Written by Kelly Kowall, Spec. Corey Joseph Kowall’s mom
You already know what I am about to say because you are alive and a child that you love is dead. When people say they cannot imagine what it must be like to lose a child, I tell them they are right.
The only way I can even begin to convey to them the feeling of what we have been through is to tell them to imagine being in a helicopter that is traveling over an ocean. There is no land in sight. Suddenly, for no reason that YOU can comprehend, you are shoved out the door without a parachute…and then WHAM, you hit the water hard.
As the initial shock begins to wear off, you start to feel the pain and it’s excruciating. You think this can’t be happening! It can’t be true! But then the reality starts to seep in. You are numb with disbelief.
You don’t know what to do. You feel you should do something, but you can’t think. Your body moves but your mind is not working. You look for land but all you see is water. You know you should swim but have no clue as to which way to go.
Your body tires from treading water. It is an effort just to keep your head above the waves. It is an effort just to breathe.
You have fleeting thoughts about how it might be so much easier to just fill your lungs with water and allow yourself to sink, plummeting into the depths of the ocean below. The wind is howling, the sky is black and the waves are enormous. You fear the storm will never end and you don’t know how you will survive.
Then one day you start to realize that the turbulent storm is beginning to wane. The waves that were once over 40 feet high are subsiding. You slowly begin to realize that you are swimming even though you are unsure of your direction.
You begin thinking you may be able to survive if only you can find something to hold on to, and then you see it. It’s just a plank of wood but it allows you to grab hold and it gives you hope.
As you drift through the water, still clinging to the board, you become aware that you are not alone. There are others in the water with you. Some have been in the water longer than you and they have somehow managed to lash their planks together. They have built a boat, and not only have they built a boat but they are rowing.
Throwing you a life line they pull you in. Although they greet you with open arms they wish they did not have to welcome you aboard because they know the price you have paid for this trip is way too high.
But without hesitation they take you on board their vessel. With their knowledge and experiences through this tough journey they comfort you; they provide a safe haven for you to tell your story. They listen, and they listen, and they listen because they understand, because they get it. They encourage you to speak your child’s name, to share your child’s story, to share with them your journey. They give you hope.
Although unsure of your destination, knowing that your life will never be the same again, you join them and slowly begin to row.
My name is Kelly Kowall and I am the proud Gold Star mother of Specialist Corey Joseph Kowall. On September 20th, 2009 my son was killed in Afghanistan. My life as I knew it came to an end.
It was on an evening almost 15 months ago that two soldiers knocked on my door and then proceeded to push me out of that helicopter. I remember screaming during my fall, and I remember my cries of anguish and pain after hitting the water.
Although the ocean is a treacherous place when there is a storm, when the waters are calm it can be quite magical and healing. I guess that is why I envision my journey of grief to that of being adrift in an ocean as I try to survive and navigate my way to a new world.
It is also the reason that upon returning home to Florida after my son’s funeral I bought a boat. My son and I always loved spending time together on the water. So it just felt right when I began providing boat outings to a few veterans, some active duty soldiers and a couple of local Gold Star families.
On these excursions, I would take them out to some of my son’s favorite places. I felt it was a way that I could honor him. At the same time it was a way I could thank others for their service and sacrifice. What started out as some simple boating trips ended up being so much more than just a ride.
Soon friends started getting involved, volunteering their sailboats, fishing boats, canoes and kayaks.
What we found is that these boating expeditions could be mentally and emotionally healing to everyone on board. What I found is that by reaching out and trying to do something for others during my pain I was in fact beginning the journey to heal myself.
In April of this year, with the help of family, friends and an attorney, we founded a non-profit organization by the name of FAVE Boating Expeditions. It is through these boating experiences that we reach out to other survivors who had experienced the loss of a military hero.
There is just something about the smell of the sea air, and feeling the sun on your face, the wind in your hair, and the gentle rocking motion of the waves. Your cares and worries just seem to drift away, and for that moment you may find peace.
Although the waters are not always calm, for the moments when they are these boating expeditions can be a vessel for hope and healing.
How do I know? Because I have been out in that ocean. I have endured many storms and I will continue to do so as they come. But mostly I know because I am a survivor.
God bless each and every one of you during this holiday season. Remember you are not alone. Remember to reach out to others. Be involved. And my hope is that each one of us will always be able to find a safe harbor when a storm blows in as we continue on our grief journey.
Kelly Kowall spoke at a BP/USA Tampa Bay Chapter candle-lighting in December of 2010. This article is a transcript of her speech.
It is reprinted from the December 2013 edition of the Bereaved Parents of the USA – Baltimore Metropolitan Area Chapter newsletter.