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.

Valentine Loss — A Love Story

Donna and Owen were school sweethearts, but she wanted to be a missionary before she’d settle down to marry him.

Grandpa Owen and Grandma Donna married on Valentine's Day (Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

Grandpa Owen and Grandma Donna married on Valentine’s Day (family photo, ca. 1930, Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com)

As a young woman, she left her small-town Utah home to teach (and preach) as a volunteer for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. She traveled 2,000-plus miles to North Carolina, a state where few Mormons then lived. While serving the people there, Donna roomed in a home with three daughters near her age: Lala, Gertie, and Leone. At the end of her time in the South, Donna and her “Carolina sisters” half-joked that someday they’d introduce their future children to each other — and have them marry so they could become “real” family.

Donna went home and married Owen on Valentine’s Day.*

They built and ran a business together — an auto service center and motel — and brought three beloved children into the world. When their little ones were seven, five, and three, Owen went hunting in the mountains with friends and cousins for food for their families. An out-of-season blizzard stranded them. Only one returned.

Widowed Donna went back to school so she could earn a living to support her children. She taught elementary school and raised her sons and daughter. She became a principal and also worked for educational publisher Allyn & Bacon.

When her kids were grown, she taught English in Japan.

Eventually, Donna dated and married Wally, a widower with a young son — the bonus son whom she delighted in raising and claiming as her own. She later became the first woman to sit (and vote!) on her city council.

When Donna’s second son met Leone’s daughter at college, everyone later agreed it never would have worked if “the Carolina sisters” had orchestrated it as they once planned. (I’m glad it worked out for them, since Donna’s son and Leone’s daughter became my parents!)

I never knew my dad’s father, Grandpa Owen, but I liked the way Grandpa Wally spoke of him, though he never met Owen, either.

Donna and Wally had an unusual second marriage. They each had a sense of responsibility and accountability to the other’s long-dead love. They spoke of taking care of one another for the one who was absent — and also playfully “blamed” them for household mishaps (“Donna, Owen must have mislaid my book…” “Wally, Bertha must have let your dinner burn…”).

For the rest of their lives, Donna and Wally celebrated three wedding anniversaries every year: Donna and Wally’s, Wally’s and Bertha’s, and — on Valentine’s Day — Donna and Owen’s.

From her decades-later hindsight, she didn’t tell me about the hardship of losing her husband when their children were so young. She didn’t describe the loneliness of losing her mother (hit by a drunk driver) within a short time of becoming a widow. But I’d heard the stories.

In college I lived near Grandma Donna and Grandpa Wally. Whenever I mentioned going on a date, Grandma worried. “Don’t get serious with anyone until you have a way to earn your own living. You never know what’s going to happen.” However, the first time I mentioned my future husband’s name, she changed her script. “When are you bringing him to meet us?”

Whoa, I thought. Our courtship was still in early days; it gave me pause that instead of reminding me to keep my distance, Grandma Donna wanted to meet him.

Fast forward two and a half decades.

In my early days of widowhood, I yearned to ask Grandma the important things I needed to know:

Grandma, how did you get through it?

When your heart was ripped in half, how did you become the optimistic, faith-filled, compassionate person I knew and loved?

How did you raise your children to be that way, too?

Grandma, how can I get through it?

Valentine’s Day isn’t easy on anyone who has lost a loved one — to death or otherwise. Hearts ache over severed connections. When all the world (in the media, anyway) seems paired up in love, it can be easy to rename February 14 as Single Awareness Day or Sorrowing After Death Day; it can be a very SAD day.

The first few Valentine’s Days after my husband’s death hurt horribly. I did what I could to serve others who I knew were also sorrowing, but it didn’t alleviate my own sadness.

This is my sixth widowed Valentine’s Day, and I’m trying to view it more as my Grandma Donna’s wedding anniversary than as a day without my own husband.

Grandma Donna survived — and thrived — after widowhood.

Valentine's Day balloons (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Valentine’s Day balloons (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

So will I.

(But I still wish I could ask how she did it.)

*For ways to help your grieving friends through this holiday (and others), please see Valentine Greetings for the Grieving.

Veterans Day Thanks

Say THANK YOU to veterans--and their families.

Say THANK YOU to veterans–and their families.

What is the purpose of Veterans Day? “A celebration to honor America’s veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good.” *

One of the best ways to honor those who have served is to say “thank you” to them — and to their families — acknowledging awareness of their service and sacrifice on behalf of their nation.

I was raised in a patriotic home by parents whose reverence for and “allegiance to the flag of the United States” was founded in acknowledgement of all the souls who perished — from the Revolutionary War to the present — in paying the price for the freedoms that bless my life. (Most patriotic songs have brought tears to my eyes since I was old enough to understand their lyrics.)

As a widow, however, my appreciation for veterans has multiplied a hundred-fold. I have a better grasp of the fragility of the time we spend with (and away from) our loved ones. I’m grateful to those whose service cost them precious days away from home and whose service-related health issues continue exacting a price.

And now, because I know the pain of losing a spouse and have met many military widows (and a few military widowers), I view the sacrifices of the fallen in a more personal way than I did before.

THANK YOU, Veterans, for leaving home and hearth to serve your country. And thank you to the loved ones who wished you well as you did so.

*quoted from “History of Veterans Day,” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (http://www.va.gov/opa/vetsday/vetdayhistory.asp)

Better Questions than “How Are You?” Part 3 — What to Keep Asking

After the initial shock of my loss lessened, I began adjusting to life as a widow. Far from being “over” my grief, I faced ongoing challenges.

These are questions I found particularly helpful as time went by.

  • How are you sleeping?
    Grief wreaks havoc with sleep cycles, causing some to sleep much longer than “normal” and others — like me — much, much, much less. (Would another “much” be too repetitive?) Asking won’t restore the mourner’s pre-grief sleep, but it will show you’re aware of the struggle. In grieving families with young children, ask if you can take the kids for a few hours so the parent(s) can rest.
  • Do you need help with [be specific in naming possible errands] that you’ve been afraid or reluctant to ask for?
    This is only a portion of the debris cleared away by the men from church that day. The "bushes" behind the trash bags are piled limbs hauled out to the street. (Sorry for the poor lighting!)

    This is a portion of debris cleared by the men from church that day. “Bushes” behind the yard bags are actually piles of limbs they hauled to the street. The poor photo quality reflects my scattered state of mind at the time! (photo — such as it is — by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

    I had trouble figuring out what I’d left undone until friends offered help with specific tasks. I needed (but too seldom sought) help transporting my daughter, remembering car maintenance, washing doggie (an ordeal requiring a minimum of five human hands), cleaning …

    One Saturday, men and boys from church gathered in my yard and hauled more than 15 Hefty bags of debris — and a huge pile of limbs — out to to the curb. I was flabbergasted. Until I saw the tremendous difference their efforts made, I hadn’t noticed the overgrown undergrowth!  (I still get teary-eyed over their labors — and the thoughtfulness behind them.)

  • What sounds appetizing? Which day can I bring you [the “appetizing” dish or another item of your suggestion], or would you rather to come to my place?
    Grief scrambles appetite as ferociously as sleep. On “bad” days, pouring cereal and milk into the same bowl felt like an accomplishment. On “good days,” removing plastic wrap from frozen pizza before heating (or not burning boxed macaroni and cheese) felt like I’d done “real” cooking again.
  • Will you come [for a walk, to the store, to the mall, to a movie, to lunch, etc.] with me [name a specific day and time]?
    Again, invitations to specific activities and times are less threatening to the bereaved than general ones.  When well-meaning friends and acquaintances invited me to “do something” in the earliest weeks after the funeral, I wasn’t ready. Overwhelmed, I asked them to check back later. (Two actually did.) I needed time and space to grieve and to focus on my daughters before I worked up courage to return to “social” activities.

Questions (and actions!) such as these acknowledge you haven’t forgotten that your friend is still grieving — “even” after months have passed.