Another Memorial Day will soon be upon us. For many, Memorial Day symbolizes the gateway to summer and is a time for weekend getaways, BBQs, picnics, and pool parties. For others, Memorial Day is not about carefree fun with family and friends but is rather a somber, painful reminder of loved ones gone too soon. Memorial Day is intended to be a day to remember and honor the men and women in the U.S. military who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in defense of our country, in defense of our freedom, in defense of us. Too often, however, the meaning of Memorial Day gets lost in the fanfare and activities of the three-day weekend; it is time to put the “memorial” back in Memorial Day.
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A Brief History of Memorial Day
Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day was established by Major General John A. Logan of the Grand Army of the Republic on May 5th, 1868. Observed for the first time on May 30th, 1868, Decoration Day was a time to honor the fallen Union and Confederate soldiers by decorating their graves with flowers. In his General Order No. 11, Major General Logan proclaimed:
“Let us, then, at the time appointed gather around their sacred remains and garland the passionless mounds above them with the choicest flowers of spring-time; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved from dishonor; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledges to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon a nation’s gratitude, the soldier’s and sailor’s widow and orphan.”
After World War I, Decoration Day was expanded to honor all U.S. military members who have died fighting in a war. According to one source, the first use of the modern term “Memorial Day” came into existence in 1882; however, its use did not become more common until after World War II. In 1971, Memorial Day was officially declared a national holiday and moved to the last Monday of May by an act of Congress entitled the National Holiday Act.
In December 2000, the National Moment of Remembrance Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton. The purpose of this Act is to remind the American people that “Memorial Day represents one day of national awareness and reverence, honoring those Americans who died while defending our Nation and its values.” Moreover, it encourages “Americans everywhere, to pause for one minute at 3:00 p.m. (local time) on Memorial Day, to remember and reflect on the sacrifices made by so many to provide freedom for all.” The Act also created the White House Commission on the National Moment of Remembrance, the role of which is to promote and provide services to support National Moment of Remembrance and Memorial Day commemorations.
Today Memorial Day and National Moment of Remembrance services, parades, speeches, musical performances, and other activities can be found throughout the United States. While these events are important to help the American public remember and honor fallen military members, they may not always be valuable for the families and friends grieving their fallen loved ones. One father of a son killed in Afghanistan explained to the Chicago Tribune that the jovial, smiling crowds at a Memorial Day parade in which he participated was a jarring contrast to the pain and sadness he felt. Of course, these Memorial Day events should continue but we must also consider more intimate, meaningful ways to commemorate the fallen.
Below are some ideas for both supporting those who have lost a loved one to military service and for coping with Memorial Day if you yourself have lost a loved one to military service.
Supporting Those Who Have Lost a Loved One to Military Service
As proclaimed by Major General Logan, we must “renew our pledges to aid and assist … the soldier’s and sailor’s widow [or widower] and orphan.” One of the easiest ways to do this is to reach out to someone who has lost a loved one to military service. Ask them to tell you about their loved one; give them the opportunity to share their grief, anger, and other feelings with you; thank them for their loved one’s sacrifice; and/or simply remind them that you are here to support them in whatever way they need. And be willing to listen, listen, listen.
Also, you may even consider asking them to join you in a Memorial Day commemoration. For example, invite them to a Memorial Day event or service; offer to visit their loved one’s grave site with them, or encourage them to share with you something or someplace their loved one enjoyed.
Other ideas you might consider include the following:
- Invite them over for a meal or delivering a meal to them
- Send red poppies, the flower symbolizing remembrance, and a card expressing your sympathy for their loss
- Make a donation to a military organization in their loved one’s name
- Encourage and offer to help them complete a memorial book, project, or garden in their loved one’s honor
- Help them plan a Memorial Day event in honor of their loved one
- Gather with them for a moment of remembrance at 3:00 p.m. (local time) on Memorial Day
- Offer to help with whatever they need help with (an errand, yard work, childcare)
Yet another important way to support those who have lost a loved one to military service is to remember their children. Children need to grieve just as adults do. They must be able to share their feelings and talk about how they are going to miss the person who has passed. One of the best ways adults can help grieving children is simply by listening. Of course how much a particular child understands about death depends upon his or her age, life experiences, and personality. Communicating with children about death should be age-appropriate, honest and direct.
Both children who have lost a parent to military service, as well as those who have not, should be included in Memorial Day commemorations. More importantly, they should be taught the meaning behind Memorial Day and why it is important both to our country’s history and to military families. There are many online resources available to help explain the significance of Memorial Day to children. These resources offer free Memorial Day crafts, projects, worksheets, coloring pages, quizzes, and more.
Check out the websites below for ideas:
Your support of those who have lost loved ones to military service and their children need not end once Memorial Day is over. While Memorial Day focuses the attention of all Americans on the fallen for that one day, those who have lost a loved one face the pain and reality of their loss on the other 364 days of the year. Ongoing support and support around other holidays or special days is exceedingly important for them.
Coping with Memorial Day if You Have Lost a Loved One to Military Service
In coping with Memorial Day, first and foremost, give yourself permission to grieve. Grieving is a personal and highly individual experience. Healing happens gradually; however, it can’t be forced or hurried and there is no “normal” timetable for grieving. So, be patient with yourself and allow the process to naturally unfold. And also, recognize that Memorial Day may be difficult for you and do your best to take care of yourself.
Second, you should spend the day as you wish and with whom you wish. You may want to participate in Memorial Day activities, attend a Memorial Day service, or visit your loved one’s gravesite. Or you may wish to remember and honor your loved one in other, less conventional ways that are meaningful to you. Lee Brice’s song, I Drive Your Truck, offers a powerful example of how one father remembers and honors his son in a way that is meaningful to him. The song actually got its start on a Memorial Day weekend when songwriter Connie Harrington was listening to NPR, and the reporter was interviewing a man whose son had died in Afghanistan. How was he going to commemorate his son during Memorial Day? He answered that he was simply going to drive his truck.
The lyrics of the resulting song are, in part:
And momma asked me this morning
If I’d been by your grave
But that flag and stone ain’t where I feel you anyway
I drive your truck
I roll every window down
And I burn up
Every back road in this town
I find a field, I tear it up
Til all the pain’s a cloud of dust
Yeah, sometimes I drive your truck
I’ve cussed, I’ve prayed, I’ve said goodbye
Shook my fist and asked God why
These days when I’m missing you this much
I drive your truck
The point is that only you know what you need to meaningfully remember and honor your lost loved one. Whatever you do, it is important that you set aside time to remember, grieve, and heal.
Other ways in which you may choose to honor your loved one include the following:
- Collect photos and write down memories/stories about your loved one to include in a memorial book
- Make a keepsake box of things that remind you of your loved one
- Plant a memorial plant, tree, or garden
- Visit your loved one’s favorite place
- Do something your loved one enjoyed (a favorite activity, sport, hobby)
- Host a gathering of family and friends who knew your loved one best
- Fly an American flag (on Memorial Day it should be at half-staff until noon and then raised to full-staff from noon to sunset)
- Pause for a moment of remembrance at 3:00 p.m. (local time) on Memorial Day
- Make a donation to a military organization in your loved one’s name
- Visit military veterans or volunteer for a military organization
- Send a card or care package to active-duty troops
Maybe you want to honor your loved one alone on Memorial Day and that is okay. You do not, however, have to grieve alone if you don’t want to. You should not be afraid to ask others for support when you need it. Unfortunately, people aren’t always good at taking the initiative when it comes to reaching out to those who have lost someone, usually because they don’t know what to say or don’t want to say the wrong thing. But if you reach out to them, they are sure to lend a supportive ear. You may find great comfort in being together with others, especially others who have experienced a similar loss.
There are many online resources that can help connect you with other military families and support services, including:
- SnowballExpress.org (for children of fallen military members)
Frazer Consultants expresses deep gratitude to all the men and women who have so courageously and selflessly given their lives for our freedom. To the families of the fallen, we offer our sincere condolences for your great sacrifice. May you find peace and comfort in the memories of your loved one this Memorial Day.