Transitions are steps in life that you can sometimes plan for. Other times, you are thrust into a transition and have to readjust with some “on the job” training. We spoke with Taya Kyle, wife of “American Sniper” Chris Kyle and author of “American Wife: A Memoir of Love, War, Faith, and Renewal,” to learn how she is dealing with her life’s transition by honoring her husband’s memory and continuing the work he was so passionate about.
4word: How did the fact that your husband was a national hero impact your grieving process? Did your children have an effect on your grieving process?
Taya: There were definitely a lot of things happening, especially around the work he was doing, at the time of Chris’s death, so in some ways I feel it slowed down the grieving process. This was a blessing for me because I feel like it was a way for me to stay busy and active and keep parts of his life alive, while avoiding some of the hard work that grief is. I was able to grieve in doses rather than all at once. That was a blessing.
I’ve known a number of different widows and everyone has a different story and experience with grief. My experience with grief was really hard, in the fact that there were good things to finish up with and legal battles to fight and it was a lot all at once. Everything felt like it was turned up on high volume. And even if you think you’re outrunning the grief, you are grieving and it’s painful. When I say I was able to outrun the grief and do other things, I should clarify that while I was consumed with other things so that I wasn’t crying 24/7, there was definitely still a huge amount of crying and grief taking place every day.
In some ways, being in bed and burying yourself in covers and bawling your eyes out can be very healthy and can get you on the path sooner. That just wasn’t my path.
If I didn’t have my kids, my grieving process also would have looked a lot different. Because of my kids, I have more of a reason to get up and keep trying. They’re part of what keeps me busy. There are times where I feel like I could be really sad and sorry for everything, yet when you have kids who rely on you to make sure that their life is joyful and happy, you have to find a way and you have to compartmentalize. It’s not that they don’t know you’re sad and grieving. My kids have seen me cry and break down plenty of times, and they’ve learned through that. I’ve held them while they’ve cried. It’s a human experience to comfort each other and allow each other to feel whatever you’re feeling in the moment.
My kids also, though, still need a mom who can have friends over and still provide them opportunities to play and be with other kids and enjoy their life, because childhood is so short and I have to make sure they get the most out of it.
4word: Do you have mentors or a support group who have helped you navigate the many issues you’ve faced? Have you been able to reciprocate for others?
Taya: I’m really fortunate to have a lot of people in my life from a lot of different areas. I definitely have had mentors to help me through launching the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation. I’ve had people blaze the path before me in terms of transitioning from the quiet military life to being thrust into the public life. I experienced that with Chris when he went through that type of change in his, and our, life. I got to see some things ahead of time. I was friends with widows who had lost their spouse. So I feel like it was a mix of people who have really been there for me when I’ve needed them.
I’ve had a couple of friends who have said to me, “It’s OK if you go into the ditch. We’re not going to let you stay there,” meaning it’s OK to get in that dark place and just feel like you’ve bottomed out, because they were not going to let me stay there. That was so important for me to hear, because I think I was afraid that if I let myself go to the depths of sorrow that I felt, maybe I wouldn’t come back from it.
A huge part of healing for anyone who’s gone through something difficult is never forgetting that you’re not the only one who hurts and you’re not the only one who goes through whatever type of pain you’re having. There’s no new story in human life, really. If you look back over the last 2000 years, we’ve all had the same types of struggles and pains, cycling over and over. Some of the details might be different, but the essence of your situation is that you’re never the only one. So part of our gift from our pain and the beauty through the ashes of our lives is that we can help other people go through their experiences and that we can absorb the lessons of the people who have gone before us, too.
4word: Describe the journey you had to go through from being a married mother to a widowed sole provider for your family.
Taya: It’s been a crazy transition. I give my kids a lot of credit for being so willing and able to adapt. Even when Chris was alive and I was home, I was part of business stuff on the backend and I was very involved with a lot of the stuff he was doing, whether it was with the book process or behind-the-scenes financial things with his company. So I didn’t have to learn an entirely new profession when he was killed. I was able to finish up “American Gun,” which he had been working on, and I ended up working through some of the things he had going through his company, as well as some legal battles we had been unfortunately working on.
The big difference was that everything was now on me. The fact that Chris had deployed so much and was training so much earlier in our lives, I already had that sense of what it’s like to be a single mom. The difference was he was always coming home and it wouldn’t be forever.
“God, country, family” was very important to Chris and me and our family. That triangle is still something I’m very passionate about and isn’t something I’d ever consider letting go of. There are times where the weight of everything is crushing, but I also know that I’ve been fortunate. I’m still here and I have good people around me and I’m moving forward. I had a choice to be bitter and hateful or to be stronger and more faithful, and with the support of those around me, I’ve become stronger and more faithful. And that’s a gift.
4word: How is parenting different in the “glass bowl” effect caused by your instant, non-planned celebrity status?
Taya: When Chris started down that road with “American Sniper,” it was very important to us that our kids never saw him as anything other than Dad. His value came from how he was as a husband and a father, not on the popularity of what he was doing out in the public. So that definitely helped prepare the kids.
I would say the difference now is that the kids travel with me and they have a teacher who travels with us. It’s been a really neat opportunity for all of us to experience things together, and it’s also just been another “thing” that’s been different. I don’t think the traveling will be forever, but for right now, we get to experience new things, see the country, and meet new people.
In terms of how my parenting style has changed, I now have to be the mother and the father. Kids needs both the discipline and the strength of a father and the softness and nurturing of a mother. I had some experience with this when Chris was gone, but now I can’t call him and ask his thoughts on something or what the best decision would be for the kids. Now, I’ll sometimes call other men who I trust if I just want to be sure that I’ve got my eye on the ball as far as what a strong father figure would bring to the table. I will call a friend of mine and his wife, and I’ll ask the two of them what they would think. It helps me feel like I have a check and balance system.
I try not to be too hard on myself, something I definitely struggle with. I need to remember that it’s not going to be perfect, but as long as my kids know that they’re loved and if we have strong male figures around them, that helps. I also encourage my children to be over at friends’ houses where they can see a loving mother and father relationship. It’s a chance for them to experience role modeling without really knowing it. I don’t tell them that’s my motive, but I think it’s important that they see that relationship in action.
4word: Would you say “American Sniper” was a good thing for your kids, or do you feel like it maybe had a negative effect on them? Have they seen it?
Taya: They haven’t seen it, but they know there will come a time where they will. We spent a long time going over the trailer for the movie, because I knew they’d see those on TV at some point. The kids know that we’ve had some opportunities that we otherwise wouldn’t have without the movie. We still try to keep things as normal as possible, though. We travel more and they see me up on stage on occasion. Normally, though, they do their thing while we’re traveling and I run out, do my thing, and get back to them as soon as possible. So I feel like they’ve been very unaffected by the movie. At least that’s the hope.
4word: Do the kids talk to you about everything? Is Chris’s death something you are all open with discussing? Do they grieve in their own way?
Taya: Communication is such a huge part of any healthy relationship. The kids and I do talk about it. We talk about Chris every day, not even intentionally sometimes! Sometimes one of the kids will say, “I miss my Dad,” or someone will remember how much Chris loved bacon. Just little things will pop up, like favorite colors and things like that. During the times that we feel the weight getting heavier, we will go to counseling. When Chris was alive we’d talk about his military experience, and now we still talk about it. The kids know the work that we’re doing with the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation and the effect it has on the people who serve.
The kids also understand what the perils of war look like. We have friends that have been badly burned or friends who are amputees. They understand, too, what drives the heart of a warrior to go fight that fight and risk those kinds of injuries and even death.
In some ways, the kids have matured a lot more quickly than they would have otherwise. They’ve had to grasp some difficult concepts. Just the other day, my daughter said, “Mommy, you know, we’ve had things that have been harder than some people have to go through, and we’re stronger, I think, because of it.” And I agreed with her. She’s told me before that she would do anything to have him back and not ever have to go through what we’ve been through, but at the same time, she recognizes that we’re OK and potentially better because of it. Those are some pretty deep conversations to have with a child. These process and thoughts are something they’ve gotten out of a rotten thing that happened to them. They were robbed of their family life and their father, who I believe was one of the best dads ever created.
There’s no way to right the wrong they’ve been dealt, but I think they are and will continue to be fortunate in that they can remember him how he was. That’s been frozen in time for them. They will always remember Chris as funny and affectionate and faithful. That’s what they’re left with, and it’s something that no one can take from them.
4word: Did working to launch the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation help you following your husband’s death?
Taya: If I can help other marriages not go through hardships and even potentially save some marriages, I feel like I’ve done something right in this world, as well as honored Chris’s life. I don’t know that any part of working to launch the foundation made his death any easier. I do think that it feels right and important to do what we’re doing.
Helping people is always good for healing. Even though I don’t have my marriage today, I know what it’s like to be in a marriage like Chris and mine was, so to be able to help couples in similar marriages is a beautiful thing that honors Chris. You can take someone’s body, but you can’t take their spirit. It’s so nice to have Chris’s spirit living on.
4word: What about your work gives you hope or motivates you during difficult days?
Taya: The couples whose lives we’ve been able to impact through the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation are a big motivation for me to keep going. We can’t quit on people who are still in the fight. Saving a marriage is something I could never walk away from, because not only are the couple’s lives affected but also the lives of the generation to come.
My kids and the memories of their father constantly keep me going. Those memories are something nothing and no one can take from them. I love that we can build on those memories and help the kids still see something beautiful come from his life even though someone has taken the living breathing human Chris from us. I hope that Chris’s spirit will continue to inspire them as they grow up.
I do it for me. I want to contribute to the world, too, and feel like I make a difference. I like to be busy and contribute.
And I do it for Chris. I believe we have eternal life and I think he’s still out there and everything I do, I do as an act of love for him. I hope what I’m doing makes him proud.
4word: How do you balance the work you do with the foundation with being a mom?
Taya: My prayer life has helped a lot. There’s nothing I can’t pray for. I pray for God to give me peace regarding decisions that are best for the kids and me. I try not to make a decision until I have peace in my heart about it. When you’re on your own, you tend to feel like the weight of the world is on your shoulders and you worry about if you’re doing it all wrong.
Something I’ve come to realize is that we as humans have a tendency to never stop. I recently spent a whole day with the kids, just sitting on the couch and watching their Disney shows. I realized that it had probably been three years since I’ve really done that. Not that I haven’t taken little cuddle breaks here and there with the kids, but actually giving myself permission to have a whole day off is something I haven’t done in a very long time. A pastor once told me that one of the top ten commandments is to have a day of rest, right up there with do not murder. It’s a big deal! And we have a tendency to never shut off, especially when you are or feel like you are the only one making sure everything gets done.
I’ve learned that taking a day of rest is powerful. Life goes on and things get done and everything turns out OK. Little breaks during the day are just as impactful. I stood out on the porch one morning with my cup of hot tea and just observed the world around me. When life feels like it’s spinning around you, just take ten minutes here and there. You won’t regret it.
How have you responded to unexpected transitions in your life? What methods do you employ to acclimate to your new “normal?” Taya’s testimony is one of inspiring faith and perseverance, and we know that her words will have an impact on anyone moving from one life path to another.
TAYA KYLE is the wife and widow of “American Sniper” Chris Kyle, Navy SEAL, New York Times bestselling author. Taya and Chris are the subject of the 4 time Academy Award nominated 2014 film American Sniper. She is also the New York Times bestselling author of AMERICAN WIFE: A Memoir of Love, War, Faith & Renewal. Taya speaks to audiences across the country about Chris’s and her story, perseverance, triumphs through tragedy and the common ground we all have in fighting the battles of life. She has appeared extensively on television, radio & in print, including: ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News Channel, NBC, NPR, MSNBC, People Magazine. Taya serves as Executive Director of the Chris Kyle Frog Foundation (CKFF), standing strong for God, Country and Family by strengthening military and first responder marriages through revitalization retreats and building a powerful network of service members dedicated to the survival of their marriages. These marriages are most often sacrificed in a life of service. CKFF aims to change that to ensure our service members and their families not only survive their service, but thrive in it. Taya lives in Texas where she raises her two children.