Honoring Memorial Day

Memorial Day was originally intended as a day of solemn remembrance.*[See the end of this post for a link to a short video about the day’s origins and evolution.] Once called Decoration Day (on which widows, orphans, and other war survivors decorated soldiers’ graves), its purpose was to honor and reflect on those who died while in service to their country.

Memorial Day, military, honor, remember, sacrifice, survivors

Memorial Day honors the sacrifices of those who died in service to their country. Please remember the loved ones they left behind, too. (This photo called “Memorial Day” is from history.com.)

Within my extended family, the day also developed a broader meaning as descendants of my great-grandparents gathered every year to honor the memories not just of all our honored military dead but of all deceased family members. In my grandmother’s hometown, kin from all over began the day at her parents’ graves, filling the weathered cemetery — for one day each year — with as many folks above- as below-ground.

My long-widowed grandmother’s features took on a different expression there. Hindsight — now having lost all my own grandparents, mother, and husband — allows me to better understand the nostalgia, the sadness, the love, and the gratitude that shone from her lined face during this annual meeting of family from afar. It was a chance for Grandma’s children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews (and all their “grands,” too) to greet and get to know (by place and by story) her long-lost grandparents, parents, siblings, husband, daughter, and — in later years before her death — grandson.

The cemetery on that day was not a place of sadness — though there were tears — but of reunion (both in the here-and-now gathering and in the looked-to-someday future).  After beginning the day with respects paid on the sacred ground there and with family news updates shared by all, we relocated to the place and time I looked forward to when I was little: the park. Nearby, the entire city park (rented by the extended family for that day every year since long before my birth) was open to exploration.

When I was a child, Memorial Day meant family reunions with buffet-style picnic foods (including as many dill pickles as I could eat from a jar that was nearly as big as I was). It meant wondering why the grownups cheered and jeered (in good fun) during their annual singles versus marrieds softball game. Close cousins and distant kin walked around wearing similar noses, foreheads, and jawlines while gesturing in mannerisms either inherited or learned in a trickle down the pyramid of  Great-grandma Inez’s and Great-grandpa Edwin’s descendants.

As a widow, my appreciation of Memorial Day has shifted. I’d always been taught to acknowledge that the price of my daily freedoms was paid for by the lives of those who served my country long before me. My parents taught me reverence for our flag, not as an item to be worshiped but as a tangible representation of the blood sacrificed by those who served. War was awful because of the lives it ended; warriors — of whatever nationality — were respected for their service to their nation(s). Although my family celebrated with fun traditions on such holidays, in a very real sense Memorial Day, Flag Day, and Independence Day were holy days, too.

Now that I’ve experienced the loss of my own husband and witnessed my children’s thus-altered lives, my appreciation for the families of fallen soldiers has increased hundred-fold. I’m not a military widow, though I have been honored by friendships with many who are.  I do not know their pain, but I have greater reverence for theirs because of my own.

How can you  honor and support such families on Memorial Day? Start with acknowledging their soldiers’ service and their families’ losses. Express appreciation. Share memories. Speak up. Such days are not for politicizing the “should”s or “should-not”s of specific military campaigns or politics. They are days of succoring, support, and solidarity.

If you have other suggestions, please share them below!

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*See the video clip at http://www.history.com/topics/holidays/memorial-day-history

How to Express Your Condolences for a Loved One–guest post by Suzie Kolber

Suzie Kobler writes for ObituariesHelp.org

Suzie Kolber is a writer at http://obituarieshelp.org/words_of_condolences_hub.html. The site is a complete guide for someone seeking help for writing words of condolences, sympathy messages, condolence letters and funeral planning resources.

“How to Express Your Condolences for a Loved One” by Suzie Kobler of ObituariesHelp.org

It can be difficult to know what to say when someone passes away. Death is often an uncomfortable topic, making it hard to express your feelings of condolence and sympathy to the survivor. Here are some effective ways you can express your condolences based on what is appropriate and what you feel the most comfortable with.

A Letter of Condolence

Back before technology made instant communication the norm, letters were the traditional way of expressing condolences. Even with the other options available, they are still a good way to show your support and concern. The main benefit with letters of condolences is that they can be read when it is convenient and re-read as often as needed. They can be shared with others to help with the grieving process.

When writing a letter of sympathy and condolence, you should always think about the person to whom you are writing as well as the deceased. Your letter should reflect the relationship you have or had with each person. Stay true to your personality. If you are a more formal person, then it is appropriate that your letter also sound more formal. On the other hand, if you are more laid-back and casual, your letter can also demonstrate that. Don’t be concerned that there is a right or wrong way to sound in a letter.

Messages of Condolence

Thanks to the internet, you can now send messages of support as soon as you hear the sad news of someone’s death. This allows you to offer support immediately, often when it is most needed. A quick text message or email can let the person know you heard the news and are offering your condolences without going into great detail. This is also a good method for those people that prefer short messages.

When writing a message, remember that you can keep it short and sweet. The person reading the message may be busy so it is acceptable to get right to the point. If you feel that you need to say more, you can follow up with a letter or phone call at a later time.

Flowers

If you do not know the family or didn’t know the deceased very well but want to express your condolences, it is perfectly acceptable to just send flowers or a financial donation to the organization of the family’s choice.

A simple card with a single message can convey your sympathies without requiring you to compose an entire message. This option is appropriate for many situations, including when the person is a co-worker that you only knew by name or someone you knew in passing in the community. Just make sure you include your full name so the person knows who the card came from.

A Phone Call or In-Person Visit

A phone call or personal visit is often the appropriate method of conveying your condolences when it is someone you knew very well or were related to. However, many people are not sure what to say and avoid the one-on-one interaction. The important thing to remember is that it is the fact that you called that the bereaved will remember more than what you say. In fact, don’t feel like you have to say a great deal besides “I’m sorry for your loss” or some other version.

If you are comfortable talking about the deceased, you can communicate your feelings to the person. It is appropriate to reminisce about special memories or occasions. You can even tell a funny story about the deceased person without feeling guilty. In fact, it may be just what the other person needed to hear after all of the somber moments and sadness they have been feeling.

Timing

The timing of when to express your condolences through the various methods can vary. There is no hard and fast rule. For instance, if you just heard about someone’s death even though it was six months ago, you can send a letter or email stating that you just learned of the news. You never know when your message could come at a good time to cheer them up. Grief extends long past the funeral or memorial service.

You can also prepare the way for a phone call or visit through a letter or message by saying that you will talk with them next week or in a couple of weeks.

Your Choice

Any of these methods are acceptable ways of expressing your condolences for a loved one. The choice is up to you based on the situation and what you feel most comfortable with. After all, it is more important that the bereaved feel your support than in how you choose to show it.

Many thanks to Suzie Kolber of ObituariesHelp.org for providing this guest post. Visit http://obituarieshelp.org/words_of_condolences_hub.html for practical tips to assist you in composing condolence messages for those mourning lost loved ones.

A Widow’s Thoughts about Mother’s Day

What should you say to a widow or widower on Mother’s Day? In my last post*, I shared reasons the day can be difficult for many people. I told how my Mom’s death “still” impacts the way I feel about Mother’s Day, but I avoided expressing how I feel about it as a widow.

To be blunt, most widows and widowers don’t look forward to Mother’s Day — we dread it.** And yet, we still want it acknowledged.

I became a wife before I became a mother, so Mother’s Day was — for me — as much about being my husband’s wife as it was about being my children’s mother. My no-longer-little girls were in their teens and twenties when their dad died. For 24 years he’d honored me as his wife every Mother’s Day, over and above the way he honored me as the mother of his children. Suddenly, half the “wife and mother” adulation was wrenched from that day’s annual pampering.

Mother’s Day is confusing now — and painful. I’m still my husband’s wife, but as a widow — his widow — I have no husband. I’m still our children’s mother, but with their father deceased I’m no longer the “wife and mother” I was for more than half my life. Honoring my motherhood is interwoven with recognizing my severed wife-hood. Mother’s Day reminds me of what I had … and of what I’ve lost … and of what I still have. As I said, it’s confusing.

Handmade Mother's Day Card

My husband made this Mother’s Day card for me just a few months before his unexpected death.

How can you help a widow or widower through Mother’s Day? Here are a few practical tips:

  • If the loss is recent, saying “I’m thinking of you this Mother’s Day” shows more sensitivity than saying “Happy Mother’s Day.”
  • For a widow with children: Let her know you realize that Mother’s Day will be difficult without her spouse. Ask her if you can take the kids shopping or create an art project or craft or make a card with them. It’s not about the gift. It’s about having someone show her children that she’s appreciated — and that her kids should also express appreciation for her — without her having to prompt it. She’s no longer “just” their mother; she’s got to handle all the responsibilities that were once shouldered by both parents.
  • For a widower with children: Let him know you realize that Mother’s Day will be difficult without his spouse. Offer to help him in the same way you might help a widow with kids. He’s now handling all the responsibilities of both father and mother. Remember: He’s still grieving the loss of the mother of his children and he’s facing the lifelong pain of helping his children (no matter their ages) as they grieve their mom’s absence.
  • For widows and widowers without children: Let them know you’re aware of them, and, if it’s appropriate, let them know you realize that Mother’s Day may be more difficult without their spouses. Exercise discretion. Some may have wanted children but been unable to have them. Others may have chosen to remain childless. Don’t base your interaction on assumptions.
  • It’s better to say something than to say nothing. You won’t “make” your friends feel sadder by speaking of their lost loved ones or “remind” them of their pain. (The sadness always exists, simmering below calm exteriors even when time and “healing” have taken place.) Even hearing “I don’t know what to say” can comfort and uplift a mourning heart.

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*Mother’s Day Mourning

**I recognize that everyone reacts differently. Some widows and widowers may still look forward to the day. More of the ones I’ve spoken with, though,  view days like this the way I do.

Here’s one fantastic alternate (but overlapping) view by my widowed friend Julie Toone: Appreciation for Mother’s Day…

If you have other suggestions that might be helpful, please share them in the comments below.

Mother’s Day Mourning

With Mother’s Day looming, my grief ratchets up several levels. It’s been over 18 years since Mom died, and I’m dreading this year’s annual event as much as I have each year since her death. It’s a selfish misery — I acknowledge that — because my mom deserved the “World’s Best” title that’s printed in flowery fonts on all kinds of merchandise this time of year.  Too many dear friends had opposite relationships with their mothers, so I truly appreciate how lucky I was.

I ought to spend Mother’s Day bathed in a warm glow of gratitude over how incredibly blessed I’ve been that my mom’s heart and hands shaped my life. But I miss her. I miss her.

She was an adoring grandmother, and I wanted my children to grow up with her creative, optimistic, spiritual, fun-loving, nurturing, curious, accepting influence and presence in their day-to-day lives. I feel cheated that they could not. I miss her for their sakes as well as my own.

My Mom (from family photos of Teresa TL Bruce)

My Mom (from the family photos of Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com) 

Mom was my best friend.  (She was everybody’s friend. When I was in high school, one boy I dated sometimes called our house to talk to her.) Typing these words about her reopens the rip that began tearing around my heart the moment I heard the word “cancer” over the phone two short years before it took her. I “still” miss her.

My deep longing for Mom’s voice and warmth, for her wisdom and presence, isn’t the only reason I dread the advent of every Mother’s Day. Years ago I attended a church council planning discussion of upcoming tributes and honors for that year’s commemoration of the day. The suggestions were thoughtful and generous, but as I listened I became more and more uncomfortable until I finally blurted, “Lots of women hate Mother’s Day.

All eyes turned toward me. Other women in the room nodded their heads, but most of the men looked as if they’d been slapped. The first to recover his speech asked what I meant, and as soon as I began explaining, my church sisters’ voices joined mine:

  • “We can’t live up to the glowing superlatives on the cards.”
  • “Do you know how many women want children but can’t have them?”
  • “Some of us had terrible mothers. We don’t get along with them at all.”
  • “Some of us have bad relationships with our kids, and Mother’s Day makes it even worse.”
  • “I’ve hated the day ever since my mom passed on. It hurts too much.”
  • “And it’s agony for the ones who’ve lost a child.”
  • “And women who’ve miscarried …”

A few mouths remained open when we’d finished. One by one, all in the room acknowledged that a special sensitivity was needed in planning that particular Sunday’s services.

Men and children also struggle with missing their deceased mothers, or they may feel conflicted about poor relationships with theirs.

In the years following Mom’s death, I dragged myself into the chapel for every Mother’s Day service (though I’d have preferred staying at home to linger over my annual child-poured breakfast in bed, a bowl of Cheerios or Lucky Charms*) because that’s what I felt I needed to do, what a “good mom” should do. All the children in the congregation — including my own — were singing to all the moms, and I did want to experience seeing and hearing my daughters beam as they sang “Mother, I Love You.” That part I didn’t mind — it was always delightful! (You never know what you’ll see and hear where kids are concerned, no matter how well they’ve practiced ahead …)

But it hurt to be there. I knew the shortfalls of how my mothering compared to my mom’s. (Did I mention how great she was?) And I missed her.

What helped make it easier? While it’s true that time eased the sharpest of my grief’s pain (though it’s not true that it “heals all wounds”), eventually, at least in part, there was one thing that comforted me immediately. Whenever someone acknowledged awareness that I mourned Mom’s absence, the weight of my grief lightened enough to keep me going. It still does.

  • It always helped to hear, “I’m sure you’re missing your Mom. I’m sorry.”
  • It never helped to hear, “Don’t be sad.”
  • It never helped to hear, “Are you still upset about your mother?”
  • It can be helpful to say, “You’re in my thoughts as Mother’s Day approaches.”
  • It’s also appropriate to say, “I’m thinking of you this Mother’s Day weekend.”

As with other aspects of mourning, the best condolence you can offer is the comfort of your presence, the reassurance of your willingness to listen, and the sensitivity of your acknowledgment of the loss.

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(*In case you were wondering, I have no affiliation with General Mills — or any cereal-making company. Cheerios and Lucky Charms just happen to be my favorites.)