On Memorial Day weekend, families discuss feeling the presence of lost military members


Christian Durham-Honer, 7, of San Antonio, Texas rests on the District of Columbia War Memorial. He participated in a scavenger hunt that led to different memorials to search for heroes’ names, such as the name of a relative who perished at war. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Greg Gassen remembers the motorcycle trip he made last year to honor his late son, Jacob, an Army medic. The rain poured down on both sides of the road but not on the street where he was riding.

“It was like Moses parting the Red Sea,” Gassen recalled Saturday.

Gabriella Kubinyi was walking on the beach after her Navy husband, Jeff, died last year. She saw scores of dolphins swimming by, and one swimming alone, seemingly by her side.

And when Patricia Kenner visits the grave of her Marine Corps son, Kenneth, and becomes emotional, she hears his voice say, “If you’re going to cry, you might as well leave,” just as he would say in the hospital.

Such signs, voices, apparitions and premonitions can sometimes be a crucial aspect of grieving and healing. And on Saturday, Gassen, 61, Kubinyi, 33, and Kenner, 51, were part of a Memorial Day weekend workshop exploring such phenomena.

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While Washington was thronged with visitors and flags to honor deceased veterans, hundreds of family survivors crowded into meeting rooms in an Arlington County hotel to share and examine their grief.

In sometimes anguished gatherings, wives, fiancees and parents, among others, assembled to talk — in some cases for the first time — about their pain and their losses.

People embraced in hallways and wept in meeting rooms, where boxes of tissues were always at the ready.

It was the 19th annual National Military Survivor Seminar & Good Grief Camp, held by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). It was sponsored, in part, by the New York Life Foundation and took place at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Crystal City.

There were dozens of workshops and outings planned over the weekend involving meditation, dating, stress, suicide, spirituality and art therapy for survivors.

Grief counselor and author Mitch Carmody, who lost a son to brain cancer 26 years ago, led a workshop titled “Whispers of Love: Signs From Our Loved Ones.”

So many people showed up that extra chairs had to be brought into the hotel salon room.

President Obama praised "all the men and women who have given their lives in service to this country we love" in his weekly address on Saturday, saying, "We are who we are today - a free and prosperous nation, the greatest in the world," because of their sacrifice.

Carmody talked about dreams in which the deceased appears. He said survivors may associate butterflies, birds or deer with the presence of the departed and that to some, apparitions may appear in clouds or photographs.

People will say, “That’s wishful thinking,” he said. “Yeah, it is.” Grieving survivors are seeking some sign that in some way, their relative lives on and is all right.

Greg Gassen of Beaver Dam, Wis., stood up and told the story of his son, Jacob, who was killed Nov. 29, 2010, in Afghanistan, and the group motorcycle ride he made last year to honor Jacob, who had been in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division.

The forecast was for rain, but as Gassen rode, his path was mysteriously dry.

“There was no rain on the road, but on both sides there was rain,” he said.

When he got home, he pulled into his garage, and it began pouring. Later, a friend called and said there had been 101 motorcycles on the trip. “I thought Jake was one of them that day,” he said. “I thought that was a sign.”

Kubinyi, of Teaneck, N.J., who spoke after the workshop, said her husband, Jeffrey Ferren, 31, died April 2, 2012, of an undiagnosed heart ailment. She discovered him in bed, dialed 911 and administered CPR until medics arrived. “I heard that last breath,” she said.

He was in the Navy, stationed in Norfolk, and they were living in Chesapeake, Va.

They had grown up together and been a couple since high school. They were married almost five years.

“We were swimmers,” she said. “We lifeguarded together. . . . Water was a super part of our lives together. He still holds a record for one of the swim team races in our high school. His name’s still up there.”

One morning after he died, she was walking along the beach in Virginia Beach when she spotted about 50 dolphins swimming south as she walked north. One dolphin, though, was headed north beside her as she walked.

“I thought, ‘Jeff, if you have anything to do with this, make this dolphin go with me the whole way,’ ” she said.

She said it did.

Kenner of Homestead, Fla., lost her son, Marine Corps Sgt. Kenneth D. Reich, 26, to complications from a blood disorder Oct. 30 after a bone marrow transplant and an 18-month fight against the disease.

“I get visitation signs,” she said. “I went to the cemetery one day, and I walked up to his grave. He’s buried in Miami. I started to cry, and all of a sudden I heard him go, ‘If you’re going to cry, you might as well leave,’ which is what he used to say to me in the hospital all the time.”

“I was like, ‘Okay, bye,’ ” she said. “So I turned around, got in the car, and left. He knew that I wanted signs.”

Mike is a general assignment reporter who also covers Washington institutions and historical topics.
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