Simply put, Memorial Day is intended to honor fallen soldiers.
Often, U.S. military service extends beyond the individual to include families and loved ones. That’s because spouses, children, parents and others play an integral role in supporting servicemen and women.
When such commitments result in a soldier’s death, the family remains. Memorial Day impacts these communities far beyond service records.
In the course of a recent conversation, I suddenly realized I was chatting with the parent of a combat victim.
His son died in combat in Afghanistan. News related to his son’s death made local, regional and statewide headlines, and it was a national news story.
But this father and I were just talking — an impromptu chat about growing up in Waterloo. The topic of his son arose because it was natural to talk about kids, not because Memorial Day approached.
He told me his son’s name. I gasped, and he nodded, noting his son had died in combat.
That could have ended the conversation. What more is there to say? Such a sacrifice is unimaginable. Consider how many families have lost loved ones in service to our country and it’s overwhelming.
I felt a flicker of self-consciousness. I didn’t want to say the wrong thing to a father who had buried a son who had barely entered his 20s.
I told him I was sorry for his loss, and he thanked me. He then told me about his son. After his son died, it took him a long time to find constructive ways to cope, he said.
We talked about how a public outpouring of support after a tragedy can, in some ways, postpone your own ability to grieve. He said even though it’s been years now since his son died, small and big things still make the pain seem new.
On Memorial Day, we honor lives lost in service of our country. Let’s remember those who — in their own service to our country — get up every day and find ways to go on. A survivor’s sacrifice includes continuing to grieve, whether it’s been seven weeks, seven months or 70 years.
That’s the cost. It’s not about death totals; it’s about each full, rich life removed from his or her circle of family and friends.
The loss doesn’t get easier to bear, this father told me. It does, however, get more manageable as time goes on.
He does this by talking about his son. He has found ways to honor him in public and private ways.
Not all survivors are able to openly and candidly discuss their losses, nor is it required. They won’t process their feelings in a specific way. It’s not up to us to decide they must “move on” or refrain from talking about their fallen soldiers in certain situations.
If we’re uncomfortable with this, we should try to understand why.
In talking to this father, I realized my discomfort comes from finding his experience completely unfathomable. As he talked about his son, I began to understand he didn’t need me to relate to him. Instead, I needed to listen and resist my urge to flee the difficult topic.
Our nation owes families of our fallen soldiers more than we can repay. The least we can do is provide space to reminiscence, teach and grieve. As we remember those who died in military service on Memorial Day, let’s also remain mindful of those who have experienced the full depth of that sacrifice.