What to Say on Memorial Day

Memorial Day is not about taking advantage of retailers’ discount promotions or partying over the three-day weekend. Memorial Day means taking time to remember the departed who died while serving the United States of America.*

Flags in a Row (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

The commemoration was first known as Decoration Day. Loved ones and townsfolk decorated fallen soldiers’ graves with flags or flowers or both. Families gathered at cemeteries to pay honor and respect to those who died (or went missing in action) while defending their homeland and its interests.

It was a day not of politics but of propriety, not of celebrating but of solemnity.

Is it too much to ask that we set aside one day a year — the last Monday in May — to unite in remembrance of those who set aside their lives to serve their country? Is it too much to ask that we honor and express our indebtedness to their families?

I hope not.

Did you know that 3:00 p.m. Memorial Day is officially designated as the National Moment of Remembrance? For sixty seconds, wherever they are,  Americans are asked to observe a moment of silent remembrance or listen to and contemplate the playing of “Taps.” Trains are supposed to blast their horns.

Does 3:00 p.m. seem an inconvenient time? After all, it’s smack dab in the middle of many folks’ trips to the beach or backyard barbecues. Stopping for a moment of solemnity would slam a damper onto the fun.

That’s the point.

Those whose lives ended in service to their country put aside their personal lives, their fun. We can resume our parties and picnics after sixty seconds, but they — and their families — will never return to life as before.

If you can’t spare a day to recognize more than two centuries’ worth of lost lives on behalf of the “land of the free and the home of the brave,” surely you can spare one minute to think about the families they left behind.

So, what should you say to those who’ve lost loved ones while serving our country, even if it has been many years?

  • I’m so sorry your [loved one] died.
  • I appreciate your [loved one]’s service to our country.
  • I’d love to know more about your [loved one] if there are stories you’d like to share.
  • I promise not to forget the service your [loved one] gave our country.

If your friends’ losses are recent — and by recent I mean within the last two to three years — you can and should do more. See How to Help after a Death for a checklist of specific tasks you can do to alleviate and comfort the bereaved.


*I realize many of my readers live outside the United States. I hope you’ll be able to apply these thoughts to honoring the memories and families of those who gave their lives in service to your own homelands.


Please note: The Memorial Day Foundation offers a list of seven ways to observe the memorial aspect of Memorial Day.

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!


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

Worldwide Candle Lighting Honors Deceased Children

Compassionate Friends Worldwide Candle Lighting 2013This Sunday, December 8, join families across the globe in lighting a candle at 7 p.m. to support those creating “a virtual 24-hour wave of light as it moves from time zone to time zone, ” honoring the memories of beloved children whose lives ended too soon.”*

This will be the 17th Worldwide Candle Lighting sponsored by The Compassionate Friends, an organization whose purpose is to support families grieving the loss of a child.

I cannot imagine how mourning parents, siblings, and grandparents feel. I cannot fathom the levels of pain they experience year after year as unfulfilled birthdays, holidays, and milestones echo within empty places in their hearts.

But all through the year I can acknowledge their pain. I can listen to their feelings and memories. I can share my love through kindness and concern through my actions. I can offer my tears along with my prayers.

And this Sunday, I can light a candle. To show your support, you can, too.

*quoted from  http://www.compassionatefriends.org/News_Events/Special-Events/Worldwide_Candle_Lighting.aspx