When Bonnie Carroll lost her husband in a 1992 Army plane crash, she wasn’t sure where to turn.
“There was no national support organization for the military bereaved, a place for family members and survivors and loved ones to come together, realize that they’re not alone in their grief,” Carroll says. Within two years, she’d founded an organization of her own.
Since 1994, the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) has assisted more than 75,000 grieving family members and associates of veterans, providing them pro bono legal work, financial services and counseling. And in early March, the organization launched an Institute for Hope and Healing at its national headquarters in Arlington, expanding its professional training capability with a high-tech facility equipped for on-site and remote learning.
At the institute’s opening speaker series in early March, Carroll—a military veteran who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015—introduced a handful of speakers that included comedian and first-responder advocate Jon Stewart, whose father was a Korean War veteran. The longtime host of irrevent news digest The Daily Show cracked a few jokes but mostly kept to a theme of gratitude—not just for the troops who sacrifice their lives but also for their families waiting back home.
“Those families—we’ve asked so much of them, to bear all these burdens. And the least we can do is to be there for them when they may need it,” said Stewart in an interview after the program. “This is a stoic culture; it’s not one to raise their hand and ask for anything. So we have an obligation that we have to meet because they’ve met theirs.”
In a state with more than 700,000 military veterans, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Virginia’s TAPS program plays a vital role in the local community. Supported by private donations, it also serves families throughout the U.S. with a 24/7 help line, local networks of grief counselors and peer mentors, and a quarterly magazine. TAPS is a member of the Association for Death Education and Counseling and teamed up with bereavement-training authority the Hospice Foundation of America for its institute, which features a large convertible room with foldable glass doors for lectures and lessons.
Though everyone grieves differently, Carroll has some advice for what to say just after a loss: Let them know that they aren’t alone.
“So many times grief is pathologized, or we look at grief as being the same as depression. Grief is the human reaction; it’s the normal human response to the loss of a significant loved one,” Carroll says. “You really cannot take a pill or put a bandage on it, or treat it in that way. But what you can do is recognize and acknowledge that it is a broken heart.”