Deborah Tainsh never set out to write a book about the loss of a child, nor did she envision becoming a children’s writer as she processed her grief. As a writer, she had only intended to collect and process pieces of her life in the only way she knew how. In written snapshots, Deborah recorded her family’s life in a leather-bound journal she received as a Christmas present in 2002. For over a year, she chronicled phone calls, emails, news stories, inspired phrases for poems, updates, and events related to her family and the deployment to Iraq of her stepson, US Army Sergeant Patrick Tainsh.
The last entry in that book is dated February 11, 2004, one day before an Army chaplain knocked on the front door to tell Deborah and her husband, USMC Sergeant Major (retired) David L. Tainsh, their son had been killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad.
It would be several months before Deborah could write about her grief. The book Heart of a Hawk: One family’s sacrifice and journey toward healing, started as a tribute to their son, and a gift of love and support for her husband. Deborah found power in the sharing of their experiences, and it became the first chapter in a much larger story.
From a young age, Deborah used writing as a way to navigate difficult situations. She wrote through painful childhood memories, and she let the words process emotions for her.
“I came from a very dysfunctional family,” she says, “and writing was a way for me to make sense of things.”
Letters and words put order to chaos. In her thirties, with a career in the banking industry, she decided to exchange business college classes for creative writing, igniting a passion she already carried. She found she had an innate ability to tell stories, and using her business writing skills, she honed her craft in the form of narrative poetry.
“I love writing vignettes of stories. Capturing moments of time,” she says.
Deborah’s passion for writing continued to grow even after she was done with college. She took part in writers workshops and wrote her own poetry regularly. Writing was as much a part of her life as the rising sun.
When she and her husband moved to Columbus, Georgia, she could not find the types of writing programs and open mic venues she had enjoyed in California. So Deborah created one.
She founded the Rivertown Poets & Storytellers group that met for workshops and open mic nights at the local Barnes & Noble bookstore and local libraries. The writers collaborated, shared their personal works, and helped one another with constructive feedback and editing. It was a woman from this writing group who encouraged Deborah to pursue publication of her book about Patrick’s life and death.
Four months after Patrick’s death, and on a long drive home from Louisiana following the memorial service for the mother of Patrick’s fiancee, Deborah finally found her voice. She used the time in the car to begin writing their story. She wrote about Patrick’s progression from troubled teen to military war hero as a gift for her husband. For months, Deborah wrote daily for as many as twelve hours. Because the pain was too much, she could not write her family’s story in first person. She pretended her personal story belonged to someone else, as she placed words on paper in third person with the use of fictitious names.
“After I thought the work was complete, I handed the manuscript to my husband as a gift,” she says, “so we could always remember how far Patrick had come.”
After her husband, still numb from the loss of his only child and son, finished reading the manuscript, he said “thank you,” and hugged her tightly. Deborah says, “Although my husband was still dealing with overwhelming grief, he gave me permission to pursue publication, and the manuscript subsequently lay on the dining room table waiting to be sent to the right publisher.”
Something about the manuscript, though, did not feel complete for Deborah. In late January, 2005, she had an overwhelming feeling to look more closely at Patrick’s Iraq briefing notebook that had arrived from Fort Polk, Louisiana the week before. The notebook hadn’t seemed important at first, so it had been placed in a trunk in her bedroom. Following her intuition, Deborah walked to the trunk and opened it. She pulled the lime-green military-issued notebook from the trunk and began to leaf through the pages. She eventually found Patrick’s last letter for home. The letter was a chilling declaration of his willingness to die for his country and an apology for the trouble he caused as a teen. Patrick’s voice was added to the epilogue of the book, and thus began the next chapter in Deborah’s journey to use stories as powerful tools of healing and helping others.
Deborah is quick to point out that families of fallen warriors never really heal. “We just learn to live and cope with our losses inside our ‘new norm,’” she says. She has embraced her role as a mentor for other families who suffer the same overwhelming wounds of grief. Deborah has attended countless memorials and communicated via email and phone calls to provide support to grieving families.
After meeting bereaved military families at various venues across the country, guest speaking and facilitating writing workshops, Deborah realized there was a need for other families to know they are not alone in their journey of grief. Hence, she turned to the tool that had served her so well throughout her life. She wrote…and she encouraged other bereaved military families to do the same.
The families who wanted to participate in the project were eager, yet reluctant because they believed they could not write their own story. “No problem,” Deborah told them. She then created a six-page questionnaire for the participating families. The guidance by questions made it possible for some of the families to write their entire story themselves. Others provided their memories in response to the questions on the questionnaire, allowing Deborah to become their storyteller.
Over a four-year period, Deborah helped the families of 25 fallen warriors find a voice for their grief. The end result produced another book: Surviving the Folded Flag: Parents of war share stories of coping, courage, and faith. Published in 2010, it has provided vital comfort for many suffering families.
“Other than sharing the lives and deaths of their warrior children, the work gave them an opportunity to see how far they had come in their own grief journeys,” Deborah says. No one ever believes that a day will come when mental breakdowns and heavy tears will become less intense and less in episodes. Surviving the Folded Flag lets other bereaved family members know that with proper care of their health and placing their eyes on others, with time, the intense pain will lighten and tears will eventually come less often and more controlled. Deborah likens this progression to consistent aerobic exercise. With time, for those who exercise daily to stay in shape, the quicker their breathing recovery becomes after a hard run, swim, or other exercise. This is similar to the intense work needed to get through severe grief. With time, the bereaved person, who seeks support from others and takes care of their health, more quickly overcomes the attacks grief places on them and the less frequently “grief episodes” occur.
Deborah has offered her books and her support to many families as she attends funerals or memorial services for fallen warriors. She asks the casualty assistance officer, “’Would you mind letting them know I’m here to give them a hug, and let them know that they don’t have to walk this journey alone.’” Her hugs, and the words in her books, offer families comfort.
One mom who received a hug and a copy of Surviving the Folded Flag told Deborah she didn’t know what she would have done without the book. “I keep the book on my bedside table to remind myself that I am not alone,” she said.
Deborah has never wanted people to feel alone, especially those who have lost a loved one. She recognized the holidays are often the most difficult times for grieving families, so she and her husband created a nonprofit organization called Bereaved Military Families of America (soon to be known as Hearts for Military Heroes). And in 2010, they started the Gold Star Holiday Retreat.
Gold Star families gather in Panama City Beach, Florida, the first weekend of December for a retreat with families who feel the same pain and share similar stories. That first year, 67 attendees came for the event, and the following year attendance grew to 167.
Deborah and David do not intend to allow the event to get so big it loses its intimacy, but they are hopeful the tradition of Gold Star Holiday Retreats will begin in other places around the country.
As part of Deborah’s own movement through grief, she has found herself exploring what it is to be a children’s writer. She has spent so much of her life helping people come to grips with real pain through writing, she looks forward to inspiring the hopeful innocence of children through make-believe stories. She has found happiness using her gifts for narrative and tapping into her role as a storyteller. She is currently volunteering regularly at a zoo, and her current writing project is a children’s book set at a zoo.
Stories connect us, and the common stories of loss, grief, love, and redemption pull us together when we feel as though we are being torn apart. Deborah Tainsh has made it her life’s mission to use words and stories to make sense of the senseless and to offer love to the lonely.
*Gold Star families is the term given to military family members of a fallen service member…a tradition started during WWI.