Getting through the storms of grief; Senior Master Sgt. Anthony Anderson

  • Published
  • By Jim Fisher
  • 377th Air Base Wing Public Affairs
This is beginning of a series featuring speakers from the quarterly Kirtland Talks seminar. People featured at Kirtland Talks are often chosen because they have stories of personal and/or professional adversity and a demonstration of resiliency to share.

Senior Master Sgt. Anthony Anderson is no different. The superintendent in the Air Force Safety Center’s Weapons Safety Division experienced life-changing adversity as a brand new Airman at technical training in 1999. Grief, processing grief and becoming stronger would become strength he could share with others.

“That’s the thing about life, you don’t always get a happy ending,” Anderson said.

As he was trying to acclimate to Air Force life, his 13-year old brother, Lawrence, died from cancer.

“You have a brother that you’ve helped raise—a person you are a big brother to--and his cancer comes back. I had to learn real quick to be humble and ask for help because I desperately needed it at that point,” Anderson said.

Lawrence’s death, the demands of being an Airman and relationship troubles forced Anderson to develop what proved to be a key in getting through the “storms” of life – transparency.

“You learn to ask for help, to deal with vulnerability and to be transparent with select people,” Anderson said. “It took an intentional effort to do that on my part and it was a very challenging moment in my life.” He qualifies the importance of transparency with the caveat that sharing should be done in a safe environment using the many resources Airman have available. Ultimately, he found people to share the weight he was carrying during his grief.

It was a turning point in his life and early Air Force career, causing him to not only develop transparency, but also his faith. He also discovered mentors who guided him through tough time.

“It was a blessing in disguise, because I learned I wasn’t the only one going through these things and that life wasn’t bad,” Anderson said. “Sharing about these things and going through them, I was more optimistic about life and its purpose from that experience.”

While Anderson matured and ascended the ranks, tragedy visited his family again about 10 years later. His brother Jason--just 10 months younger the Senior Master Sergeant--suffered a stroke. He would not emerge from the coma that followed.

“When crises come, you can’t always press pause,” Anderson said. Another death on his wife’s side of the family, other family members dealing with health problems, and a pending PCS meant he would have to rely on the strength he gained through the earlier storms in his life.

“I had just been promoted and I was on the verge of getting orders to Minot [AFB, N.D.],” Anderson said. “Normally, when you go through a difficult time, you try and stay rooted in your routine, on something fixed, but I couldn’t really do that since so much was going on.”

In fact, Anderson didn’t even have time to grieve: within hours of Lawrence’s death, his mother was going to receive her son’s kidneys in a transplant operation at UCLA in Los Angeles.

“Due to failing kidneys, my mother was forced to go on dialysis and desperately needed a kidney and if she didn’t have dialysis or a transplant, she may have passed too, so she had that heavy weight on her,” Anderson said. “So once it was determined that he would not survive, just hours after that, we had to drive her to UCLA to get a kidney transplant. You didn’t have time to mourn but you did have something good to work for. It was truly a bitter sweet circumstance.”

Anderson’s mother was left with much-improved health and a constant reminder of Jason, and Anderson was left with the task of grieving and taking on a new assignment at Minot.

“We weren’t thrilled about going, but it was probably one of the best assignments I had,” Anderson said. “You have to choose to not let your happiness be dictated by circumstances and we made a choice to make the best of it.”

Anderson has been doing that same thing at Kirtland. Turning his painful experience to good for himself and others.
“Life isn’t always a happy story,” Anderson said. “But life can be fulfilling when you make your choice to get through something. You learn more in the valleys than you do on the peaks. Because of these experiences, I am more mature and my perspective and faith has really changed for the positive.”

For anyone heading into one of the storms of life, Anderson explained that it is essential to remember three things.

“When we are going through something, we think we are alone. That’s not true. We are all going through the human condition and chances are people are going through or have been through what you’re experiencing. Have the courage to share with someone in a safe environment, because in the crisis that you are looking at, they can help reduce the weight and some of that load comes off of you.It’s a process. You’re not going to have instantaneous relief, and in the middle of it, you may identify other issues that need to be dealt with and sometimes it’s going to be very painful to go through those,” Anderson said. “The things that you go through that aren’t necessarily fun, be they from just life happening, or your own poor choices--you can recover from those and share that experience with others and provide strength for them.”