Memorial Day is upon us once again; it has new significance for our family this year because it’s our first since Jacob died. Its been a really weird week for me- lots of memories, and just feeling off. . . And I finally realized that while Memorial Day weekend was always a hard one for Jacob to get through, it didn’t affect me the same way. . . until now. Going from “wife” to “widow” changes things.
As a military family, Memorial Day has always been a somewhat reverent occasion in our house. Sure, we “celebrate” with a backyard barbecue every year, but we also reflect on the real reason for the holiday. Both Jacob and I have been to (or planned) more than our share of military funerals, and that certainly makes the holiday more real and reinforces the fact that it’s not just a long weekend to kick-start summer or a weekend with great sales.
It used to really bother Jacob when people would wish him “Happy Memorial Day” because it was not a day for him, nor is it a “happy” occasion. We went to great lengths to ensure that our children know the difference between the various military holidays because while they all honor our military, they each celebrate a very specific population.
Difference Between the Military Holidays
Armed Forces Day: Celebrated on the third Saturday in May, Armed Forces Day honors those that are currently serving. For this one, it’s definitely appropriate to say “Thank you for your service” or “Happy Armed Forces Day”.
Veterans Day: November 11th is the day to celebrate the living that served our country over the years. “Happy Veterans Day, thank you for your service,” is a completely acceptable (and appreciated!) greeting/comment for those that have served.
Memorial Day: The last Monday in May, this is a day to remember and honor every man and woman that died for our freedom, especially those that died in battle or as a result of wounds sustained in battle. It’s a day about sacrifice, service, and remembrance. It’s not about current or former service members, it’s about those that didn’t make it home, and to a degree, those that made it home, but later died from their injuries incurred while in service.
But how do you explain Memorial Day to the person that has never been handed a folded flag? Or explain it to the wife who has never said “See you later” to her husband and watched him leave for a warzone on the other side of the world? Or to the person that has never dealt with the after-effects of that war? Or explain it to a family that isn’t trying to survive now that their service member isn’t here anymore?
In a lot of ways, I don’t think you CAN effectively explain it. There’s not a way to explain how hearing Taps, which used to lull me to sleep when we lived on-post, now makes me feel like I can’t breathe and I will forever associate it with Jacob’s funeral. Or how seeing someone in uniform makes me both immensely proud and makes my heart ache for their family because I know what their future could hold. There’s not really a way to explain the gut-wrenching pain that you feel when your loved one gives their life for their country. There’s not a way to explain the immense sacrifice that our military families make on a daily basis, knowing that the ultimate sacrifice could be around the next corner.
While Jacob didn’t die AT war, he died because of this war. Even though his death came five years after his medical retirement, it was service-connected. His death was a direct result of injuries sustained while he was in the Army. And because of that, this Memorial Day is the first where we will honor him. . . honor his memory. . . honor his sacrifice.
It’s completely okay to have a barbecue and enjoy the three-day weekend because part of remembering the sacrifice of our fallen service members is remembering what they liked to do before they died for their country. They loved spending time surrounded by family, and most likely, having a barbecue on a long weekend. So this Memorial Day weekend, we’ll be having a barbecue with our family, but we’ll also be remembering.
And just a piece of advice from a surviving spouse, please don’t say “Happy Memorial Day” because that “happy” has an unexpected sting. It’s a hard time of year for many people- active duty, veterans, and surviving families alike. It’s a time of remembrance and grief, a reminder of those who did not make it home- and the guilt associated with that for those that did. A reminder that our lives are forever changed.
And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me. ~ Lee Greenwood