A Compassionate War Widow

A Compassionate War Widow

The journey to peace through teaching yoga

I remember so clearly the first time I met Rayanne Hunter. She looked like a teenager, one of those young wives who could have made me feel like an old lady by comparison if not for her eyes. She made eye contact and lots of it. Her eyes were big and beautiful, but mostly wise. That look stayed with me. She was an immediate kindred spirit, and I loved her calming presence in the room of crying babies, toddlers, and frenetic, chatty commotion. Hunter had a clear inner strength and peace. Solace.

Our first meeting must have been early October 2006, at a Family Readiness Group event in Fort Drum, New York. My husband was the new commander of a battalion that had just returned from a year in Iraq, and Hunter’s husband had been severely wounded in February of that year. There were 600 or so soldiers and families in our new unit, and I struggled to quickly learn names and faces and match soldiers to wives and then wives to children and then remember where they all fit. Gah! It was overwhelming, and I did a lot of faking it. I could tell there was reciprocal faking it—being a commander’s wife is isolating in that way.

I was a mother with two young children and a toddler. Hunter had a toddler and a baby, a son and daughter, respectively. After that first meeting, I always looked for her because she didn’t treat me differently like so many of the others did. She didn’t fill the silence with small talk. Most of all, she didn’t complain, and it was months before I even knew her husband was injured—let alone knew the severity of those injuries.

A little less than two years later, her husband, Staff Sergeant Wesley Hunter, died of complications related to the injuries from the improvised explosive device (IED) strike in February 2006 in Iraq. He died just a few weeks before the rest of our battalion returned from yet another tour in Iraq, this one 15 months.

I don’t remember if I ever saw Hunter again after Wesley’s death, but thanks to social media, I’ve watched her children, Westlin and Tavie, grow, but mostly I’ve watched Hunter herself grow.

Q: Let’s go back a decade. Tell me a little about who you were in September 2005 and what you thought your future would look like.

A: September 2005 was our first deployment together. It was a lot of figuring everything out: the best ways to talk, webcams, getting into what we could of a routine. I was still a new mother, so most of my time was spent with my son and the neighbors. I was building up my support group (i.e., extra family). At the time, I was planning to go to flight school with the Army National Guard and trying to figure out the best time to put in a flight packet, and I was also trying to plan for a second baby after he came home—typical new-family stuff. Just taking it day by day and trying to talk to Wes whenever I could.

Q: Your husband lived for a long time with his injuries. You must have been exhausted, both mentally and physically. How did you cope with not only that but also two babies?

A: He lived just over two-and-a-half years after he was injured. It was difficult on all of us, to say the least. A lot of it was just getting through the days. Lots of observing, being ready for anything. I was focused on getting him better and getting through things, getting the kids what they needed. In some ways, it was the same as life in the deployment cycle—talking with neighbors and being there for each other. So much was on me, though.

We inevitably simplified our lives. Some things were better. We were closer and appreciated more. Other things were worse. We were grieving the death of his friends, the drastic change in his career, the ups and downs of injuries and meds. He was in constant pain. Meds made him loopy at times, sometimes mean and picking fights. He would forget things all the time, and sometimes lose a whole week of time—not remembering what had happened or been talked about. Then, other times, he would almost be who he was before: smiling, laughing, and being ornery. That sparkle in his eye would appear for a moment and then go dull, and he would go back into himself, quietly retreating to make a model or work on the computer. At first he couldn’t even pick up our son. I was pregnant, caring for a toddler, and helping him as much as he’d let me—and worrying about him the rest of the time.

Needless to say, his therapists worried about me regularly. I tried getting counseling a few months after [he was injured]. The process went poorly. Apparently, your husband being blown up, being pregnant, and taking care of a toddler and everything didn’t qualify me as needing counseling. “I just don’t know why you’re here” was what I was told.

Eventually, I hit the beginning of burnout. One of my husband’s therapists helped find me a different option, and I started counseling. That’s what brought me back to yoga. I had ordered “me time,” not the last time I received that order! Yoga brought me back to my balance. It gave me what I needed to continue. Wes and I spent that time learning as much as we could about what was going on with him and why he did what he did. I think it helped us laugh about it and bond, and it helped him give himself a bit of a break. I really learned the art of living in the moment. It was the only way to get through.

Q: After Wesley died, how did you decide where to go and what to do? Army wives think they are prepared to deal with the loss of their soldier, at least on paper, but the thought is still unimaginable. You were so young.

A: So much is going through the motions! Everything is fuzzy, even still to this day. That’s why they say making major life decisions is bad for the first year. You are frozen, and nothing makes sense. In some ways, choosing what to do next was easy for me. We knew the medical evaluation board (med board) would eventually move Wes out of the army, so we’d made some plans. We were going to move to Wyoming so that he could go to WyoTech to design hot rods (also work on the Mustang he gave me in the process), and I would go to nursing school. We would be closer to our families and to where we wanted to end up in Colorado. So I just had to [make] some adjustments.

Originally I thought I’d shuffle around between family for a bit until I figured things out more. People worried about that plan and knew I would need my own space and more of a plan. So I cut out Wyoming, bought a house in Colorado closer to all the family, found a yoga studio, and started looking at schools. I started to create what my new normal would be. I got out of New York before the winter really came, when everyone becomes homebodies, for the support of family and old friends.

I think for me and many whom I have come across, especially with kids, it’s important to have a plan that involves being somewhere with people who can support you, whether that’s family or friends. At least people who make sure you take some time for you while they’re with the kids. I feel those who really end up being supportive are not who you first would think. Things never go as you plan; it’s overwhelming to say the least, but it’s always good to have some sort of plan for when you run out of power to think. Also it’s vital to have one person you know you can count on to give you rational arguments. You know, that person who will tell you to put money away in investments as soon as possible and bring you to trusting people [who can] help.

Q: What about your kids? How did they handle the loss of their father?

A: They were so young. In some ways, it was easy. They don’t know any different, which, in itself, is sometimes hard, like my daughter not even thinking about going to a father-daughter dance last year because she didn’t have a dad and being OK with it. In the beginning, for them, it was more about fighting over only having one lap to share. Mostly I think they were just confused. So much changed in a short period of time.

I think what helped us the most is talking at their level about everything from Daddy to moving to all the new experiences, making it OK for them to talk about Wes in whatever way they needed. Sometimes we still have to go over daddy stuff again for more clarity and a memory refresh. I’ve always watched them to help me prepare as things start to come up. For quite a while in the first few years, they had their real daddy and their pretend daddy. They would do things with and talk to/about their pretend daddy. It helped them express some things and process [the loss of their father] in a different way. Sometimes it was even their pretend mommy who died instead.

Also being around other kids who are like them has helped. It gives them a place outside of home to talk about Daddy. They’ve always helped others whose parents were deployed, divorced, or struggling in life. They get missing a parent, worrying about the other parent, and even hard times in general. They are the children that can bring calmness to someone’s world.

Q: Now it’s been years since your husband died. Who is Rayanne now? How have you evolved and coped?

A: Now I know how important it is to take time for me, even though I still need to be reminded at times. I make time to do something that I love or that’s relaxing, especially during those times of the year that are emotionally harder. I don’t worry about letting things slide a bit. I’m better at being aware of my limits and asking for help when I can, saying no when I need to. My compassion for myself and others continues to grow. I love when I can help someone feel seen or heard. I’ve grown so much by talking with others—hearing the stories of those further down the path or those [whose grief is fresher than mine], or telling my own.

Yoga is a big part of my life in general and became more so after Wes’s injuries, then deeper since his death. It’s helped me understand my own mind and grief process. It’s kept me sane in taking care of the everyday. Sometimes it even gave me a safe place to cry. So now besides chasing after kids’ stuff, I teach yoga. Nothing really regular, but I’ve been building on a plan, a passion growing from all we’ve been through. It originated from being asked to help get yoga available at seminars, and it stretched to teaching and a mentoring and coaching role. I get to teach yoga [and] talk about how it’s helped me on my journey, and maybe help someone else discover the benefits in their own lives. If nothing else, it [provides] some good laughs over postures I [ask participants] to try. Mostly I think it’s opened doors for people to talk. I’m certified to teach many different styles of yoga, including [yoga for] post-traumatic stress disorder and [for] families.

Then last year I became a certified Psychology of Eating coach to work from more of a whole-being approach. This year I’ll expand that through a meta-health yoga program to a new system called Infinite Wild Hearts (website to come!) that goes further into self-healing using yoga and health coaching to find the deeper triggers and become aware of your own body’s wisdom. Basically, my goal is helping service members, wounded veterans, families, and survivors work through the phases of healing and trauma, discovering who they are again with more of a holistic approach. Eventually, I’d like some outdoor therapy techniques as well. The outdoors have allowed me the space to breathe again or work out whatever is frustrating me through a different type of physical means than yoga. I’m now on the edge of it all becoming real and not just thoughts and plans in my head—something very exciting, along with nerve-racking! It’s that balance of making my dream a reality and still being there for my “littles” that so many of us go through.

Q: There are so many resources out there for war widows and their children; which have you found the most useful?

A: There is an amazing number of resources and [a lot of] support for war widows and their children. The amount is growing all the time. If it were not for all of my Gold Star family on Facebook, there would be so many things I’d never know about!

The main one with a vast amount of support and information is Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). A survivor now usually hears from TAPS right away, and [it is] an amazing place to at least start. Even for me at seven years out, [it] provides much healing and vital connections to [help me on] my journey. It provides regional and national seminars, retreats, Good Grief camps for the kids, and competitive event fundraising (including a Run and Remember Team) to provide that in-person connection and grieving tools. Then there are many online features, [such as] forums, articles, peer mentoring, and a 24-hour hotline. TAPS put me on my path to teaching yoga and guiding others. I do what I can to volunteer and give back through them.

Beyond that there are many resources with more specific focuses. There’s the American Widow Project with small-scale retreats and opportunities to give back. Snowball Express has an amazing main event with a special weekend focused on the children during the month of December, as well as other events throughout the year. Professional Tutors of America offers one hour a week of free tutoring to children and spouses. Folds of Honor also provides a tutoring program that’s more extensive, as well as other scholarship aid. Tribute To The Troops is a great organization that does events to show love to Gold Star families and the military in general. It has weekends throughout the year in various locations where they gather on motorcycles, visiting families in their home to honor and remember their loved one and support the families—giving lots of love! Survivor Outreach Services does a lot of support through information, activities, and meetings to attend. The Travis Manion Foundation does retreats as well, with veterans and Gold Star families. It is on my list of things to participate in, as I have heard so many good things about [the foundation].

There are really so many great organizations out there for whatever is needed, and so many things I’ve heard of but not yet had the chance to participate in. There are also many things that provide for veterans or injured soldiers that are always happy to be there for a Gold Star family as well. I’ve personally had invites to attend activities from Heroes on the Water, which takes wounded warriors kayak fishing, and Operation North State, which supports current troops and veterans. It’s one big family, not one you ever dreamed of being a part of, but one there to give overwhelming support whenever you need it and even sometimes when you don’t think you do!

Hunter now lives in Summerfield, North Carolina, with her two children (aged 10 and eight at this writing) and a happy variety of animals on their little farm. She teaches yoga along with health and life coaching, and looks forward to the upcoming launch of Infinite Wild Hearts. She can be reached at rayanne@infinitewildhearts.com.

If you or someone you know is coping with loss, you can find articles by Solo Moms who understand in our Bereavement Resource Section.

Angela Ricketts is ESME’s Veterans’ Assistance/Military Families Resource Guide and the author of the memoir No Man’s War: Irreverent Confessions of an Infantry Wife. Daughter and wife of career infantrymen, she has a master’s degree in social psychology. You can follow her on Twitter at @angricketts and Facebook at Angie Ricketts.

Please feel free to contact us with any comments or questions.

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