What the USS Thresher Taught Me About Death

USS Thresher (SSN-593)

USS Thresher (SSN-593)

 

The USS Thresher (SSN-593), a fast attack nuclear submarine, sank for good on April 10, 1963.

That accident, which occurred when I was a child, changed my life.

The Thresher was going through overhaul at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. She went out on her sea trials, in which ships accompany her, lots of extra Shipyard experts rode her and the initial trials were monitored by people on the surface–listening and in constant communication with the crew.

They took her down slowly, ensuring there were no problems, but when she got to “test depth,” (Whatever that is, my in-house submariner only says, “submarines can go lower than 400 feet.”), problems arose. They spoke of  emergency “blowing” the boat (which means emptying all the ballast tanks and flying up out of the water: see the movie The Hunt for Red October.), followed by one more garbled message and that was it.

The people on the surface, according to the stories I’ve heard (though Wikipedia doesn’t report it), heard the boat breaking up.

No one survived.

It was the first submarine the US Navy lost and sent shock ways through the fleet. Many refinements and corrections in safety were made on the nuclear boats as a result of the accident. My husband joined the fleet 15 years later, and spoke often about “sub-safe” requirements. (Only one other US submarine has been lost: The USS Scorpion. A story for another time)

The 1963 Thresher accident also touched me during my husband’s tour at basic submarine school in Groton, Connecticut, many years later.

 

USS Thresher (SSN-593) crestThe Thresher  CACO (Casualty Assistance Calls Officer)–the officer who visited all the newly-widowed Navy wives–never got over the experience and he spoke to my husband’s class and their wives. He got us twenty-something, mostly newlywed, women into a room and lectured us about submarine life. His first words?

“The best way to become a good Navy wife is to learn how to be a widow.”

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We all gasped. He explained how horrified he was to meet all those Thresher widows in 1963 who didn’t know anything about taking care of themselves. They didn’t know anything about insurance, managing money, auto repair, etc.

Being the scrupulous researcher that I am, I followed directions and did a study on how to be a good widow. I read books about widowhood and what to prepare for ahead of time. My Lieutenant (junior grade) and I made a plan of what I would do if he died.

Fortunately, I never had to execute the plan, but this is what has stayed with me all these years:

 *Do nothing the first year. Your objective is to survive.

*Make no major decisions. Do not sell your house or car unless you absolutely have to.

*Get trusted advisors and listen to them.

*After a year, take a trip away from where you live and think about what you want to do with your life.

*Make a new plan for your life and move forward.”

 

I’ve shared this information with women for years. I’m glad I have it but am even more thankful I’ve never had to use it–thanks to the USS Thresher.

Thresher: generic military officer

A submarine officer: note the gold “dolphins” above the ribbons.

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What a submarine accident taught me about death  Click to Tweet

 

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19 Comments

  1. A very sobering post, Michelle.

    One of the thorniest issues in widowhood is new relationships. While they would seem to fall under the “no major changes for a year” proviso, I’d like to offer a thought –

    I believe that God sends the right people into our lives in His time. Not in our preconceived plan, or according the the appropriateness assumed by society and relatives.

    The key may be to keep a heart open to the Lord’s direction. Not open in general, but open specifically in prayer, and to the still, small voice.

    A friend is going through this now. His wife died six months ago, almost to the day. He has begun to reach out, but there is some significant doubt among family members. Some can’t bear the thought of another woman sitting in “Mom’s Chair”, to watch a movie.

    But he’s happier than he had been, and more engaged. he hasn’t become a recluse – a real danger for a widower in his 60s.

    Another story – when I was working in California, the married brother of a man I worked with was dying of cancer. He had two children, and his wife had a chronic illness that kept her from working.

    So…he convinced his wife to start dating me friend – while he was still alive. There as mutual affection already, which grew into love. It gave the dying man comfort in his last days, to know that his family’s future was assured.

    After he died my friend married his brother’s widow, and they have had a truly happy marriage – and the kids were content and secure. They did well, going to college and maintaining close ties.

    The loyalty issue is the one that comes up the most often, I think – being loyal to the memory of a departed spouse. But if I died (and it’s no secret that I’m facing a health challenge) I would want my wife to have a bright road ahead, and would want to send her on her way with love.

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  April 11, 2014

      Interesting ideas, Andrew. I’m not going to judge your friends and their decisions. Grief is individual and runs like a sine wave.

      I’ve been a lay counselor for more than 30 years. I believe “closure” in regards to the death of a loved one, is a cruel myth. Grief comes and goes and catches you by surprise continually–and for years. I find it hard to believe a loved family member can be well mourned in less than a year.

      (Well mourned does not mean forgotten and set aside. It means coming to peace about their death–not that you don’t miss them, but the grief is not piercing and sharp. You can accept they’re gone, recognize you miss them and always will, but can move forward into your life without the ghosts of missed opportunities or regrets. It probably is shorter in an expected death. We all reach that spot at different times.)

      I can understand and have witnessed, the desperation not to be lonely that sends a person looking for someone not long after the death of a spouse. It was very difficult when it happened in my family and hurt a lot of family members already emotionally reeling. I don’t think a year is a long time to wait, particularly given the enormous complexity of settling an estate these days even for those who were prepared.

      I do think a precious gift we can give our spouse is “permission” to marry again, even if it hurts to give it. That, in my mind, is true love–thinking of what is best for your spouse.

      Still praying for you.

      Reply
      • Michelle, thank you so much for the prayers. They are appreciated – and, lately, very much needed. I’m hurting.

        I think you’re right that a year is not too long to wait – but what I did want to stress was that the societal stereotypes (rebound relationship, transitional relationship, ad nauseum) can easily overwhelm the God-brought relationship that a bereaved person may be meant to have. Being forced to wear society’s blinders can blind us to God’s purpose.

        I believe that in ‘Biblical’ times the period of mourning was forty days (I’m not feeling quite up to checking right now). And after that, life went on. It had to, in a subsistence society.

        We never forget, we never walk away from those memories, and really, the guilt over opportunities unfulfilled and cruelties casually inflicted never go away. They don’t have to separate us from the Almighty, but they do stand as a salutary lesson – to be better. Heartbreak is the currency of learning.

        Not sure it’s easier with an expected death – it’s just different. One of the hardest things for the person who’s dying is feeling the withdrawal of those who will live and remain. Pulling away isn’t intentional, but it’s a natural part of the self-protective process.

        T understand all is to forgive all, according to Kant, but it still doesn’t assuage the loneliness.

        I would hate for Barbara to make the rest of her life an alabaster memorial to our marriage, when I die. It would be like (please pardon the simile) the Apostles setting up camp outside the Tomb. Jesus wasn’t there, and the gesture would have been empty.

        Instead, live, and find God’s open hand in another’s heart. Live, and walk in the world for me.

        (Sorry of this was a bit disjointed. I wanted to get the thoughts down, but I’m pretty ragged at the moment.)

        Reply
  2. Michelle Ule

     /  April 12, 2014

    I wonder if some of this is gender-based, Andrew? I’ve not lost a spouse, but I’ve lost family members who left enormous holes.

    None of my widowed friends have married within a year, indeed, few have married at all. The most recent was nearly three years (I think), after the death of her husband. Her second husband has left us all awestruck at his sensitivity to the 35 years she had with her first husband. God is good.

    For men, it has been different.

    In my parent’s generation, we knew several who married within a year. My own father headed that way within months of my mother’s shocking and unexpected death.

    Among my personal widower friends of this generation, only one has married so far, and it was three or four years after his wife’s death (to one of his first wife’s bridesmaids. God works in interesting ways).

    When my father’s peer married within a year of his wife’s death (and now that I think of it, maybe that’s what my father was reaching for), the still-grieving daughter was told this was not about her mother, but that a man who had been in a good marriage wanted to be back in a good marriage. It was a statement of his happiness at being married that sent him back to the altar with what felt like an unnecessary speed.

    That marriage lasted 25 years until his recent death. Jack must have needed to be married.

    I don’t think we’re very far apart in our thoughts. I just think mourning and grieving are not well done in the United States and taking time to “pray through the pain,” as a retreat speaker said yesterday, is a good idea.

    (My father did not do that and there were many negative repercussions for him and our family as a result).

    Continued best wishes.

    Reply
  3. mumsee

     /  April 12, 2014

    Thinking of those I have known and watched, often the men remarry and the women seem to wait longer. I don’t know why that is. My dad remarried a few years after my mom died, but his dad remarried a few days after she died. His was desperation for a caretaker for his seven children, it did not go well and did not leave happy memories. He remarried again several months later and the children loved her and kept in contact with her until her death.

    My father in law remarried though it was quite hard on his adult daughter who thought her daddy was being disloyal. My mother in law would not have thought that.

    Each of the new spouses was a widower, and now that I think about it, they did not wait much longer than the men. So, now my thoughts are totally irrelevant.

    Yes, there is a time to be cautious about making rash decisions, but it is also important to be attuned to God’s provision.

    Praying for you, Andrew.

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  April 12, 2014

      The need for a caretaker for the children would be important. I wonder, too, if men just have more opportunity? Thanks for sharing, Ginny.

      Reply
  4. kare2012

     /  April 12, 2014

    My dad was so very lonely after my mom passed away. She had been ill for several months with cancer so we knew what was coming. She gave permission for Dad to remarry and even asked his sisters to welcome Dad’s new wife and to care for her as they had loved Mom.

    Dad had seen several of his friends rush into marriage rather quickly after losing their wives and had seen the results of hurt feelings and difficult situations so he decided he would try not to think about it for at least one year. When that year was up, he prayed that if a certain woman was in church that Sunday (she lived 400 miles away, but had family in the same city as Dad) he would ask her out.

    They’ve now been married 15 years. My sister and I followed the examples of both our parents from when their parents (our grandparents) remarried and accepted Dad’s new wife, realized she was not a replacement for our Mom, but a new relationship. She has truly been a blessing to our family and we love her dearly.

    I thank God for her, because my dad was just so lonely. Thankfully, other widowers in his church surrounded him and kept him active and involved and he continues to reach out to others who have lost their wives.

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  April 12, 2014

      Thank you, Karen, excellent insight into how lonely you become after a spouse dies. I need to take that to heart. I’ve noticed the widows at our church tend to band together in support. Several have moved into care taking roles for grandchildren as well. Interesting how it’s all about community and relationships.

      Reply
  5. I’ve seen a remarriage (male) in a little over a year from the (expected) death of a wife of 30-plus years. While the second marriage seems strong and it’s a good match, the husband had not adequately grieved his life mate, and remarrying “on the rebound” seemed to help him get “stuck.” More than four years later he is still grieving hard at times. His second wife accepted that he was still grieving, but I don’t think she knew that she’d be living with a husband who frequently breaks down in tears over memories of his first wife; I suspect she may at times feel like a step-wife.

    I too married a widower (his wife had been gone for several years; he was waiting till her early-adolescent children were a bit older), and the transition into us becoming a family has been much easier than we expected. Though first wife and mom (and first wife’s family) are still part of the reality of this family and its memories, the grief wasn’t raw and unprocessed.

    I would say wait a year or until the grief has been processed to the point where memories don’t consistently bring stabs of pain, whichever is longer.

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  April 12, 2014

      That’s a good rule of thumb, Cheryl. Each person handles grief differently and you don’t know how it will go until you’re riding the waves yourself. Thanks.

      Reply
  6. Karen O

     /  April 12, 2014

    Michelle, I’m curious as to why you think that an unexpected death is quicker to move forward from. I would think the shock of it, & not being prepared to lose the loved one, would make it tougher to deal with. I realize that having dealt with the shock of your mother’s unexpected death, you are writing from experience, but it seems counter-intuitive to me. (Then again, much truth is counter-intuitive.)

    Reply
  7. Karen, I thought she said the opposite.

    In my experience with family members and loss, some who are prepared handle it easier, and some do not. The immediate blow is harder for the unexpected death, but the loved ones facing the unexpected death do have at least one advantage: they are not physically worn out from caregiving. But the lack of a chance to say any goodbye at all, coupled with being unprepared, makes it quite difficult. (One “unexpected” death was intestate, no will, which brings its own huge complications.)

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  April 12, 2014

      Thanks, Cheryl.

      I think an expected death is relatively easier to get through, Karen. My mother died instantly, my father took seven years. I remember telling my father I was glad Mom had died instantly through a health crisis. I could handle that, but had she been killed because of a mistake someone made, I would have had to grieve for her and deal with my anger toward the responsible party. With a long expected death, we knew it was coming and we could get affairs in order. We could clear our relationships and prepare. They both were hard, but in different ways. By the time my father actually died, the person we knew had been gone for some time already and while we mourned in surprising ways, it wasn’t overlaid with shock like my mother’s death. I still miss both of them and they’ve been gone 18 and 11 years. Some days even now grief hits hard, but it’s more manageable.

      Reply
  8. Karen O

     /  April 13, 2014

    I read it wrong! You wrote, “It probably is shorter in an expected death.” I re-read it a time or two last night, & still thought you wrote “…in an UNexpected death.” Maybe I was reading the “an” as “un”.

    That makes much more sense to me now. 🙂

    Reply
  9. 6 arrows

     /  April 13, 2014

    My sister was very unexpectedly widowed shortly after her first wedding anniversary. Her husband died in a construction accident where human error was to blame, so there was a settlement by the responsible party. There was also the challenge of no will and all the difficulties that brings, as Cheryl pointed out. My sister also had an infant daughter to care for at the time.

    It has been almost 22 years since she was widowed, and she vowed she would never marry again. She has kept that promise, even though she has received at least one marriage proposal since then that we know of. (She told the man on their first date that she will never marry again, and that dating is only for fun. She dropped him when things began to get more serious.)

    Her decision to never remarry was made at a time when she was angry at God. (Her husband was a back-slidden Christian with no church home at the time of his death, which may have contributed to her anger at God for taking her husband at that time.) I don’t know the condition of her heart now, whether she is still angry, but there was a time (that maybe still continues) where her church attendance was significantly less than it had been before her widowhood. And in the meanwhile, her daughter grew up without a father.

    A difficult situation that many in our family are reluctant to address — my sister’s commitment to the Lord. We can pray, though, and I do.

    Andrew, you have my prayers, too.

    Reply
    • Michelle Ule

       /  April 13, 2014

      I guess this is a good example of why you should not make binding decisions during that first year. Everything looks different and changes once the deep fog of grief lifts. For some it takes a lifetime, for others, not so much. Thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  10. 6 arrows

     /  April 14, 2014

    I agree, Michelle, and that was just what I was thinking as I read your post — that my sister had made a very major decision, when she was deep in the throes of grief, that could have lifelong implications. One can hope that, since a decision like that isn’t irreversible, that she may one day find peace in her circumstances, and be willing to embrace the possibility of marriage again, if the Lord wills. She has always been a pretty stubborn, stick-to-her-guns kind of person, though — when she makes up her mind about something, she rarely backs down.

    On another note, regarding the discussion in the comments about widows and widowers and how quickly (or not) they tend to remarry after the death of a spouse:

    Among the people I know who have lost spouses, it does seem to me that men tend to remarry earlier than women. I wonder if some of this may be because God created men to need a help meet. Way back in the Garden, God said in Genesis 2:18 “…It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.” It seems to me that if Adam, living in a perfect, sin-free world, needed a help meet, and that God declared it to be “not good” for him to not have one, then, for men today, in our imperfect world, who have had a help meet but lost her, it would also not be good for them, and that they would feel quite alone without a wife.

    I think, too, what you said above in your reply to Kare, how you’ve noticed that the widows in your church tend to band together for support, illustrates how women tend to form relationships with each other, supporting one another through community, shared experiences, and so on. It does seem (generally, not in all specific cases) that men tend to operate more independently of one another, and therefore don’t always have the support network that women have who share difficult circumstances. Which I think makes men need a spouse earlier on after a loss, as they may not have a supportive community with whom to bear one another’s burdens. Women tend to reach out to other women during difficult times, but men often stand virtually alone in their grief, and/or may throw themselves into their work or other individual pursuits to numb their pain.

    I have noticed, too, that with older couples where one spouse dies and the surviving spouse does not remarry, widows tend to live quite a bit longer than widowers. Some of that may be because women’s life expectancy is longer than men’s, but I think part of it, too, is that being alone is probably harder on a man than a woman. Part of that community connection (or lack thereof) again, I believe.

    Just some of my random thoughts. Good post and comments.

    Reply
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