Memorial Day is a time that we set aside to remember those who have lost their lives while serving in the U.S. military. This American holiday originated as a community tradition after the Civil War, officially becoming a federal holiday in 1971. Today, Memorial Day parades, celebrations, and fireworks are held all over the country. Since Memorial Day also marks the unofficial start of the summer, many use this day as a time to get together with family and friends for outdoor barbeques.
Like many holidays, Memorial Day means different things to different people. Depending on your connection to the military, Memorial Day can bring up difficult emotions and memories. Memorial Day is a reminder of those killed or injured in the line of duty. For families with loved ones who are currently deployed or working far away from home, Memorial Day can be a sad reminder of loved ones who aren’t there to spend quality time with. Many families also use this day to honor or grieve veterans from previous generations.
Of course, grief is not only felt for the soldiers lost in battle. Military service is a significant sacrifice for all of the friends and families of those who serve. Dealing with the uncertainty of future deployments, adjusting to long-distance communication, and enduring frequent moves can take a toll on your relationships and breed a sense of loneliness or despair. If you are missing someone who is away in the military, or if you have had to leave your home to move with a spouse who is serving, take time this Memorial Day to acknowledge your feelings of grief. It’s okay to feel sad or angry about the situation you’re presently experiencing, even when you realize that it’s temporary.
If you want to do a little more this year than a Memorial Day party, consider finding a more meaningful way to acknowledge the day. Visiting a parade or Memorial Day service offers the chance to show appreciation to local veterans. Memorial Day also presents an excellent time to buy an American flag for your home and display it at half-mast until noon. You could also put up a POW/MIA flag to acknowledge the over 83,000 Americans who have gone missing from World War II, the Korean War, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the 1991 Gulf War.
Every year a Memorial Day concert is held on the west lawn of the United States Capitol building. This national concert is broadcasted for free on local stations, along with PBS and NPR. It includes music from live performers, interspersed with the stories of men and women who have lost their lives serving in the military. For 2020, the concert will be held at 8 p.m. Eastern time on Sunday night, the eve of Memorial Day. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the event.
Another option is to use some time over the 3-day weekend to visit a historic battlefield or veteran’s cemetery. Several Civil War sites line the East Coast, including Fort Sumner National Monument in South Carolina, Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, and Manassas National Battlefield Park in Virginia. There are also prominent historical sites on the West Coast, such as the USS Arizona Memorial (for Pearl Harbor). Mount Rushmore in South Dakota is another popular place to reflect on U.S. History, along with the abundance of memorials in Washington D.C. Every part of the country has its own stories of those who fought for our freedom.
Visit a local veteran’s cemetery to place flowers on forgotten graves and show appreciation for grieving families. Helping to maintain the beauty of veteran’s memorials gives honor and respect for the sacrifices that were made.
Regardless of your decision on how to spend the long weekend, sometimes when you’re feeling down after a loss, a gathering of friends and family is just what the doctor ordered. Getting together with others who have gone through similar experiences or can join in sharing familiar stories offers a dose of healing and togetherness. Despite the solemn origins of Memorial Day, seeing it as a festive celebration of American liberty also shows appreciation to the sacrifices made by military personnel.
To add some depth to your Memorial Day get-together, wear a red poppy pin. Through a tradition that started with a poem about World War I, the red poppy has become a symbol of Memorial Day. Some of the harshest fighting in World War I happened in Western Europe, killing and injuring millions of soldiers while leaving the battlefield landscape in a devastating condition. Bright red poppies took over these areas, as a beautiful and resilient weed that would flourish on barren land.
After observing this beautiful sight, Canadian Lieutenant Colonel, John McCrae, was inspired to write the following poem:
“In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
In 1915, McCrae’s poem was published in Punch magazine. It became a famous piece of writing commonly used in memorials. Later, a professor at the University of Georgia, Moina Michael, began selling red silk poppies to raise money for veterans. By the mid-1920s, Georgia’s branch of the American Legion started using the poppy as their official emblem. Eventually, red poppies became the National American Legion’s symbol. Having spread to Europe as a symbol for veterans, the red poppy is now known as the Remembrance poppy.
Grieving for veterans is not unique to the United States. Globally, grief is felt when loved ones are lost in war. Memorial Day exemplifies the importance of acknowledging our losses and participating in grief. However you choose to spend the day, let Memorial Day permit you to feel emotions that are too often suppressed and discouraged in our society. Afterall, grief is a normal part of the human experience.
Everyone will face times of grieving throughout their lifetimes, usually more than once. Rather than pushing those emotions aside, take a day off to sit with feelings of loss and reflect on the profound ways that life’s ever-changing nature affects us. Doing this from time to time makes it easier to continue forward with a clear-head and lighter heart.
There’s nothing wrong with pausing to remember those people and things that we miss. Be proactive in engaging in the full spectrum of life’s emotions, rather than burying losses or grief. Our modern culture presents so few opportunities to designate time for grieving. Having a moment of silence on Memorial Day gives validity to the natural moments of grief and sadness that we all encounter. It is a healthy practice to bring those feelings to the surface, either alone or in the company of others.