After a busy Halloween trick-or-treating, 8-year-old Clarissa Groepper admitted to her mom that something was missing.
“I wish daddy was here,” she said.
Daddy is Army Cpl. Chad Groepper, killed in Iraq in 2008 just months after his daughter’s birth. Clarissa and mom Stephanie Groepper have been struggling to move forward without him ever since.
The family chose to reveal Clarissa’s longing for a father she didn’t know in a video diary they recently began publishing to YouTube in the hopes of letting others learn from their experiences.
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Their pain eases with time, Stephanie said, but it doesn’t go away.
“I wish he was here. I wonder what it would be like. I wonder how he would be as a father now,” Groepper, 29, said in the Halloween video.
Her video diary, called “This Widow’s Life,” is the latest of several projects Groepper has launched to connect with people recovering from tragedies. She’s an aspiring psychiatrist from Puyallup spreading a message that grieving people should not be pressured to move on from mourning too quickly.
In March, The News Tribune profiled her work with Washington Warrior Widows, an organization she founded to support family members of fallen military service members. It’s a group that puts together social events for families and assists spouses if they hit bureaucratic obstacles from the military or the Department of Veterans Affairs.
That story, along with another piece aired by NPR, helped broaden her organization’s reach by bringing more families to her group.
Since then, she’s also increased her profile at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. She’s a regular at the formal ceremonies that mark Army milestones or honor veterans, where her light hair and 5-foot-10 height help her stand out amid the uniforms.
Her presence is one of the ways she can build connections to collaborate with other groups serving military families, although she admits she often hangs in the background.
“I need to work through my shyness,” she said. “I won’t approach people. I’m not like ‘Hi, I’m Stephanie.’ I’m getting there.”
That shyness contrasts with her openness online, where she tells her own story while inviting others to reach out to her.
Cpl. Chad Groepper was killed in Iraq’s Diyala Province in February 2008
Many of her daily videos show her rushing from Clarissa’s school to her own projects as a young, single mom. One is called “Chaos, but what’s new?”
One of the most-watched segments shows her standing in front of a memorial at JBLM recalling the moment a chaplain and another soldier knocked on her parents’ door in late February 2008. She chose to publish that memory after some of her viewers asked her about it.
“I knew. It’s just like you see in movies, those two soldiers walking up to your door,” she said in the video. “I remember opening the door, trying to slam it shut.
“This wasn’t supposed to happen to me, this wasn’t supposed to be my life. I tried to slam it shut but I just lost all strength and I fell to the floor.
“They didn’t have to say anything,” she said as she sobbed.
The couple met on a blind date while the soldier was preparing for a deployment with JBLM’s 4th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. They clicked instantly and married before his April 2007 departure.
Clarissa came soon afterwards. Cpl. Groepper met her on leave from his deployment.
He was killed on Feb. 17, 2008, in an attack that also took the life of Spc. Luke Runyan. Clarissa was 4 months old.
This wasn’t supposed to happen to me, this wasn’t supposed to be my life.
After his death, Stephanie rushed into big decisions, such as pursuing a degree and buying a house. Her grief worsened in the second and third years, when she came to understand that her husband would not come home alive.
That’s when she relaxed on some of her academic goals and took time to figure out what she really wanted to do.
This fall, she finished a bachelor’s degree. She’s taking a semester off before moving on to work on a master’s degree.
One day, she may write a book.
“Thinking about the stuff I’ve been through, not only do people need to know about that, but if they’ve been through similar situations, I want them to know it does get better,” she said.
”You don’t notice it,” she said. “And you look back and see you haven’t cried in a week, and then it’s a month. You realize you’re getting stronger.”
Video diaries from Stephanie Groepper: