Episode 359 Allicia Johnson Niles The Journey Of Grief And Healing Transcript

This transcript is from episode 359 with guest Allicia Johnson Niles.

Scott DeLuzio: [00:00:00] Thanks for tuning in to the Drive On Podcast where we are focused on giving hope and strength to the entire military community. Whether you’re a veteran, active duty, guard, reserve, or a family member, this podcast will share inspirational stories and resources that are useful to you. I’m your host, Scott DeLuzio, and now let’s get on with the show.

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Hey everybody, welcome back to Drive On. I’m your host, Scott DeLuzio, and today my guest is Alicia Johnson Niles. Alicia’s father served in the U. S. Navy in the 70s, and when she was just a little girl, he was tragically murdered. And for years, this dominated her life and caused a great deal of [00:02:00] stress, and Uh, so she’s going to talk about her story and how she found the strength to eventually grieve the loss of her father and find a better path with her own life.

Um, but first, uh, welcome to the show, Alicia. I’m really glad to have you here.

Allicia Johnson Niles: Thanks. So good to be here. Thanks for inviting me. It’s

an honor.

Scott DeLuzio: Yeah. Um, so I guess we’ll, we’ll kind of just jump right into the story here. I want to talk about how your father’s death, um, impacted your early years in life. And, um, you know, how did you, how did you deal with that at such a young age? Um, and, um, when did you recognize the need that you needed to, uh, you know, really start grieving in a, in a kind of healthier way?

Allicia Johnson Niles: So, um, well, you know, first thing I want to address is like grief culture. Um, I think even today [00:03:00] it’s, it’s getting a little bit better today, but my dad was killed back in 1976 and a little bit of a timeline. I was two years old at the time. My brother was a baby. Um, of course, I don’t have any memories of my dad. So, I mean, I spent keeping on with the timeline. Um, You know, so my dad was killed when I was two. My mom remarried when I was almost six. And, um, then basically, like, I don’t know. So got some core memories of after my dad died. My first memory actually is when I was about three, and my Mom had, with my grandparents, built a little apartment for my brother and I to live in at my grandparents house. And I remember walking down the stairs to that. That’s kind of one of the first, like, solid actual memories I have. So I don’t have a single memory of my dad.

And spent the next couple of years, um, you know, there while she was building a [00:04:00] house. And, um, I mean, she was amazing. So my memories of my mom being single, so I guess I could kind of break it up into my mom being single to my mom being remarried and then kind of what happened after that. But, um,

Scott DeLuzio: yeah, that

Allicia Johnson Niles: I remember we’d talk about my dad all the time and I am, I’m Christian.

I grew up in a Christian family where, um, I was so grateful that we talked about my dad. Like my mom was very open. She was honest. My dad was murdered by one of his own men. And. Even I always knew from the time I was a little girl that bad men took my dad and I was grateful that my mom was honest. I think, you know, my opinion as far as like, everybody has their own parenting styles and things like that, but I think that was just so important because, um, you know, kids understand more than people think. And especially back then, like, [00:05:00] anyway, um, so yeah, so we talked about my dad all the time. We had his picture up, um, we talked about how we were going to see him again. My mom made sure that we knew about his personality, um, he is from D. C. and my family is from Utah. And so, um, every summer we’d go out and we’d visit my dad’s grave and we loved visiting my dad’s family and had that connection. So, then when I was about, Six years old, right before I turned six years old, my mom got remarried and my stepdad is absolutely wonderful. Like he’s, I mean, who. It takes an amazing person to come and take on two little kids and a widow of somebody who’s, you know, kind of like a superhero, you know, I mean,

Scott DeLuzio: That’s right.

Allicia Johnson Niles: anyway, it would be a hard thing. Very big shoes to fill. Yeah. And, um, so then I remember people are so excited. Well, leading up to that, people are like, Oh, you poor thing. You don’t have a dad. Oh, you don’t have a dad. And [00:06:00] Like even the memories from clear back then it’s like I had this amazing dad that I didn’t know and I don’t know there There was even back then there was that kind of void I guess but anyway the day they took my Dad, the day my mom and my stepdad got married, you know, happy occasion, whatever, but there were some things that bothered me.

I remember getting upset with my mom, like when I found out, well, first of all, I guess who her bed partner was growing up. That was, yeah, wasn’t happy about that situation as a five year old. Um, and then she was changing her last name and I lost it. I was just like, you know, don’t you love daddy anymore?

So I remember little things like that, where there was, I don’t want to say there were grief necessarily, but now that I look back, it was part of grieving. And. So the day of their wedding, they actually took my dad’s picture down, which, you know, I mean, it’s to be expected, especially back then, you know, the attitude back then was like, even [00:07:00] today, like, Oh, you’re so lucky.

You don’t remember. Oh, you’re so lucky. You don’t have any memories. You know, you didn’t remember the knock on the door. You don’t remember. Oh, you’re so lucky. You didn’t, you don’t miss your dad kind of thing. And I believed it. I mean, it’s not like people were saying that regularly, but that was something that I picked up on and Um, anyway, they’re actually, as I looked back when I got older, there were a lot of things that happened during those years that I think, one of the reasons I’m doing this, I mean, I’m writing my book because I want to help other little kids who might have gone through this because it’s a perspective nobody would really think of until I dug into it when I was 30 years old. So,

Scott DeLuzio: Yeah. And, and it’s such a long time period. Um, you, you mentioned, you know, helping, helping little kids, but it, it can be helping adults who were little kids at, uh, you know, such a difficult time. Um, and you know, kids don’t necessarily [00:08:00] know how to grieve. Like death is a, uh, Almost a foreign concept when you’re such a little kid, uh, because Everybody that you’ve ever known, literally your entire life, has always been alive.

And so, what is death? That’s such a strange thing to even think about. Um, until it happens. And then, then all of a sudden, now, where did that person go? You know, and then you get into the spiritual kind of conversations of, you know, the heaven, uh, you know, where are they, you know, uh, where are they physically?

Where are they spiritually? Um, you know, what happens to them? Um, you know, all of these questions that a little kid, uh, would have running through their minds. And, um, you know, unfortunately, uh, not every parent is equipped to be able to answer those questions. And they’re difficult questions even for adults, right?

But, um, you know, being able to, uh, talk to a little kid about that is, is. Rather difficult, I would imagine, right?[00:09:00]

Allicia Johnson Niles: hmm. Well, and I think also it’s kids don’t show grief, really. I mean, maybe they do. Like, if you know what to look for, they do. They absolutely do. But, um, you know, it’s just kids understand more than you think they do. Like, I mean, I like how you were saying, um, what was it exactly? It’s just like how little kids don’t really grieve.

They don’t really understand. So, um, a few major negative byproducts of losing my dad. Um, my core personality, or what I thought was my core personality was actually shaped by that loss.

Um, I remember being a people pleaser from the very beginning. And when I did some digging when I got older, um, um, You know, I could be wrong, but I don’t think so. I mean, it makes sense. Um, and actually I did a little bit of [00:10:00] research later where I’m like, oh my gosh, like, so when you’re, when you’re a toddler, everything revolves around you. So when I was a little kid, I was always trying to prove myself that I was worthy kind of thing that I, um, remember feeling like there was something wrong with me and I had to be better. And. You know, to me, what makes sense is my dad was a superhero. He was amazing. God took him away from me, so I wasn’t good enough for my dad.

It must have been my fault.

Scott DeLuzio: Almost like a punishment kind of thing. Is that what you’re trying to say?

Allicia Johnson Niles: almost, almost like you’re not good enough. You know, it’s, you don’t deserve this kind of thing. And I don’t know how exactly I got that mentality, but that’s the way I grew up. And my mom, my, I mean, she, huge family, tons of cousins. I mean, there’s no shortage on the love and The attention and, you know, I have, I’m very blessed with my family.

Even my stepdad’s side of the family is just absolutely [00:11:00] wonderful. My dad’s side of the family, they’re great. Um, but I still remember even before my mom got remarried, that I was always trying to, like, make people happy. And also, um, the other thing that was huge was, oh, when you’re talking about how little kids don’t understand the concept of death, unless they’ve gone through it, which I did before I could create a memory.

So I grew up in absolute terror of losing somebody else. Like I, it was kind of a juxtaposition where I’m like, I don’t remember my dad, but if my mom leaves the house, I am holding my breath and praying she comes back safely.

Like death was so big to me when I was little. It was huge to me when I was little.

Scott DeLuzio: You know, it almost sounds like, uh, just trying to think like a two year old or, you know, young child. Trying to think about, uh, that whole concept of consequences. If I’m not good enough, then this happens, [00:12:00] you know, it’s, but it’s not like, uh, uh, you know, you weren’t good. So you don’t get dessert today or you didn’t finish your dinner.

So you don’t get dessert, you know, that, that type of thing. Um, you know, where, where that gets taken away, this is, this is on a much bigger scale. Um, and so to you, it, it probably seemed like. If I do everything perfectly, then everybody gets to stick around and be a part of my life. But if, if I mess up, if I slip up just once and I make somebody mad or I, uh, do this one thing wrong, then somebody is going to leave.

And, and so I can, I can kind of understand where you’re coming from with being a, uh, people pleaser and certainly having. Uh, high anxiety, right? Because that, that would be a super stressful thing to put the weight, literally the weight of the world on a little kid’s shoulders and say, you got to be perfect.

Otherwise this person’s gone, you know, like who, who can handle that? You know, that’s, that’s a [00:13:00] lot.

Allicia Johnson Niles: and I think a lot of it too, it’s, I think that is secondary to the fear of just not even like if I did feel like I have to be, I’m not good enough. I’m not as good as everybody else. You know, my cousins have their dads and I really don’t think it was a conscious thing. But when I look back, it’s kind of like, this is going to sound so weird, but I can still feel those feelings.

Like I felt less than. But I think also, you know, feeling less than feeling less capable is also goes hand in hand with the fact that people are going out and having fun when I was afraid to do certain things. And I, I kind of, you know, I noticed there was, I felt different. And, um, but just the biggest thing, like, you know, I feel like with COVID and everything like that, um, It seems like even through high school, a lot of times, unless you’ve experienced a death or a loss, um, or some kind of trauma, which I guess everybody has, but I [00:14:00] don’t, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like a lot of people aren’t necessarily as concerned about their own death or losing a loved one.

It’s not like that’s kind of a, you know, heavy on their minds kind of thing.

Scott DeLuzio: Yeah, I mean, I don’t have any poll data to go off of on this, but just, you know, kind of anecdotal evidence or whatever, just what you see, like, I think, I mean, in my own life, I’m more concerned for my family and the people who are close to me than I am for myself, like, I wouldn’t have a problem standing in front of, uh, you know, somebody who’s about to, you know, shoot one of my kids or something and taking a bullet for them, like that to me is just like a no brainer.

Like I w I would do that in a heartbeat. Um, Obviously that would have negative consequences on me, but like, I, I don’t know that I, I, well, here’s another way to think of it. Like some people, maybe they, they might have this, uh, [00:15:00] this thought process of how could I live with myself if I let that happen? You know what I mean?

So yeah, might as well take that bullet or, you know, jump in front of, you know, whatever, um, you know, to, to save, uh, the, the folks who are closest to us. Right. And so, um, you know, maybe that’s the. The mindset, right?

Allicia Johnson Niles: I think more so, yeah, actually protecting.

Knowing that life is fragile and being protective, because I was, I mean, I knew I didn’t have much control, but if, you know, I’m like, if prayer works, then I’m going to be praying that they’re safe. If there’s anything, because I was the same way, like, not, not only did my mom get remarried, but she had five more boys.

I was the oldest, and I had six younger brothers, and I would have taken a bullet for any of them any day, and it’s, but I kind of felt that over hyper Anxiety

for their, for their mortality, for my mortality, just like kind of a, a, a terror grip because good people died. [00:16:00] And I think that’s the biggest thing is like, there are bad people out there, good people die. And like, I’m making it sound like I sat in a hole and was like rocking back and forth. That’s not the case, you know, but,

um, I still just, I, you know, even today, it’s that PTSD is very, I’ve been diagnosed with a, um, complex PTSD. Um, it’s very real and those triggers, like when you lose a loved one, especially somebody that important, you know, It doesn’t matter if you are eight months old, like my brother, or two, or twenty, it’s, that’s going to, you are going to have those triggers, and it’s okay. Like, that’s, anyway.

Scott DeLuzio: sure. Yeah. Um, now. As you got older, you, you kind of, kind of recognized, I think you mentioned in your 30s, you, you started to recognize that, um, you know, there’s, there’s a grieving process to go through and I [00:17:00] know everyone grieves in a different way, um, but how did you, uh, kind of overcome some of these, uh, the anxiety and the people pleasing or, or, I mean, perhaps you’re still in the process of working on those things, but, um, you know, what, what did you do to, uh, kind of help yourself once and you realize that, you know, These were issues stemming from this incident.

Allicia Johnson Niles: Well, um, if you don’t mind, I’d like to kind of go back to a little bit, I got off on a tangent, but just

some, just some of the things that happened, um, after my mom got remarried, um, they took my dad’s picture down.

Scott DeLuzio: Yes.

Allicia Johnson Niles: And that was, that was the biggest thing, um, for me was because it was, I already kind of had this underlying, you know, I need to work hard to keep people around or to be okay. And then when my dad’s picture was down, they took my dad’s picture down. It was like, he doesn’t matter, therefore I don’t matter. And it’s

not like I consciously said that. But I also, that was a sign to me from my parents, [00:18:00] you know, you’ve got a new dad now, respect your new dad, which a lot of people do. This is our new life. We, you know, our old life is behind. And for me, that was super damaging. Um, because not only was there this unresolved grief, but then it’s almost kind of like, I was still young enough that it’s like half of who I am doesn’t matter, therefore I don’t matter. And, um, my mom’s still, like, she feels so bad. Um, excuse me, um, but it snowballed. Um, again, stepdad, kindest man in the world. Um, No, that was an adjustment, but it was like, um, I turned to food for comfort. I ended up gaining a lot of weight. I ended up getting bullied. Um, I ended up, you know, hated myself for my weight. I had all sorts of, you know, childhood.

I was, you know, I was picked on quite a bit growing up. It’s, I don’t want to be like, it’s [00:19:00] all because my dad died. And I don’t like to think about that, but then I look at it and it makes perfect sense.

People are like, you can’t be loved if you don’t love other people, or if you don’t love yourself. I hate that when people say that, but, um, it’s kind of like, I saw myself as a second class person growing up. Therefore I was treated like that second class person. Cause I was teaching people how to treat me

Scott DeLuzio: Oh, okay. Yeah, that’s a good point. Yeah.

Allicia Johnson Niles: So, um, but yeah, eating disorders, um, turned to bulimia a little bit. Um, I was very attractive to narcissistic people, friendships, dating, things like that. I’m like playing my violin. My life was so hard. Um, my wife, my life was harder than it could have been. And, um, what I feel like, and another reason I’m so passionate about helping these people is, um, so yeah, okay. So mom got remarried, took dad’s picture down. The biggest takeaway from that was like, I didn’t talk, I did not allow myself to talk about my dad for six [00:20:00] years. And so, you know, lived a happy life, whatever, did my thing as I was just sitting there stuffing my emotions and eating like a piggy. And, um, one day we were talking, I was talking to my mom and, um, I was about 11 and I asked her a question about my dad and she had some really cool things happen. She, um, like I had a dream when I was a little girl and I was wearing this little purple.

My mom made like. All my clothes. And then she stopped when she started having boys and she’s like, well, you know, sorry, gave all my clothes away. I’m like, wait, those are mine. Um, anyway, but I had this dream about my mom and my dad and my brother and I walking home from church when I was about four years old wearing this little purple and green dress and, um, they were singing the song and, um, that was it. And I told my mom and she kind of, her eyes got all big cause like. You know, we haven’t talked about my dad for a while, [00:21:00] but it was just kind of this conversation came up and she went up and she got a box full of things. And, um, one of them was, I might cry. Um, one of them was my baby, like my christening dress. Um, another one was the last birthday present my dad gave me. It was this little red and red, white and blue dress, of course, very appropriate.

And. Then the third one was that purple and green dress, and she’s like, I don’t know why I kept this.

And then she told me that that song that they were singing was his funeral hymn.

Scott DeLuzio: Oh, wow.

Allicia Johnson Niles: So, you know, that was probably the first big spiritual, like, I’m here. I’m still part of your life. You know, I always knew that he was looking down on me. That’s something that anybody in any Sunday school class will be like, oh, he’s looking down on you,

Scott DeLuzio: Of course. Yeah.

Allicia Johnson Niles: But that was the first time where I’m like, he showed me. You know, he. And it was, it was, anyway, [00:22:00] so that opened the conversation a little bit.

Scott DeLuzio: Yeah.

And, and,

Allicia Johnson Niles: that bun.

Scott DeLuzio: and, and having that, those conversations I got to imagine, um, are kind of like the first steps to, uh, that, that path to, I don’t want to say moving on, but, um, you know, uh, Kind of learning how to grieve and

Allicia Johnson Niles: Yeah, living with it.

Scott DeLuzio: Yeah, exactly. And we have to, we have to live with it. We’ve all lost somebody at one point or another that, you know, from, you know, whether it was, uh, you know, they were close to you like a, you know, a parent or they’re, you know, some other, you know, relative, we’ve all lost somebody, but, um, you just have to learn how to live with it.

Life without that person. I mean that life life does go on As much as much as it may not feel like it’s going to at the at the time But life does go on and you do have to figure out a way to Live with the the hand that you’ve been dealt, right?

Allicia Johnson Niles: Well, and I think [00:23:00] it’s just one of the biggest things with grief to me is, like, society still today, it’s like, Oh, they died last month, move forward, move on. It almost seems like, unless, if they’re not, if they’re really not thinking, it’s like, you know, It’s almost like forget that person and moving on means forget about the person instead of allow them space in your life.

And, you know, I was kind of going over the, oh, well, I, you know, had bad relationships and eating disorders and blah, blah, blah, and didn’t like myself and was afraid of everything. And I had some great experiences, of course, but those were kind of tainted a little bit along the way. Um, But like what you were saying earlier when I turned 30, um, I was talking to, I was actually on a date with this guy and I knew that his mom had just died of cancer. And so, oh, that was another funny thing is speaking of society, people are like, don’t tell people about your dad.

Scott DeLuzio: Oh, yeah

Allicia Johnson Niles: [00:24:00] to scare them off. I’m like, Oh, okay. So, you know, I didn’t talk about my dad and then he mentioned his mom and I’m like, well, my dad died too, but I was only two. So, you know, I don’t have any memories of him and I, you know, whatever.

And he’s just like, you have every right to miss him. You have every right to grieve him. You don’t have memories. I have memories of my mom. And that’s, like, having that validation, like, you don’t remember him, but you still have the right to miss him.

Scott DeLuzio: Mm hmm.

Allicia Johnson Niles: I mean, strangely, it took validation from somebody else, but, and again, if my mom knew, she would have helped, she would have stopped it, you know, but I don’t think anybody knew what I was really going through. Um, but when I got that permission from him, well, because to be honest, even my dad’s mom, I’d ask questions about my dad to certain people and I honor and respect that people grieve differently and they need to, and we need to honor and respect their style. Um, but she didn’t talk about my dad and she said, it’s not fair for you to ask questions about your dad.

You [00:25:00] don’t remember him.

And so that, I think that was another thing that just kind of cemented it into like, you’re broken, you’re weird if you miss your dad, but then having This random guy, bring it up and just be like, you have every right. Like I knew I did, but that gave me the permission to move forward with it. And so I even started researching his death because yes, he was murdered. Um, we didn’t know anything about the guy who killed him. Um, I’d asked my mom, she told me what she heard, which was, um, your dad was a narcotics officer in the Navy. The guy who killed him pled insanity and got away with it. I mean,

Scott DeLuzio: oh

Allicia Johnson Niles: imagine from being a little kid, and again, I wouldn’t have any other way, I would not have had her lie for anything, like parents out there, I’m not going to tell you what to do, but I’m going to tell you what to do.

Do not lie to your kids.

Don’t lie to your kids. They’re going to pick up on it. Um, but anyway, like, [00:26:00] We didn’t know anything that happened. Like, we didn’t know what happened to the guy who killed my dad, and so I started doing some digging. And, um, along with that, it’s kind of like my research to find out what really happened to my dad opened the door for my grief as well.

So, and I realized the more I allowed myself to miss my dad, and I allowed him to be a part of my life, the less it hurt. Like,

being able to have that solid good cry, and you know, I need to be honest, um, back when I was 17, so after my conversation with my mom, um, I’d notice little things, like his hymn would come up every now and then, but then I had the opportunity to go back to D. C. So, we’d go out to visit my dad’s grave every summer. Oh, all three of them before my mom got remarried because, you know, expensive. And, um, but then. From the time I was in kindergarten on, we didn’t go to Arlington because Utah, Arlington, opposites of the country, big family.

So, um, anyway, [00:27:00] um, I got to go back east and visit my friend who had moved out there and I went to my dad’s grave, and I remember, because again, leading up to that, it’s like, he’s just a superhero, he’s just a great person, I’m lucky, grateful to have this, every spiritual connection, whatever, no big deal, I’m not going to be able, I’m not going to cry at his grave. As soon as I saw his name in stone, just the floodgates, and it’s amazing how, what a huge relief it was to look at it in the face, and just be like, And I mean, I could have seen him every day. I mean, I can’t say this for sure, but I imagine that I could have seen him every day and then gotten the news and still felt, I felt the pain that I would have felt just seeing him and missing him.

And it was the most healing thing to allow myself to miss him. So,

Scott DeLuzio: Yeah. And I think that’s an important takeaway for folks is, uh, like, I don’t care how many years have passed or how old you are or how old you were when somebody, when [00:28:00] you lost somebody, it’s okay to miss that person. Uh, it’s okay to talk about that person. Um, it’s okay to, uh, Even cry, if you, if you need to, to, uh, you know, if that’s your, your way of expressing, expressing that emotion, um, do it, just do it, and, and, uh, you know, like you said earlier, everybody grieves differently, and it’s, it’s okay, you, you should grieve differently.

Some people, they, they may not have any, uh, you know, big emotions years later. Because they’ve kind of put it behind them, and fine, that’s, that’s their thing, and that’s how they, they cope with things, and good, good for them. Um, but there’s other people who have these big moments, kind of like what you just described, and um, That’s good for, good for you too, to be able to have that, you know, um, now later on, uh, in life, you discovered the TAPS program.

Um, could [00:29:00] you tell us a little bit about that experience with, with TAPS and, and actually, could you tell us what the program is and what it’s all about, um, and then how you kind of discovered it and, and came, came about, uh, you know, in that organization.

Allicia Johnson Niles: yeah, absolutely. So, um, You know, once I was with TAPS, that came along when I was, how old was I, 40? Oh my gosh, it’s like, yeah. It’s weird to think how old I am. Um, but like, so I was 30 when I started researching my dad’s death. And one thing I, um, it was the most rewarding experience. Like, allowing myself to feel that, to, um, and I didn’t get all my answers to that.

So I’m actually writing a book, it’s called Angel in Arlington. And, um, obviously after sharing the experience, when I felt that connection with my dad in Arlington, it’s kind of like a double, you know.

My co author is like the two angels they’re connecting, but, um, but anyway, um, one thing that I [00:30:00] think like you were saying that with a lot of your listeners are military, active military, former military, I cannot stress the importance of battle buddies. I got in contact with my dad’s friends and I got to hear who he was through them. And so that going hand in hand with me allowing myself to grieve was the most healing, incredible, amazing. They are my closest friends. I love them. Um, got to know them. And as I got to know them, I started working on my book.

I’m like, this is important. Like there are these kids out there. There are people out there who might feel the same way that I did. And just being able. being able. to have that validated grief and being able to allow myself that connection and to be able to learn more about my dad through his, the people that he served with was I mean, my confidence just skyrocketed. And then, um, I, as I was doing some, you know, getting more involved in the military community, I saw a blog post by the most amazing girl, woman. [00:31:00] Her name is Amy, Amy Dozier, and she lived in North Carolina. I’m in Utah, and I saw this. blog post about her and her daughter. Her husband was killed in Afghanistan when her daughter was 13 months old. And, um, I connected with her and she told me about TAPS. So TAPS is Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors. Um, it is the most amazing organization and, um, the way it changed me was, okay. So the founder, her name is Bonnie Carroll and her husband was killed in a plane crash. I believe it was in. 94, 93. I can’t remember.

I know that TAP’s 30th anniversary is coming up this year. So

Scott DeLuzio: Okay.

Allicia Johnson Niles: it’s a big deal. Um, but Bonnie Sussman, uh, Brigadier General, um, he was killed in a plane crash and with several other men. And Bonnie was like looking for her support group. Cause I mean, peer based support, where are [00:32:00] your people? She was looking for her people and she couldn’t find them. And so she took the money that she got from You know, losing her husband and she started this nonprofit and, um, it’s just like, they have different retreats. They have a national military survivor seminar every Memorial Day in Washington, DC. Um, definitely share the website. They’ve got resources. They’ve got ways to connect you with like, If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s like, you know, as far as like legal documents and if you need help or anything like that, but um, they have all these programs to help people, surviving family members of people who served in the military.


Scott DeLuzio: Yeah. And, and so it’s more than, than, um, uh, it’s more than just, uh, support group, uh, type of thing. It, it’s more, they, they provide, like you said, paperwork and legal resources and, and that, that type of thing, uh, they, they can help you out with. [00:33:00] Yeah, they can connect you to, to the right, uh, the right resources, uh, for the, those types of things.

But also, the events that they have, um, and the, the kind of community around the shared experience of losing somebody who served in the military, um, that, uh, can be therapeutic as well, right? Uh, having that, that sort of community, you know?

Could you touch on that as well?

Allicia Johnson Niles: Oh yeah, so when I first got involved in TATS because I was still in that mode of I don’t deserve, I’m second class, I have to serve, my dad died too long ago, um, I was reaching out to volunteer. I’m like, put me to work, put me to work, kind of thing. So, um, of course, my first event that I went to was Nationals. Also, it was a great excuse to be able to go back and visit my dad’s grave, you know, which I love it. Actually, as weird as that sounds, my dad’s grave is one of my favorite places on earth. It’s just amazing. Arlington, how can you not?

Scott DeLuzio: Right.

Allicia Johnson Niles: but anyway, um, when I got there, they [00:34:00] had this thing called TAPS Magic, and it sounds cheesy, but it is a real thing, and they call it the TAPS family. And again, I kind of roll my eyes, but I don’t. So I remember getting there, and like, put me at work, and they’re like, You know, no, you’re here to heal. I’m like, that’s cute. But my dad died forever ago and, you know, put me to work and they’re like, you’d be surprised how soon you’re going to find people who understand you. And that was such a foreign concept to me because again, I’m seeing all these people who, you know, they just buried daddy a year ago or, you know, whatever. I’m like, anyway, so I go and I pick up my little shirt, my t shirt, my little bag, and there’s this girl and she hands it to me and she’s got the, you know, the little lanyard where it says, um, You know, Navy and, um, adult child and, or whatever.

So, and I looked at hers, I’m like, oh my gosh, my dad was Navy too. And she’s like, yeah, but mine’s different. She kind of was quiet. She’s like, my dad died a long time ago. I don’t really remember him. I’m like, so, I [00:35:00] mean, that’s one of the,

Scott DeLuzio: So she was right. You, you found, you found your, uh, your, your, your people instantly almost.

Allicia Johnson Niles: Yeah. And then I got into it. Like, I mean, people are like, my aunt was like, why would I ever want to go to a place where people are like ruminating on their, on death and everything. And they’d like to call TAPS the happiest group of sad people you’ll ever meet. And it’s really hard to explain unless you’ve been there.

But the biggest takeaway for me was, you know, validation. I guess that’s, that’s a weird way of putting it, but it was like learning that everything that I’d felt, my fears, the anxieties, the self doubt, the things like that, they were discussed in an open forum in different, different, workshops. And it’s nice because it’s like, you can choose to go to these workshops or to not. Um, it’s, TAPS has helped over, I think it’s getting to 100, 000 military families. I mean, it’s, they’re really, they’ve, they’ve grown like crazy, but like [00:36:00] my experience going to nationals the first time, I mean, they’re all out the red carpet, you know, you get fed, but you get to go and. Go to workshops, they have discussion groups where, you know, you can openly share about your loved one.

And, um, Bonnie’s biggest thing is love lives on. And again, some people might not necessarily agree with this, but it’s very much like support that our loved ones are still there. And that’s one thing that I’m very passionate about is that. They’re still there. They still want to connect with you. And again, like we said all along, you have that right. And, but the love lives on is what Bonnie talks about a lot. And, um, I’m trying, I can’t remember the exact like. Tag, but go to taps. org and you’ll see, um, things about, you know, nationals, which is amazing. Um, and then also they have different things like they have the regional seminars where, [00:37:00] um, there’s one in Destin Beach, I know this coming February for the Southeastern and they’ve got them like different times of the year. With nationals, um, you pay for your hotel. But then the event itself is like 25 bucks or something and it’s four days and you get fed. You really get fed, really get fed. Um, but the seminars you just, all you have to pay for is your transportation to get there. And you show up and it is just this open, amazing, almost like you can breathe, you know, like you can talk, you can cry, there’s no judgment at all. Um, so many different resources, but the biggest thing for me was even this last time that I went, I’d gone three times before COVID hit, I got married, like all these crazy things, um, and I noticed that my anxiety was kind of getting up and, you know, talking to different therapists. Therapy, by the way, Can’t stress enough how amazing that is, but with TAPS, I remember going down the just this last year and [00:38:00] Hearing people talk about like triggers and just things that I needed to know and it cut my anxiety in half

like it’s You know, I really can’t it has from the first time I went like every time I go to TAPS It changes me for the better.

Scott DeLuzio: Well, and it’s great that there’s this resource available to, uh, you know, you have this organization that exists to help the, the families of, uh, you know, fallen service members and. Coming together, like in your case, uh, you said you met someone almost instantly who basically shared a very similar story to yours, even though you thought your story was so unique and so out there that, that nobody could possibly understand me or nobody can understand this story, but then right off the

Allicia Johnson Niles: belong there,

Scott DeLuzio: yeah, exactly.

Like, like, you don’t, almost like you weren’t deserving of. the support that they offered because it was so long [00:39:00] ago. But, um, you know, I use this, uh, this. Example, uh, on this podcast quite a bit, but, um, you know, if you have two people who are drowning and one person’s drowning in, uh, two feet of water, because their head’s being held under, I don’t know, whatever.

Oh, or someone who’s being, who’s drowning in 20 feet of water. Uh, they both drowned.

Allicia Johnson Niles: Right,

Scott DeLuzio: You can’t compare the, the, the, like who drowned worse? I don’t know. They’re both dead at this point. They’re both, they’re both drowned. Like, like it both, it sucked for both of them. And so take this out to somebody like you, who your, your father died years ago, uh, versus somebody else who’s, who’s a family member may have died months or, you know, just like maybe a year ago, um, They both suck.

The situations both suck. You

Allicia Johnson Niles: Yeah, I can’t, sugarcoat

Scott DeLuzio: you can’t, like, yeah, you can’t [00:40:00] sugarcoat that and somehow magically make one better than the other. More, more palatable. It’s like, a life was lost. Period. End of story. Like, that is terrible. I don’t care when it happened, or who it happened to. It’s still terrible. Um And allowing yourself to be able to talk to people who are, uh, coming from a similar, uh, background with that, that shared experience, um, to share stories, share resources or how to’s maybe, you know, how, how did you navigate this time of life or, or whatever, you know, that to me is, is really important because, um, you know, like, like you, you, You spent years, basically on your own, basically thinking to yourself that you weren’t good enough, you weren’t this, you weren’t, you know, all these things, this, this negative self talk, you’re beating yourself up [00:41:00] inside.

Um, whereas had you had a group of people like this who just got it and you could talk to. You would’ve been like, oh, this is a, just a thing that happens. It, it sucks, but it’s a thing that happens to people and I, there’s not nothing wrong with me, you know, in this case, right? There’s nothing, there was nothing wrong with you.

There still isn’t anything wrong with you. You, you, you didn’t do anything wrong to, to cause this or to deserve this, right? Um. But sometimes you need to have that validation like you were talking about.

Allicia Johnson Niles: Well, yeah, and it’s interesting too, because it’s like, I see all these kids growing up now, and you know, like you were saying back then, I’m like, I don’t deserve this special treatment or anything like that, and people would be like, you lost your dad in the service of our country. You know, it’s, you do, and you know, there’s that, and again, not like I have to have permission for good things.

I know that I’ve got definitely more confidence than that, but just, it’s interesting to see the little [00:42:00] kids and how they interact. It’s almost kind of like, I keep using the term breathe again, and, um, but you see them getting together with their friends, their good grief camp, because they have good grief camp there, and, um, some of my, my closest friends, they’re, they’re widows, and they had little teeny kids, and Like all these kids are growing up and it’s funny, not funny, but it’s interesting.

It’s kind of cool that a lot of kids will skip their high school graduation to make sure that they’re at TAPS Nationals and they walk across the stage at TAPS because it’s just, it’s their family. It’s people that they feel like they can completely be themselves around and just, it’s, it’s a very, very safe, safe space.

Scott DeLuzio: Yeah, that’s awesome. Um, and I’m glad that you shared the resources that TAPS has to offer. Uh, and I know there’s probably more that are available on their website. I’ll have a link to that in the show notes for folks to check out. Um, so that way they can, um, you know, if they’re [00:43:00] They’re in that position where they, they think that that’s kind of service might be, uh, something of benefit to them.

They can, they can go check that out. But, um, if you had like one message to share with folks who might be on a similar journey, then, you know, as you, um, dealing, dealing with a loss, the way that you did, um, whether that loss happened last week or it happened. 50 years ago, um, what would your, what would your message be?

Allicia Johnson Niles: Um, for starters, um, there is no timeline for grief, no starting, no end. Um. If you feel like crying, cry, because it’s like allowing them to be in your life. Allowing yourself to cry is the best way, because, um, another thing, and this is very bold, but if you think they’re there with you, they probably are. I’ve had enough experiences in my life that I cannot argue away. I mean, this book, things that came about in [00:44:00] this book, which are so crazy. I don’t mean it’s crazy, but some amazing miracles that happened because I felt like. I could, I had thoughts that came out of nowhere, but anyway, long story short, my whole point is if you think they’re talking to you, they probably are. And what’s the harm in believing it unless you’re going to go off and do something stupid. So, you

know, be careful of that.

Scott DeLuzio: Sure.

Allicia Johnson Niles: but, um, so yeah, one is allow yourself to cry when you need to. Number two is if you, if you think they’re there, they probably are, allow yourself to love them. Um, and don’t expect to ever completely not miss them.

Cause I feel like that’s where a lot of the damages occur. Three, get some therapy, research, find a good therapist. Not everybody’s, not every kind of therapist is for everybody.

And, um, the last one is just allow yourself time. Like maybe on the anniversary of the day that they died, allow yourself time to still incorporate and allow them to be in your life.

Because I [00:45:00] think, you know, we don’t need to lose them more than once. So,

Scott DeLuzio: That’s right,

Allicia Johnson Niles: and find community. Find community. Got it.

Scott DeLuzio: I, yeah, yeah. And community. I think that that’s also, uh, important. But I, I, I like the, the thing that you said, uh, that, that we don’t need to lose them. More than once, you know, it was hard enough to, to bury them once. We don’t need to relive that and, and torture ourselves with that, that, um, uh, that trauma over and over and over again.

Right. Just be okay with, um, you know, remembering, you know, remember the good times if you have those memories in your case, you know, you don’t have those memories, but, um, you do. You do probably have memories of those times, like you said, uh, you know, if you think they’re there, they’re there. Um, you probably have memories of those times and, and Okay, fine.

Well, if, if you believe in your heart that he’s there and he’s, he’s with you, well, that’s the time that you have spent together. [00:46:00] You can remember those times. Right. And just kind of have those, those kinds of memories, um, or even, even the stories, like, even if that’s not something that you believe, you know, for the listeners, you don’t believe, uh, if the person’s there, they’re, that they’re there, um, or if you feel like they’re there, that they’re, um, If you don’t believe that, uh, you know, stories from other people, you know, uh, you said you, you had those, those battle buddies that you talked to, uh, who shared stories of who your dad was.

Um, you know, talk to people about those, those people. And, um, you know, Find out who they were, and, and, uh, I know when I lost my brother, I, I talked to people that he served with, and some of the stories that they told me were, were, um, they’re absolutely hilarious stories, and, and he, it doesn’t surprise me, because he was a funny guy, uh, to begin with, but, um, some of the things were just stupid.

Absolutely, absolutely hilarious, and, um, you know, even the day [00:47:00] that he died, uh, after his death, there were still funny stories about him, as tragic as his death would be, uh, there were still funny things, so, like, I can think back at that, and I, I’m like, yep, that, that’s him, like, if he had to go one way, it would be that way, and it would be, you know, in a, in a way that, Leaves a smile on somebody’s face, you know, and so you can think about those things and be grateful that you have those kind of memories, uh, perhaps as well, right?

Allicia Johnson Niles: yeah, and that connection, whatever that connection means to you, whether it be you just filling the cheesy statement, but warm fuzzies, just, you know, but it’s like, that’s the best way I can think of is connection, whether you believe that they’re with you and they’re there in spirit, or it’s just like that, you know, like I said, it’s just, it’s pretty incredible that we’re, I think, allowing ourselves to have those experiences, whatever they mean to us is what takes the staying away from the grief.

At least a little bit. So

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Yeah, exactly. Well, before we wrap up this show, uh, I, I like to add some humor, uh, to the end of shows, especially Uh, on episodes where, uh, you know, the subject is a little maybe heavier, a little darker, you know, like just like to lighten the mood a little bit for some folks. And, um, you know, especially the listeners who might be, might be going through a hard time and maybe this is the only smile that gets put on their face all day.

So, um, so a lot of times they’re corny jokes. If you can humor me with a laugh, I’d appreciate it, but,

Allicia Johnson Niles: Here, dad! You hear a lot of dad jokes.

Scott DeLuzio: I, you know, that, that’s, that’s what I get. I, I’ve, I’ve been a dad now for [00:50:00] 14 plus years now and I, uh, uh, I have to perfect the dad jokes I guess. So anyways, so there’s a teenager, uh, she brings home her new boyfriend to meet her parents and.

Immediately, they’re appalled by his haircut, his tattoos, piercings, all these things just wrong with him, right? And after he leaves, later that night, the girl’s mom says to her, Man, he does not seem like a very nice boy. I don’t think you should be seeing him. And the girl goes, please mom, if he wasn’t nice, would he be doing 500 hours of community service?

I love the, the expression on your face when the light bulb went on.

Allicia Johnson Niles: I’m kind of an airhead. Takes me a minute to catch things.

Scott DeLuzio: It’s

Allicia Johnson Niles: awesome.

Scott DeLuzio: for the listeners, if you didn’t get it, he’s doing the community service. He got arrested.

Allicia Johnson Niles: That’s hilarious. Oh, that poor girl. Anyway,[00:51:00]

Scott DeLuzio: Yeah. Anyways, thank you for humoring me with a laugh on that. Um, anyways,

Allicia Johnson Niles: No, that was awesome.

Scott DeLuzio: uh, and thank you again for sharing your story and, and your book again. Um, uh, the, the name of the book and, uh, we’ll, we’ll have links and stuff for, for the listeners, uh, for the book, but can you remind us, uh, of, of the book?

Allicia Johnson Niles: Yes, it’s called Angel in Arlington. Um, it’s basically about how my experience facing my dad’s, um, killer and like digging into my grief and connecting and how that brought me the freedom from my fears. So it’s Angel in Arlington. My website is angel in arlington.com. Um, that’s where most of the things are going to be on.

We don’t have a release date yet, but um, I am. Breaking on, like, getting more resources and things like that. It’s, I’m really excited about it. It’s been a long process, but it’s in the hands of an agent right now.

Scott DeLuzio: Excellent. Excellent. Well, when the book comes out. Uh, be sure to send me over [00:52:00] the information. I’ll update the show notes with the links and I’ll also, uh, share it out on social media for anyone who, uh, is following Drive On Podcast on, on social media. Uh, the, I’ll, I’ll be sure to share it there as soon as I get the information.

So thank you again for taking the time to join us. Really do

Allicia Johnson Niles: oh, thank you. Thank you so much for what you’re doing. It’s, it’s amazing. It’s very needed. So, Ian, I appreciate it.

Scott DeLuzio: Thank you so much.

Thanks for listening to the Drive On Podcast. If you want to support the show, please check out Scott’s book, Surviving Son on Amazon. All of the sales from that book go directly back into this podcast and work to help veterans in need. You can also follow the Drive On Podcast on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, and wherever you listen to podcasts.

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