Nathaniel Lee was 7 years old when his dad, U.S. Army Capt. Donald Lee, died in a helicopter crash — a loss of seismic magnitude that kept producing aftershocks of pain.
Lee remembers feeling stunned as he said goodbye to his friends at the Fort Hood Army base in Texas; his family relocated to be closer to his mom's relatives in Northern California. As he and his younger brother started a new school in the middle of the year, he felt self-conscious about everything: his Texas accent, his sudden lack of connection to other military kids, his glaringly absent dad. So he made up a story.
“I told people that my parents were divorced,” Lee, now 30, told TODAY Parents. “I didn’t want to add more attention.”
Then his mom discovered the Good Grief Camp offered for children by the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, or TAPS. Based in Arlington, Virginia, TAPS provides support and resources to anybody grieving the death of a loved one in the military.
“My mom knew I was having trouble talking about my dad — I just wanted to pretend it hadn’t happened and ignore it,” Lee recalled. “TAPS was the first real opportunity I had to talk about him and share his story. ... Up until then, nobody understood.”
Now a military officer himself and a dad to two young girls, Lee mentors military kids at TAPS’ Good Grief Camps — an activity that he says helps him as much as it helps the kids. A major highlight of the year for children and adults involved with TAPS is a big national seminar over Memorial Day weekend in Washington, D.C.
At the seminar, adults attend sessions while kids in the Good Grief Camp talk with mentors, play games, draw pictures and write letters to their deceased parents, with mental health professionals standing by to help. Earlier in the pandemic, gathering in person wasn’t possible because of the coronavirus. This year, though, people can attend the seminar in person or virtually.
“It means so much, especially to the kids, to have the opportunity to come together,” said Bonnie Carroll, president and founder of TAPS, adding that she understood why it couldn't happen in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic: “With our group, we’re hugging, we’re crying ... there is no social distancing.”
‘I just felt understood’
Annelise Miller, 13, of Colorado Springs, lost her dad, Air Force Lt. Col. Todd Miller, in December 2016. Annelise was 8 when she attended her first Good Grief Camp in Colorado Springs. Her first mentor was Lee.
“Annelise hadn’t really cried about her dad until that first event,” said Annelise’s mom, Lisa Miller. “Then on Sunday night when it was time to leave, she cried for an hour. She kept saying, ‘I don’t want to go.’”
“I just felt understood there,” Annelise explained. “It kind of made me realize that I need to talk to people.”
A former Air Force captain, Lee lived in Colorado Springs, and he and his family became close friends with Annelise and her family. He became a regular fixture at Annelise’s science fairs and birthday parties; in 2020, because Annelise’s birthday fell during the quarantine, Lee figured out how to make one of her favorite foods: Spam musubi, a type of sushi made with Spam and rice. He left the treat on her porch along with a Spam musubi pillow.
TAPS founder Carroll said she’s seen these kinds of connections form again and again since the organization launched in 1994.
“It’s validating and normalizing and healing to be able to share your story without judgment,” said Carroll, who lost her husband, Brig. Gen. Tom Carroll, in an Army plane crash in 1992. “Grief is not a mental illness. It’s not a physical condition or injury. You can’t take a pill or put a splint on it to make it go away. ... We only grieve because we love someone.”
Carroll said it’s especially important for children who have lost parents to talk about it.
“For children, that’s always their dad or their mom,” Carroll said. “That’s their parent forever. ... Our love transcends their physical death.”
Because military deaths often occur in traumatic ways, TAPS provides specialized help for people whose loved ones have died in combat, by suicide, in accidents or after illnesses.
COVID grief mirrors military grief
Because of the parallels between families of fallen service members and families losing loved ones to the coronavirus, TAPS started offering virtual resources to anyone reeling from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“What we’re talking about here is grief,” Carroll said. “Maybe a military person died in a foreign land, but with COVID, maybe they died in a hospital where you couldn’t get to them — that’s a similarity.”
It’s a similarity Mikki Frison knows too well. On May 10, the Pennsylvania mom white-knuckled her way through the anniversary of losing her husband, Demetrius Frison, a first lieutenant in the U.S. Army who died in an explosion in Afghanistan in 2011. She said the anniversary always triggers a “grief muscle memory,” but in recent years it's been harder than expected.
Just three weeks before the anniversary of her husband's death in 2020, Frison lost her grandfather, Joseph Fields, 88, to COVID-19. Her grandpa died in a hospital that couldn’t allow visitors, so she stayed on Zoom with him for 20 hours, then watched as nurses rubbed his shoulders and comforted him in his final moments.
“With both of them, I couldn’t be there to hold their hand,” Frison told TODAY Parents. “The last time I saw them was on video chat.”
Frison’s son, Chris, was close with his great-grandfather, so the death hit him hard. And even though he was a baby when his father died in Afghanistan, he misses his dad terribly.
“I wish he could see me play soccer,” said Chris, who plays on a competitive travel team.
Frison and Chris said TAPS has given them companionship with people who get it.
“Chris had a friend at soccer who didn’t believe his dad had passed away, so he kept making jokes: ‘Your dad’s not really dead,’” Frison said. “This is civilian life versus military life, basically. We live in a nice area with two-parent homes everywhere. There was no malice behind what that little boy was saying — he just didn’t understand.”
Throughout the pandemic, TAPS mentors have been doing games, story times and online activities with kids like Chris.
“Every Saturday night, I hear my kid in his room giggling with TAPS mentors and kids,” Frison said. “They keep coming up with some cool game — Disney Bingo, Jeopardy, scavenger hunts.”
After games are over, “we just talk,” Chris said. “It’s really important because they fill in the gaps where my dad’s not.”
This story originally appeared on TODAY on May 22, 2020. It has been updated with details about TAPS events in 2022.