When your husband dies at war, the things he carried show up in six black boxes.
Each pair of socks, each T-shirt, each love letter is inventoried on 20 sheets of paper. Everything has been washed, so when you breathe in the scent of a shirt, it doesn’t smell like him.
When a soldier dies, grief is followed by immersion in the somber routines and protocols of a military death.
These, at least, were the experiences that Taryn Davis — who became a 21-year-old widow on May 21, 2007, when her husband, Cpl. Michael W. Davis of the Army, was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq — decided to preserve in a documentary titled “American Widow Project,” which she began filming several months after Michael’s death. (The 75-minute documentary will be available online from awp.staging.wpengine.com next month; a preview of it can be seen on YouTube.)
Recalling the days after her husband died, Ms. Davis said: “I was basically on the Internet for 14 hours a day looking for resources. I wanted facts, and I wanted reality. I started looking and couldn’t find anything, and I realized that what I needed was another widow to come to my house.”
Instead she went to others’ houses.
From September until April, Ms. Davis, who lives in San Marcos, Tex., hopscotched the country with a camera, filming interviews with other young war widows; the oldest was 37. She began in Atlanta.
“The first was a widow who was in my husband’s unit,” Ms. Davis said last week by telephone. “We were both emotional wrecks.” She later visited a widow in Ohio on Valentine’s Day, and went with her to the soldier’s grave with flowers and tinsel.
Ms. Davis isn’t a filmmaker by profession; she recently earned her real estate license.
“It was for me,” she said, of the documentary. “I was hoping I would learn a little about what my life would be like without Michael. I really just wanted to know that I wasn’t alone.”
Ms. Davis’s endeavor caught the eye of Amanda Spain, a Los Angeles documentary producer. Her weekly series “In Their Boots,” shown online (at intheirboots.com), chronicles the stories of military families. When Ms. Davis screened her film at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Tex., last month, about 30 widows came from around the country to see it. Afterwards they shared stories over margaritas. The weekend itself was documented by Ms. Spain for her series.
“What was really cool was seeing all these women coming together to talk about their husbands,” Ms. Spain said. “You saw this life come into them.”
The project spawned a nonprofit organization that is a resource for the newly widowed, the American Widow Project, and the Web site and MySpace page that serve as online support groups, where widows post wedding pictures and photos of displays they have erected in their homes to house dog tags and medals. They also share stories and tips — for example, how to turn the dead soldier’s clothing into “gallery style” art to hang on the wall. There are two other big organizations for the families of soldiers killed at war — Gold Star Wives of America and the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors — but they are more focused on legislative and social service issues, Ms. Davis said.
Her aim is to distribute the documentary to new war widows and widowers within the first two weeks of receiving the news of their spouse’s death, not just to share stories but also to give practical information: like when to expect the body to be flown home, what to do with personal items and how to plan a funeral.
There are seemingly hundreds of choices widows have to make. There is even an emotional timeline on the Web site that stretches from the day of death to two years, describing the stages of grief. (At Year 2, it says: “Contrary to what most un-widowed people think, the second year can often be more difficult than the first. There are no more first holidays and first anniversaries to conquer. This is often a time when you begin to deal with the reality of life without your spouse.”)
Ms. Davis said she wanted to make her film “because I knew that there would be other women in my shoes who would want to hear it.”
In September Ms. Spain and her backers, the Brave New Foundation, are bringing the group of widows Ms. Davis documented to Los Angeles for a screening of their stories in Ms. Spain’s three-part series called “We Regret to Inform You” (which will be seen on intheirboots.com in September). The title is taken from the opening speech of the soldiers who knock on the families’ doors with news of a death.
Ms. Davis said she was hoping to take her documentary around the country. “We’re talking about getting an RV and driving across the country from base to base, in small towns, with a projector and a screen and showing it,” she said.
The host of “In Their Boots” is Jan Bender, a former marine who served in Iraq and who has been studying film since leaving the military in 2005. “The stories the mainstream media tells are the stories overseas,” Mr. Bender said. “They don’t handle that ripple effect of what happens after they hit the home shores.”
War widows adopt their own vernacular, and time is something measured in small increments. “I just hit the one-year mark in May,” Ms. Davis said, “and I never thought that I’d be able to laugh again as hard as I have with these widows.”