will be a decade. « A decade. I don’t like it, » she told me recently. I don’t like that either.

I have a great life now with a new partner, a wonderful man whom Dan respected immensely. He would be so happy to know that none of us are alone.

This is the time when a lot of people will assume I’ve gotten over his death, or at least I should be. They confuse moving forward with moving forward and equating happiness with oblivion.

For me, moving on implies that Dan should be left in the past. And I could never do that.

A family photo in front of autumn leaves.
A recent Bobbitt family photo. From left to right: Elizabeth, Connor, Monica and Katherine. (Submitted by Monica Bobbitt)

Dan is still with me. He lives on: in our three children, in our granddaughter and in the life I have built since her death.

My grief is much softer now, its sharp edges smoothed with wear, but it still lurks beneath the surface.

Sometimes it’s triggered unexpectedly by a familiar song or smell, others by a special event. Remembrance Day and the days leading up to it can be particularly difficult, when images of flag-draped caskets fill my News Feed and The Last Post takes me back to Dan’s funeral.

A woman is holding a baby.
Monica Bobbitt tells how the grief of losing her husband Dan affects generations to come. She is pictured here with her granddaughter, Adeline Daniella Jean, who goes by the name Dan. (Submitted by Monica Bobbitt)

But Dan was so much more than the granite headstone that marks his grave, so instead of focusing on his death, I focus on the remarkable life he lived. He would be so happy to know that his three children have inherited his wonderful zest for life.

And I know he would be incredibly proud of the amazing, caring adults they have become.

Over the years, I have been comforted by the care of so many people. I am so grateful for their continued love and support. And I’m especially grateful to those who understand that no matter how many years pass, the pain of Dan’s death lingers.

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