The observance of Memorial Day may have brought up a variety of memories and emotions. You may think of holidays as a family barbecue on a sunny afternoon (or cloudy… let’s be honest if you’re in Western Pennsylvania), be filled with sadness and renewed grief, or maybe something in between: acknowledging those who gave their lives serving our country, while enjoying your day off. Wherever you fall on that continuum is ok, but it is especially important to remember that many people may be flooded with memories and emotions on this day and week, maybe more so than normal.
To ensure that we are all on the same page, Memorial Day is dedicated to honor those who died while serving in the military, whereas Veterans Day honors all who have served. Then, it is easy to see why this may be a touchy subject for people who have lost loved ones who served our country. Some people may view it as a celebration, while for others this day may bring up some tender parts of themselves that they would rather not expose.
So what can you do if you know someone who lost someone who was serving?
If you know someone who lost a loved one who died while serving in the military, acknowledge that that is a special kind of loss. You might say something like, “I want to acknowledge Reno’s service and your loss,” for example. A simple acknowledgment can mean so much. The loss of someone who gave their life to serve and protect this country is an altruistic action. You can also acknowledge to the person that everyone handles loss differently, but you would like to support or help in any way that you can. Whether the loss is recent or distant, Memorial Day can bring up mixed emotions for people and acknowledging that truth can be so powerful.
Validation of someone’s feelings related to loss can also be extremely helpful. Maybe the person expresses grief via anger, and verbalizes being frustrated when thinking about or seeing people just going about Memorial Day sipping lemonade without seeming to pay respect. Validate this person’s emotions by NOT saying that you understand (you did not have their experience), but by saying that you SEE their frustration and pain. Feeling seen and heard is a huge factor in the healing and integration process.
Finally, respect if someone does not wish to share with you anything about their experience or grief process. This is something personal. Maybe there will a time when they will feel like sharing, or maybe not. Respect that Memorial Day means much more than no work for some people, and recognize that they might be dealing with a different type of pain that you haven’t experienced.
On the other hand, if you yourself have lost someone while they were serving and are struggling to process your new sense of “normal” without your loved one, you are not alone. This process of integrating into a new normal can happen soon after a loved one’s passing and continue for years to come. Here are some helpful tips and reminders.
You’re not doing it “wrong”
Feel what you’re feeling
Start a ritual
You’re not grieving or integrating in a “wrong,” way. Yes, there may be healthier ways to grieve than others, such as using expressive arts to communicate your experience instead of drinking yourself into oblivion; however, both modes are understandable given the amount of pain that goes along with loss. Try not to be too judgy with yourself if you spend an entire day in bed. At the same time, try to set limits on yourself regarding isolating and stagnant behavior.
In the same vein, allow yourself to feel your emotions fully without trying to cover them up with substances, food, or denial etc. Whenever we try to suppress our experience, we actually prolong it. If you are experiencing some type of survivor’s guilt because someone who you served with died and you didn’t, speak out about it.
Get to know it.
Suppressing it does not honor your experience and it doesn’t help you heal.
Try your best to express yourself. This might involve being honest with people about what you are experiencing or starting counseling to help guide you through the grieving process. Maybe you will write about your experience in a private journal or a public blog. The point is to get that pent up anger, energy, despair, and frustration OUTSIDE of yourself. Maybe you make an abstract painting that communicates what you are feeling on any given day. Expressing yourself through an art medium and to other people is instrumental in the healing process.
Finally, starting a ritual to honor the person’s memory can be helpful. Yes, Memorial Day is a wonderful reminder and way to do that, but do something privately and personal for yourself too. This might be intentionally including the loved one in your prayers every day or making a separate prayer for them, visiting their grave site periodically, or committing to working toward healthy goals for yourself that they would approve of. Think of something that feels good to you and honors their memory that you can commit to doing periodically.
Needing support while navigating the grieving process and the new and different life without a loved one physically with you is normal. Counselors can help you with the above lists so that you will be able to initiate those actions yourself. If you would like additional ideas and tips about dealing with the loss of someone who served in the military, Military Once Source and the Veteran’s Affairs have some great articles expanding on this.
Blog Credit: Natalie Drozda, MA, LPC is a PH.D student in Counseling Education and Supervision at Duquesne University and soon to be clinician at Angelus Therapeutic Services.