holding space

Several years ago a group of students changed my life in a way that I never expected. Students change my life everyday, but this experience brought me to my knees. 

In my graduate course on shame resilience, students form groups based on their interests and research how shame resilience applies to the populations of their choice. In this class one of the groups applied Shame Resilience Theory to military veterans. The group was made up of two veterans (one from Vietnam and one from Afghanistan), two partners of deployed soldiers, and two children of vets. 

All shame work becomes very personal very fast, but this was different. Our entire class of 70 graduate students had to process through some very difficult feelings, assumptions, and even shame. 

Here’s what I learned: 

When I let my politics dictate my level of compassion for veterans, I contribute to their pain and to the suffering that is happening in the world. 

When I step up (and through my beliefs about war) to hold space for the grief and trauma that they are holding, it changes their lives and creates a more loving and less violent world (which is ironically the goal that holds us back from reaching out to them).

I felt physically sick this morning when I read that veteran and veterans advocate Clay Hunt committed suicide. After interviewing many veterans over the past few years, I wish I could say I was surprised. I wasn’t. I was just deeply saddened and reawakened to my responsibility as a compassionate human being.  


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  6. Robin Goshorn

    Thanks for posting this. I come from a long line of military family. My father was military (retired Air Force) and was also a police officer which is a lot of the same in so many ways. They serve and protect us so we can have a free and safe place to live. The ideals are a lot of the same. The families all go through a lot also. My first husband went to Desert Storm. Though we are no longer married, I still look back on that time with so much heartache. My daughter was just 8 months old when he left. I still remember very vividly the nightmares I would wake up with while he was gone. She didn't even really remember her Daddy when he got home.
    I don't remember my father being deployed in Viet Nam, but my mother tells me similar stories. My father still has nightmares about that war. To me this is so sad. I don't have any idea what he went though over there and he probably will never tell? I am one of the lucky ones. I got my dad back. Some never get their husband/fathers/sons/brothers and these days wives/moms/daughters/sisters back. Some, even if they come back can't hold jobs, become so depressed/addicted to something just to try and numb/forget or are disabled and the entire family dynamics are changed completely!
    I love all of our military, fire and police workers. They are selfless jobs.
    Thanks for bringing this topic up and for making us all aware. Thanks also to all your readers and the appreciation they have showed also.

    God Bless America!

  7. James Venneear

    Hi Brene,

    Being in my late teens during the VietNam War and living in Windsor ON I saw and heard about a lot of VietNam Vets who killed themselves. It wasn't until I read Robert J. Lifton's book Home From the War that I had a glimpse into what these folks were dealing with. When I started working for Veterans Affairs Canada, I was so dismayed at the way the gov't treated Veterans with Operational Stress Injuries (PTSD). The gov't found it easier to label them as "malingerers" and malcontents than to actually try to understand the disablity.
    Thankfully, The gov't has crawled out of the dark ages and offers treat to Veterans with Operational Stress Injuries. It took a long time but now Veterans are getting the help that they need and deserve.

  8. James Venneear

    Hi Brene,

    I just read your blog post on a Veteran killing himself and it made me think back to a friend who was struggling with suicide. He had served in Somalia in '93 with the Canadian Forces and after his return he was diagnosed with PTSD. After he was medically discharged, I visited him and his family in his new home. Since he had a large acreage he would often be outside making the area look good. As well,he was a dog breeder and this seemed to keep the demons in check. Then one day he told me how he struggled with suicidal thoughts. At that point, my suicidal prevention skills came to the fore and I started asking the usual questions – method, mean and opportunity. Well he had all three. Next question – how do you keep yourself safe? Answer, I'm afraid my kids will find me. "OK, so whenever you feel that way I want you to remember you kids and if by chance that is not enough, call you wife call me, call someone but call. He was genuinely thankful that he told someone and I was so humbled that he trusted me with that.

  9. Outstanding post, Brené – even if you hate a war, have some compassion for those affected most directly affected. If it's politics driving one, the politicians deserve one's wrath, not the troops or their loved ones.

  10. Wow, this was beautiful. Thank you. I went to the cemetery today to put flowers on some family member's graves for Memorial Day. They were having a Memorial service for veterans. I have mixed feelings about this. I love having a ritual for people who have died- it is comforting. But I'm against war and I don't like to give honor to war or killing.

    I still felt happy that the cemetery staff had put American flags by my Great-Grandpa's grave. I still bought my Granddad and my Great-Grandpa red, white, and blue flowers.

    This article gives me a way to make peace with my desire to love and help and honor individual people who have gone to war, while still being very much against war.

  11. Jennifer

    I am grieved and find it stunning that any person who claims to be a person of faith and/or educated in the ethics of social work judges another person's sense of duty and answer to a call because it is in "conflict" with one's own political ideology. As a social worker I have had the honor to work with families of fallen combat soldiers and I would certainly never presume to judge a commitment a person makes that puts his/her life on the line in the service of his country.

  12. Gus Malle

    Hello Brene,
    I came across this post Apr 30,2011 There is a movie called "The Dry Land," on DVD now.It is about the effects of PTSD on soldiers. On their website thedrylandmovie.com/blog, the writer/director Ryan Piers Williams seeks the comments of all at info@thedrylandmovie.com

  13. Being a vet myself, and having several family members who are in the military, including my daughter, I appreciate this post.

    I am also reminded of an old man I met in a train station when I was stationed in Germany. He stopped me and asked me if I was American, and I told him I was. He then asked me to sit with him, and he proceeded to tell me his story.

    He was a Nazi soldier at one time, and explained that he and so many like him in the beginning were led to believe, erroneously, that they were fighting for good. When they awakened to what was indeed happening it was too late, and many of them, including himself, tried to get out. At this point he began to weep, and tearfully said that he and his family were threatened, and he knew of so many others who were horrified by what was taking place, but couldn't leave, or their families would be killed. They found themselves enslaved, caught in a catch 22.

    As he wept, tears running down his wrinkled face, he told me he needed forgiveness. He told me he needed to tell someone he was sorry. He was telling me…and I reached out and touched his hand, and I told him I understood, and if it meant anything I forgave him. He smiled, stood up, and walked away, slowly disappearing among the throng of people in the station. I sat there stunned by what I had just heard, and felt deep compassion for another human being who felt such a deep sense of shame for what he had been a part of. I felt his burden, and hoped in some small measure I had helped lift his burden. I'll never forget what that encounter taught me.

  14. Emily Presley

    I read your post today and this quote came to mind:

    "I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather.

    I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration; I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.

    In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized.

    If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming." ~Haim Ginott

    Thank you for all the inspiration you have sparked in my life and the lives of so many other people!

  15. Anne

    My husband and I are just back from Ft. Benning where our son competed in the Best Ranger Competition. It's a grueling, 60-hour exercise that tests physical and mental strength and stamina. After witnessing the grit demonstrated by these men I stand in profound awe of what they do and who they are. I am a lifelong pacifist, and yet I experience enormous pride when I witness the dedication of our military to put everything on the line for what so many take for granted. My husband is a veteran, and his silence about the pain you describe speaks to the gap our society allows to exist between what is given and sacrificed, and how the rests of us benefit. Thank you for this post.

  16. Natasha Rae

    I have worked with people of all walks of life and I have come to realise one statement I base my therapy on:

    "They say peoples perspective is their reality, but unless we jump into there reality we cant change their perspective"

    Engaging in peoples stories is an utmost privilege, to sit in their suffering is an honour, and to embrace their sorrow is divine!

    Love your work Brene..keep on giving it out!

  17. Emma

    War has such a wide spread effect. From those who fight, to those who defend, to those that sit in waiting and to those who live the aftermath. I am a child of a Vietnam vet.

  18. Thank you so much for posting this, Brene. And thank you to everyone who commented before me. Your thoughts and reactions added a new depth to an already deeply moving post.