In the United States today, 1 in 4 pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and 1 in 160 ends in stillbirth at or after the 20th week.
It’s a typical day in command, and everything is going well. This afternoon, the unit is scheduled to provide a four-star update, but first, the commander has a routine medical appointment. She is in her second trimester of pregnancy and feels she has been balancing her medical needs well with the needs of the mission. Sometimes she works later in the day after an appointment, but everything gets done. Today, she is excited to see her child’s heartbeat and growth at 24 weeks along. Instead, she is told her perfectly formed child has died.
It’s an unfortunately common experience. In the United States today, 1 in 4 pregnancies ends in miscarriage, and 1 in 160 ends in stillbirth at or after the 20th week. The commonality doesn’t make it hurt any less. Her room is ready; her clothes washed; her name picked out and painted in a decorative wooden frame. But the fetus—the baby—is still gone. And the commander, still roundly pregnant, goes back to work and has to pretend.
Commanders attend courses designed to teach them leadership, how to deal with personnel challenges, and prioritizing mission and unit expectations. This training prepares a commander for the “expected” or everyday circumstances, but it doesn’t address the unexpected. And it is the unexpected that both challenge and define the kind of leader the commander will be. These are the circumstances that aren’t talked about in training. These are the experiences that blindside you; leave you internally gasping while outwardly making small talk and continuing in your day. These are also the moments one remembers about command; the moments when you subsume even your grief because you have been taught that leadership is selflessness. And the commander in this story went on to brief the general, while holding the body of her child inside her. This wasn’t something covered in any regulation; this was uncharted territory. Command while losing one’s child.
Command expectations are internalized and transcend gender: duty, courage, responsibility, strength. These things are impressed upon military members early and form the foundation of military leaders’ careers. A military commander has an obligation to put the mission first, and to consider the needs of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and Guardians serving under them before they consider their own needs. So, what should leaders do when they experience personal tragedy? How do they find a balance between taking care of themselves and continuing to lead? How do they balance the needs of command with personal needs while dealing with one of the heaviest of personal tragedies—the death of a child?
While we’ve seen progress in recent years of talking about child loss in the military, it is still treated as a misunderstood and often taboo experience. As many as 24,000 children are stillborn each year in the United States, and approximately the same number die within the first year after birth, but procedures to support bereaved military parents and families are still not standardized. Bereaved women often find themselves fighting for convalescent leave following a stillbirth, a postpartum death, or a termination for medical reasons. Further, they are often required to seek additional appointments to justify time off to grieve. For parents whose deceased or medically terminated child was classified as a miscarriage, that time off may not even be guaranteed. A further issue is that military men are often not included in such policies, enforcing the cultural notion that the death of a child is solely a “woman’s issue.” Military culture also makes it difficult to find mental and emotional support following a loss, and very few bases are equipped to meet this kind of need.
Because of the general expectation that commanders should focus on command and minimize personal needs, the experience of child loss during command is an especially difficult one. Commanders in these circumstances find themselves torn between internalized selflessness and obligation to the mission, and a very real need to focus on themselves, their families, their physical recoveries, and their grief. The death of a child can also trigger struggles with crises of conscience, faith, or effort to find meaning. How does a commander balance these personal struggles with the duty to still lead?
The largest struggle when dealing with personal crises while in command is accepting that the permission granted to subordinates to care for themselves is just as valid for those who lead. It is both a duty and obligation to be physically fit, and commanders often serve as role models for physical wellness. Extending this concept to mental and emotional wellness, it is important to understand that commanders set the example here as well. A commander who openly attends therapy when needed is going to send the message that mental health is valued in their unit. And a commander who takes time off during a personal tragedy is going to demonstrate that one person’s absence will not break the mission; nor will the mission be allowed to break one person. Giving oneself permission as a commander to take care of oneself when necessary is not only valuable during times of tragedy, but it ensures subordinates feel comfortable taking that same care too.
Regardless of the benefits of setting the example described above, many commanders still worry about the consequences of taking time away. Remaining at work can also serve as a means of avoidance when one’s emotions weigh too heavy. It’s important to understand in these circumstances though that regardless of intent, grief often has a mental component, and many bereaved report difficulties with exhaustion, mood, concentration, and higher order thinking. Taking time to care for oneself then is not only important for one’s own health, but also to ensure one is mentally and emotionally equipped to lead. It also provides an opportunity for subordinates to demonstrate their own abilities to take broad guidance and implement mission strategy. This is important because another element of grief is that it often lasts longer than initially expected. Commanders returning to work after time off for bereavement may find they need to ease back into a full schedule and previous activities. The ability to delegate and trust one’s subordinates to accomplish the mission becomes a necessary task moving into the future.
A woman who leaves work in a maternity uniform and returns without one is going to be noticed.
Another aspect commanders may struggle with when experiencing child loss in the military is how much detail to share about their situation. As part of an internalized sense of selflessness, leaders often minimize personal struggles. This feels especially true with an intensely personal issue like the death of a child; however, the public nature of pregnancy makes this hard to avoid. A woman who leaves work in a maternity uniform and returns without one is going to be noticed. Therefore, when a commander is no longer expecting a child, they may have no choice but to share the news. Should they be open with details and in grieving or should they be stoic and keep things close hold? It’s a personal decision, but it will be remembered. And this too, sets the expectation for what subordinates may feel comfortable sharing under similar circumstances in the future.
Deciding about what to share may also be complicated by details about the pregnancy itself, as well as by cultural expectations. Given the cultural norm that pregnancies are generally not announced until 12 weeks gestation, many parents find themselves experiencing miscarriage before news of the pregnancy had even been shared. A leader experiencing loss in these circumstances may be tempted to simplify the situation as a medical issue rather than announcing that they were pregnant and now they aren’t. A non-gestational parent who hadn’t yet announced their partner’s pregnancy may be tempted to say nothing at all. And while both of these choices are valid, a commander choosing to share openly also opens the door to honoring the grief and pain of the 1 in 4 parents in their unit who have experienced the same.
Another potential circumstance is that a leader discovers a problem with the pregnancy and chooses to terminate based on a medical situation. Especially in the current political climate, some leaders may fear discussing such circumstances may trigger judgement or debate within the unit during an already emotional time. This is especially difficult when DoD policy does not differentiate between termination for rape, incest, medical reasons, or other circumstances. Further, even in cases where the fetus will certainly die, unless the life of the mother is at risk, she must seek compassionate care outside military medical facilities. In this kind of situation, it is understandable if a leader chooses to keep the details of their loss close hold. It is also both understandable and appropriate if they choose to share. Leaders willing to be honest and open about a complex personal situation may find their willingness to share serves to humanize them and to trigger more complex and nuanced conversation with subordinates. Conversely, if a leader chooses to keep their loss or the details to themselves, it is important that they remain aware of the potential impacts of both the loss and the grief, and that they continue to care for their physical and emotional wellness.
One of the final elements of the experience of child loss as a leader in the military is finding one’s way back to normal, or a “new normal” in one’s career. Considering again that grief lasts longer than societal expectations, and that the death of someone as close as one’s child has a profound impact on one’s life and family, it is natural to understand that the experience of child loss in the military may change one’s permanent identity. Something as simple as a military bio or a promotion ceremony is now going to be forever affected by the absence of one missing. Family picnics may become bittersweet or a trigger, and typical get-to-know-you conversations will often include awkward silences. A commander may find priorities change following the death of their child. Old career plans may lose their draw, and some commanders choose earlier retirement. Conversely, some choose different paths, potentially finding their passion in military service renewed. Finally, when working with subordinates, a commander who has experienced the intense grief of child loss is likely to find themselves more empathetic to subordinates’ own tragic or traumatic circumstances in the future. This can be both a good and occasionally difficult thing, and a commander must keep themselves always on guard, both to support and to avoid becoming inordinately affected. Life after the loss of a child is a continual balancing act. Life after child loss as a military commander is even more so. The key is to remember that no matter what happens and what an individual commander may choose or may need, the mission will continue, the personal and professional family will step up to the challenge, and the unit will survive.
Duty, courage, responsibility, strength—military leaders embrace these values while prioritizing the mission and the needs of those in their command. Driven by doctrine and by-the-book training, some commanders internalize these lessons to last their career, while some find themselves in circumstances that require them to bend. Experiencing the death of one’s child while in command is often one of those circumstances. It’s an event that breaks you and remakes you again. And however a commander chooses to address their experience, this too is part of leading; one more element of finding balance in command.
E. Miranda Hernandez is a writer, mother, and military officer. Her first born child, Adrian James, was stillborn at term in 2017. She is the author of “A Letter to my Commander Upon the Occasion of the Death of My Child,” and she writes about child loss, mental health, and the normalization of grief at https://adrianjameshernandez.com.
Julie Sposito-Salceies is a Lt Col in the U.S. Air Force and a graduate of the AY21 Resident course at the U.S. Army War College. She is a new instructor of military strategy and campaigning in the Department of Military Strategy Planning and Operations. She has survived the loss of two children: one during first trimester (2017) and the second at 24 weeks (2019) while in command.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.
Photo Credit: Julie Sposito-Salceies