As I lay out the clothes and review the checklist for our trip Friday, I can’t help but reflect on what TAPS — Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors — means to me and my children.
Not everyone finds TAPS right away.
Some of the military services have an agreement where TAPS is connected to survivors asap. But, I’ve heard that isn’t the case for my late husband’s branch of service, the Army.
I had been a military wife for 11 years and I had never heard of the organization. Honestly, perhaps as an act of emotional self-preservation, I had never allowed myself to give much thought about what happened to “survivors of military loss.” I certainly never allowed myself to think about being a suicide survivor.
When I arrived in Hawaii to make end of life decisions for my husband, Captain Michael R. McCaddon, M.D., I felt terrified and completely alone.
I had no idea what to expect, and there was a large part of me that feared it would be the Big Scary Army vs. little powerless me.
So, I reached out (like all military wives learn to do–whether it be for babysitting or a cup of milk) to my girlfriends. My sisters, as I have now come to understand them to be. And they went to work on my behalf. They researched the questions to ask and the organizations available for support.
One of my friends called TAPS. A few hours later, in the wee hours of the morning, I heard a calming voice on the other end of my cell phone. “Leslie,” she said. “This is Kim, from TAPS.”
From that moment forward I have never felt alone in this journey.
In those early days, Kim (and a team of tireless volunteers and employees at TAPS) became my lifeline. They were a source of information and comfort. They did this in person, through email, and eventually in person. Kim Ruocco is so committed to the cause, and to survivors (she is a suicide survivor herself) she flew from Boston to New York to help get me home after Mike died.
I had to fly to New York because my car had just arrived there. But, I was in condition to drive the five hours home alone. Kim came prepared with a box of tissues, mints, water bottles and wealth of personal experience attached to her Masters in social work.
On that drive we role-played breaking the news to my kids, discussed financial fears and details, and had a tender cell phone conversation with TAPS founder Bonnie Carroll.
These incredibly dedicated and strong women inspired me to understand that I could and would be OK.
They reassured me that I was not powerless. They helped me find my voice so I could share our story. And Kim told me: “Mark your calendar right now for May. You are coming to the National TAPS Conference in D.C.”
Two months later, when most expected me to still be in bed with the covers over my head, I was on an airplane with three young children on our way to the nation’s capital.
Connecting with TAPS is by far the best thing that has happened to our family since Mike died. Our weekend in D.C. provided each of us with friendships that I have no doubt will last a lifetime. Make no mistake, it was emotional and raw and difficult. But, it was also immeasurably comforting and empowering.
Today — Friday, October 5 — is a little more than six months since Mike died by suicide.
We will board another airplane bringing us back to the welcoming embrace of that support and community.
This time it is a gathering only of suicide survivors — parents, siblings, widows, children and friends of military service members who died by suicide.
There will be the Good Grief Camp for the kids (which, by the way, makes me smile every time my kids scream it with glee — truly an oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one!).
We aren’t thinking twice about taking a six-hour flight from Massachusetts to California (generously donated through TAPS by Hero Miles), because we know that our TAPS family will be there waiting for us.
We know we are likely to sleep very little and cry a little more than usual. But we also know we will laugh and hug and return home with our tanks refilled, ready to keep walking this journey — most importantly, never alone.
Leslie McCaddon of Massachusetts was one of two widows Time featured in its July cover story on the surge in Army suicides. Her husband, Dr. Michael McCaddon, an Army captain, died in March.