Separation And Grief


Separation from military service requires planning. Whether the separation was by choice or by force, there are a set of protocols that are followed. Transition seminars focus on writing resumes, looking for employment, and using social media to stay connected. However, these seminars minimally touch on the emotional side of leaving the military. Identifying as a Marine, Sailor, Soldier, Airman, or Guardsman comes with a sense of pride, accomplishment, and meaning. So what comes next? How do you identify, now that you are no longer a part of that group? Sometimes,  separating from military service can feel like a loss, especially if you have spent the majority of your adult life identifying as a part of the Armed Forces.

It can be difficult to know where you are, emotionally, and those around you might have a more objective view; you might want to ask someone you trust to gauge where you are. Often when you are in the midst of the grieving process it can be overwhelming, and your ability to accurately judge your own behaviors or actions is impaired. It is important to understand where you are in the cycle so that you can begin evaluating your own behaviors and thoughts. Just remember that each person has a unique experience of their separation; there are many ways of managing this process.

Based on Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ stages of grief, there might be some processes that apply in your transition. Remember that these experiences can be fluid and you might move from one to another and back again. There is no set pattern, and you might experience more than one stage at a time.


“This can’t be real.” “My separation date is still six months away.” You may behave as if there is no change to your circumstance; going about your daily routine until the day of separation approaches. When others ask you about it, you shrug it off or ignore their comments. You might put off planning for your separation by avoiding attendance at seminars, beginning paperwork, or looking for  alternative financial/housing/employment arrangements.


“I don’t want to leave.” “How can they do this to me?” Throw in a few expletive statements geared towards the command, peers, or the military in general. You might be thinking about all of the hard work, dedication, time away from your family, and sacrifices you have made to create a successful career or be comparing yourself to others who do not put forth the effort and yet seem to be rewarded. This anger might stem from feelings of hurt, anxiety, jealousy, or fear of life after the military. Remember to contain negative comments about your command or the military as it could rebound and impact future employment options. Some people will move through this stage quickly while others will remain stuck in a negative attitude towards others, which just gets in the way of looking for alternative opportunities.


“Maybe if I just…” This phase includes using various strategies to remain in your current position or even just remaining on active duty status. Not all people move into this stage; it might include offering to move to a different job or position, change titles, move location, or volunteer to take on a task that you really don’t want to do. Unfortunately, bargaining with the military will most likely not change their decision and if staying in is an option, you might not be happy with the outcome. Also, going back and replaying in your mind what you could have done differently will just add to depression or anxiety symptoms.


Depression can hit in two ways. The first might include self-defeating talk such as, “I’m not good enough.” Separating from the military not on your own terms can leave a sense of self-doubt and mistrust with yourself and those in charge. You might feel as if your contributions were not valued or acknowledged and that any negative event that occurred was magnified. With the downsizing of the military, there might not have been anything that you could have done to change the minds of the decision makers regarding your separation.

The second round of depression might include thoughts such as “I don’t know how to do anything else but be in the military. I have no skills to market, how am I going to find employment?” The current job market is making it difficult to find work for everyone, therefore it can be easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of time and energy it takes to look for employment. Enlisting help from former military members, temp agencies, social media sites, and connections from attending  transition seminars can be helpful in broadening your search scope.

As you are beginning the transition, you might question or reflect on the meaning of your service in the military or focus on past events or memories. You might notice that you distance yourself from your peers by not engaging in social activities or avoiding military sponsored events. These are  normal behaviors that often occur during this time; however remaining in this space can lead to deeply negative thoughts or behaviors.


“This sucks. Now what?” This stage is a result of understanding the current situation and that there is nothing you can do to change it. Don’t confuse acceptance with liking the situation; acceptance means that you acknowledge the reality of the current situation and are now able to appropriately problem solve potential solutions or steps forward.

You begin to take action and look forward with anticipation and hope for better things to follow. Thinking about your military separation may still cause some anger or sadness, however the intensity has lessened and you reflect on how your separation can be beneficial to you and your family. •

Jennifer Woodworth is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Vista, CA. She has worked in the mental health field for seven years. Her husband is retired from the Marine Corps and she has three children ages six, eight, and ten.



• Change in the ability to parent
• Picking fights with your partner in order to “blame” someone
• Difficulty switching to new roles in the family or taking on tasks that you have not done before
• Anxiety about changes in financial situation
• Stress regarding living situation
• Feelings of judgment over the nature of the separation

• Sad or depressed mood lasting more than two weeks
• Engaging in destructive behaviors including aggression towards others, self-harm, excessive drug or alcohol use, or reckless driving
• Talk of death or suicide
• Difficulty sleeping
• Change in appetite which is significantly shifting weight

• Family or friends who can offer emotional support
• Reach out to your primary care physician for a medical workup and referral for a mental health evaluation
• to search for a therapist covered by TriCare
• – Call 800-342-9647


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