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How Lee Woodruff’s “Ambiguous Loss” Became a Mission to Help Others

Lee Woodruff and I got know each other through several shared passions – giving voice to the complexity of grief, building resilience in the face of adversity, and supporting veterans and their families in whatever way we can.

For me, I became interested after the loss of my parents. Lee’s attention was sparked in 2006 when her husband Bob Woodruff suffered a traumatic brain injury. The celebrated journalist was in Iraq covering the war for ABC News when his armored vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb. He was placed in a medically-induced coma for 36 days. During Bob’s recovery, Lee met many families of service members and learned even more about brain injuries, post-traumatic stress, and depression. The entire experience inspired the couple to create the Bob Woodruff Foundation, supporting America’s sick and injured service members and their families.

I am honored to share the details of Lee’s extraordinary journey in my latest Q&A.

Allison: I often talk about the importance of sharing both funny and poignant stories to keep memories of our loved ones alive. Did talking about memories help Bob’s recovery?
Lee:
Memories keep a loved one present in your mind. The doctors and nurses told me to keep talking to him. Somewhere inside his head, he was hearing what I was saying and it was repairing him. Day after day I would tell him the stories of our life together, the memories we shared for almost 20 years of marriage. Those stories kept us alive, as a couple and family, until he recovered and we could share those memories together.

Allison: The loss you suffered had nothing to do with death, yet it was altogether devastating. Can you help us understand how this shaped your current outlook on grief?
Lee:
Loss comes in many forms. Phrases I never heard before my husband was injured were the terms “ambiguous loss” and “complicated grief.” People think of loss as something final, gone forever. But loss has many shades. Loss comes with a middle ground. You grieve when life changes the dreams and plans we make. Whether it’s an illness, injury, or a child born with a disability, every one of us must come to terms with loss. But when the person you love is not gone, when they are still present, but the life you dreamed having together is different than the one you envisioned, we still need permission to grieve. This kind of loss, as legitimate as a loved one dying, is something to be recognized and honored in others. It is also a topic or emotions about which people rarely speak. “Aren’t you lucky your husband is alive?” people would say to me in the early days of his recovery, before it was clear that he would fully return as a journalist, father, and husband. In those moments, I suddenly lost the right to grieve because I needed to feel grateful that he was alive. One of the biggest lessons I learned about loss is that it’s not black and white. I try to approach others with that understanding.

Allison: Loss is a great teacher. In what ways have you derived greater joy and meaning from life following Bob’s injury?
Lee: I try to live in the moment more, to leave more dishes in the sink, and be less the Type A person I have always been, feeling like I must plan things out and virtually script life. I think when you go through something difficult you are shown the thin, fragile line between what you consider your “normal” life and how easily all of that can be toppled.

When you feel gratitude for your existence you look at the world in different ways. I think it’s inevitable that you become more compassionate, and you develop a third eye, or an extra sense for people in need of kindness both large and small.

I also know that going through our experience, with almost losing Bob, it fueled a creativity just to write and get our story out, as it was the only thing I could control through that process. That journal ultimately became our book, In an Instant: A Family’s Journey of Love and Healing. Going through a range of difficult and varied emotions is often a catalyst to unlocking the creative processes.

Allison: Because of my role on the Advisory Board of TAPS, I very much appreciate the outstanding work of the Bob Woodruff FoundationBob’s story of resilience is inspiring. What have you learned about resilience from his experience?
Lee: Bob and I have learned a great deal about resilience. Things that I thought were big problems, or might break me, are now viewed with a different lens. Living in a military hospital in the month after Bob was injured gave me a new perspective on the kinds of people who serve our country and opened my eyes to the fact that while we were taking care of our injured in the acute stage, the outcomes experienced once they went home were not always equal. But one thing has become very clear to me as I’ve watched so many individuals and families in the aftermath of trauma: human beings are built to survive.

Allison: One of your most important initiatives is Stand Up for Heroes. Jon Stewart (see my Q&A with Jon here) has been a huge supporter. What can you share with my readers now about future lineups? And, what new initiatives do you have planned to raise more money and awareness for veterans and their families?
Lee: Our next Stand up For Heroes event is scheduled for November 4, 2019. While we don’t announce the lineup until right before, we’ve had Bruce Springsteen there every year but one, and Jon Stewart has been a mainstay. We’ve also had Roger Waters and the Red Hot Chili Peppers and John Mayer perform, along with many others.

As far as our next initiatives, we are working on a long-term project to connect all resources for veterans and their families together in such a way that the information is easier to access. Many services are still operating in silos, and with technology today, it should be easier.

Lastly, we have created something call the Viva Fund — we award monetary grants to veteran couples who want to try to have a family through in vitro fertilization and have been unable to conceive due to injury.

We decided to start the Bob Woodruff Foundation to help military veterans and their families as they transitioned back to the home front. To date we have given away more than $60 million to help these families, and Bob and I are incredibly proud to have turned our bad thing into a good thing.