Before she lost her brother in Iraq in 2007, Ryan Manion had no experience of wrenching loss.
“I used to watch horrific news stories with a distant fascination,” thinking those types of tragedies happened to other people, she said.
And then, on April 29, 2007, U.S. Marine Corps 1st Lt. Travis Manion died in combat in Anbar province near Fallujah.
“My brother’s death changed me," said the 40-year-old Doylestown native. With her family, she launched The Travis Manion Foundation, run by her mother, Janet. The nonprofit offers support and leadership programs to veterans and relatives of fallen veterans, providing opportunities to connect, build relationships, and work together on service projects.
When her mother died of cancer in April of 2012, Manion took over the foundation’s operation. She trained for and ran marathons to raise money to support it while trying to build her own identity as a “tough, capable, resilient woman. For a long time, I had lied to myself about how happy and fulfilled I felt."
In truth, she had begun having panic attacks, had become too terrified to drive, and wouldn’t venture more than 10 miles from the home she shared with her husband and children.
“I had started smoking again," she said, "crying in the shower, and regularly feeling seized by anxiety.”
That Christmas, she retreated to her bedroom and began hyperventilating. It was time to admit she was not OK.
Finally, she sought the help of a therapist. The diagnosis — post-traumatic stress disorder — outraged her. To vent, she called Amy Looney Heffernan, who had been married to her brother’s best friend, Brendan Looney, a U.S. Navy Seal who died in combat in 2010.
“Can you believe that s-?" Manion barked at Heffernan. "I don’t have PTSD!”
“That’s OK,” Heffernan replied. “My therapist told me the same thing.”
Thus began many conversations between Manion and Heffernan about grief, loss, and healing. They were joined by Heather Kelly, whose Marine husband, Robert Kelly, was killed in combat in 2010.
The women, who had met through the Travis Manion Foundation, have coauthored a new book, The Knock At The Door: Three Gold Star Families Bonded by Grief and Purpose (Hachette 2019), that describes the unique experience of losing a loved one to war. The book also documents how the women turned to each other for inspiration and channeled into the Travis Manion Foundation all the love that they still had for the men they lost.
In the early stages of grief, all three women found themselves coping via self-medicating and overworking, and thoughts of suicide were not uncommon.
“Amy, she’s very much a type-A personality," said Manion. “I found it fascinating when she told me how, after she lost Brendan, she let herself go. A big wake-up call was when she was staying in her apartment with her two dogs, closed off from the world. Her dogs were going to the bathroom in her house and she didn’t care."
Heather Kelly was newly married when her Marine husband Robert — the son of former White House chief of staff and retired four-star Gen. John Kelly — was killed by an IED. She would often ask herself, “If you got hit by a bus on the highway today, would you care?”
For Manion, the initial years after losing her brother were “marked by endless, furious motion," she said, adding that, “in many ways it served me. Until it didn’t.”
In retrospect, she said, “When my mom got sick, I still hadn’t dealt with the loss of my brother. After she died, everything hit me like a freight train. It was incomprehensible to have to do that [grieve] again. I pushed away everything I was feeling.”
Then she said, came “the empty time."
“What’s not talked about are the days and months and years that come after the death of a loved one. That’s when I had to process a lot of my grief. When I look back, I wouldn’t classify what was happening in the first days and months after Travis was killed as ‘grieving.’ It was just processing and shock." Then everyone walks away, "and you say, ‘I have to deal with this now.’ But then my mom died.”
The PTSD “wasn’t easy for me to put in the book. I don’t take it lightly. After being upset initially, it helped me understand that I’m not necessarily comfortable showing my emotions. Others find it easier to talk to a therapist. I feel uncomfortable when people see me cry.”
Manion points to the humanity and grief therapy she’s encountered with widows and family members of veterans through the Travis Manion Foundation.
“We’ve been into schools through the United States and talked with hundreds of thousands of students about the importance of character. We’ve run alongside double-amputee marathoners. We’ve traveled to third-world countries to build houses for homeless families,” she writes in the book. “Loss … gives us insight into the human experience.”
And helping others have given these women a new way to honor the fallen.
Said Heffernan, “It’s an opportunity to serve with the selflessness of those we have lost.”