Support: We all need someone. That someone can even be a dog or cat. We are lucky to have each other but are so grateful that we have our mini Aussie, Boba Fett. He was there for us in some very dark times and helped pull us out.
The world seems to be reeling from one crisis to another. We’ve experienced a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, political and social turmoil. Then there are personal traumas that people are dealing with, such as the loss of a loved one, health issues, unemployment, divorce or the loss of a job.
Coping with change can be traumatic as it often affects every part of our lives.
How do you deal with loss or change in your life? What coping strategies can you use? Do you ignore them and just push through, or do you use specific techniques?
In this series called “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change” we are interviewing successful people who were able to heal after a difficult life change such as the loss of a loved one, loss of a job, or other personal hardships. We are also talking to Wellness experts, Therapists, and Mental Health Professionals who can share lessons from their experience and research.
As a part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kendra & Brian Ward.
Kendra & Brian Ward of Ohio are Army veterans who they lost their son, Eric, to suicide. Eric was in the Army National Guard and an aviation student at Bowling Green State University. To honor Eric’s memory, continue the community service in which he was actively involved, and raise awareness and funds to fight the military/veteran suicide problem, they started 4WARD Project, which notably features a movement with engraved rocks around the world that honor their son.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Brian: Born and raised in and around Sandusky, Ohio. Graduated from Margaretta HS. Joined the Army in 1992.
Kendra: Lived in Mio, Lansing and Holland, Michigan. Graduated from West Ottawa HS and Bowling Green State University. Joined the Army in 1993.
We married in 1995 while we were both stationed at Fort Hood, TX. Our son, Eric, was born there in 1996.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Just be kind to people. It takes no effort to be kind. You never know what someone is going through. Your words and actions can make or break others.
You have been blessed with much success. In your opinion, what are the top three qualities that you possess that have helped you accomplish so much? If you can, please share a story or example for each.
Self-reliance: We’re used to working hard. We didn’t grow up rich and worked to build a good life and own our own home. Although we sought help to navigate our situation, we knew it’d be up to us to keep going.
Combined strength of us together: When one of us is weak, we have the other to lean on through all of the emotions and pain.
Passion: We are motivated to ensure Eric’s legacy of kindness. We’re trying new things and talking to new people to make sure his story is shared and it will help others.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion about ‘Healing after Loss’. Do you feel comfortable sharing with our readers about your dramatic loss or life change?
We learned our son, Eric, had died because a sheriff’s deputy came to our door in the middle of the night to inform us. After we’d all gone to sleep, Eric left the house and drove to a remote location to take his own life. He called 911 to tell them where they could find his body. We know that was because he didn’t want us to be the ones to see him.
It was a gigantic shock. Eric was a strong, smart, kind, funny, handsome and wonderful 20 year old who was just starting his life. He did well in school, was a great athlete, didn’t get in trouble, and was on a great path. He was in the Army National Guard and was an aviation student at Bowling Green State University.
He was the guy that helped everybody and made sure everyone else was OK. Seven people, including us, considered him their best friend.
Our family was close and supportive — we told him and his sister, Baylee, that we loved them almost every day. We enjoyed spending time together, and basically had a normal, positive life as a family. We’d thought suicide couldn’t even be a possibility because our kids didn’t have trauma, neglect/abandonment issues or deep problems that many others face. We’d built a happy life for them — why would choosing to leave it be an option? Of course, we were unfamiliar with suicide and were simply guessing, actually not even consciously thinking about the causes prior to experiencing the after effects of it.
We don’t know the reason why Eric chose to take his life. In his goodbye message, he said that he was a waste of space and he didn’t want any of us spending our time and effort on him because he wasn’t worth it. He thought we’d be better off without him. We don’t know why he thought this and there had been no specific emotional event (that we know of) to trigger him to think so. However, he was in a motorcycle accident a couple weeks earlier. Although he wore a helmet, he hit his head and was in some pain, so we suspect that could have played a role but was not the only cause.
What was the scariest part of that event? What did you think was the worst thing that could happen to you?
Scariest: Facing that the fact he was gone was real and wondering if we really will ever get to be with him again.
Worst: Having to keep living without him. We had built our family and expected it to always be there. How could we go on without the four of us together?
How did you react in the short term?
Brian had a physical breakdown after the deputy left. Kendra could barely think and was just numb with disbelief. Then, lots and lots of crying. Some anger mixed in. Lots more crying. We still cry often after almost five years and don’t expect that to change.
After the dust settled, what coping mechanisms did you use?
We have both dealt with depression and anxiety afterward. Kendra’s anxiety affected her physically by including shaking and restlessness in her hands. She started making 550 cord bracelets to keep her hands focused and because they were a favorite of Eric’s. It turned into something more and here’s an explanation of how and why.
We knew of the community service Eric was involved in through Teen Leadership Corps (Toys 4 Tots, food drives, Kick It 4 Cancer, etc.) but we learned even more after he died. We found out Eric was also spending his own money to buy food and take it to homeless people. He was meeting with a man who was homeless and was encouraging him and being supportive. There was footage on Eric’s helmet cam that he’d accidentally left on where he stopped driving his motorcycle, walked to the man (who obviously knew him), and they had an amazing conversation about how the man was getting back on his feet.
Several soldiers from around the country came to his funeral to tell us how he’d helped them. During basic training, he’d made sure they didn’t quit in basic training, stopped a bully with humor instead of fighting, or just simply was there to tell them good job.
We decided to start an organized group called 4WARD Project because we had to make sure Eric wasn’t forgotten. We wanted people to remember how he lived and how he helped people. Here’s an explanation of why we chose that name:
- Our family was always the 4 of us
- We’re doing this 4 Eric and our love 4 him
- We’re doing this to help ourselves move 4ward after losing him
- We’re doing this to pay 4ward the incredible kindness and support we received from the community in his honor
- Eric used the number 4 on nearly all of his uniforms for the many sports he was in, email addresses and even passwords.
- All of his names have 4 letters — Eric John Ward
Can you share with us how you were eventually able to heal and “let go” of the negative aspects of that event?
The gaps between the sadness, anger, etc. get longer over time. At first, you’re being hit with gigantic waves, one after another. Then, they get a little further apart and aren’t as intense. Sometimes though, there’s still a surprise one that knocks you down.
Keeping Eric’s memory going through our 4WARD Project effort keeps us going and helps us manage the hits and the gaps. It motivates us to help others in his name. It’s a way of keeping him close to us. Healing is a long process and it might never be complete, but we’re trying to focus on the positive to make sure his legacy continues and that helps drive away the negative.
Aside from letting go, what did you do to create an internal, emotional shift to feel better?
By starting small with the 550 cord bracelets, trying other items that failed, and finding success with the rock program helped us accomplish goals that were important to us. Those positive feelings gave us energy to keep trying. For almost 4 years, our audience was primarily friends and family. In 2020, it caught on and we’ve reached more people than we’d ever dreamed. It was worth the hard work to get this far and now we’re wondering how far it’ll go! All of this helps us recenter and focus our emotions and efforts to remember Eric but also help our own mental health.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to cope and heal? Can you share a story about that?
Brian forced Kendra to attend a suicide survivors group with him through a local hospice. She did not want to attend because it was too much to address so soon and she didn’t want to add the weight of hearing others’ stories. The facilitator, Katherine Hall, was an amazing person who helped with navigating the extreme and complex emotions of losing a child, especially to suicide.
Were you able to eventually reframe the consequences and turn it into a positive situation? Can you explain how you did that?
Our work has helped us find purpose. We’ve seen those efforts turn into awareness and funds that are helping others through non-profit causes that Eric supported or cared about. The whole time, Eric is being remembered and more people are learning about who he was.
What did you learn about yourself from this very difficult experience? Can you please explain with a story or example?
We look at the world with a clearer perspective of what’s truly important. We focus on what matters and pour ourselves into our work with 4WARD Project. We prioritize our own well-being and do our best to just focus on the positive.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experiences and knowledge, what advice would you give others to help them get through a difficult life challenge? What are your “5 Things You Need To Heal After a Dramatic Loss Or Life Change? Please share a story or example for each.
- Support: We all need someone. That someone can even be a dog or cat. We are lucky to have each other but are so grateful that we have our mini Aussie, Boba Fett. He was there for us in some very dark times and helped pull us out.
- Professional Help: It can be hard to do this for many people and it may take time to find the right person/group to help you.
- Understanding for Yourself: You will get frustrated, not do things right, and even fail at things. Allow yourself a pass so you find the strength to reset and try again.
- Perspective: You may need to reassess other things in your life so you can successfully move forward. Keep positive relationships, activities and attitudes close. Evaluate negative things and take some time to decide if YOU want to keep them in your life.
- Purpose: It can be big or small. But it will help you gather bits of hope over time to keep going and therefore have a life that includes happiness in it.
You are both people of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
We kind of think we’ve already started a movement! One of our most successful efforts through 4WARD Project is our rock program. We laser engrave rocks with Eric’s name, a folded flag, and a message to keep the rock moving and share their journey on social media. Hundreds of people have ordered rocks and placed them in most states and in several countries. The rock program has recently become extremely popular, so we are very excited that Eric’s name and story will be shared even more, but also that we will raise more funds to help others. We donate a percentage of proceeds from all of our efforts to causes Eric cared about, such as veterans/military, animal welfare, and helping marginalized people.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them. :-)
Mark Hamill. Eric was a huge Star Wars fan and was obsessed with light sabers from the age of 3. Everything he picked up became a light saber and he made the sounds to go with it. Every childhood birthday included a gift of at least one light saber. Before our rock program became popular, we left a rock on Mr. Hamill’s star on the Walk of Fame. When he liked the photo we tweeted showing that, it brought us so much joy because it meant he now knew Eric’s name. Also, Mr. Hamill and Eric had very similar viewpoints on many topics so they would have gotten along so well.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Eric’s story, our work, organizations we’ve helped, and the items we make are all at www.4WARDproject.com. Thanks to lots of interaction recently on social media, we have experienced a huge amount of growth and connections. You can find us on TikTok (best one), Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter using @4WARDproject. Our TikTok shows multiple examples of how the rock program involves others, including a large amount of military and veterans, and how it impacts people, and some clips of Eric’s life. We’ve recently had rocks for Eric featured on Fox Sports, at NASCAR races, and two celebrities have them so far with plans to publicly place them to help share Eric’s story.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Thank you! We appreciate that you’re addressing this very important topic and we hope it helps others!