by Elayne Savage, PhD
I've dreaded Memorial Day from the time I was 12 years old.
Each year Memorial Day meant we had to take the long drive to the South Omaha cemetery to visit my mother's grave. I remember feeling so relieved when the day was over. I wouldn't have to feel those feelings – for another year.
I hated those cemetery visits.They meant facing reality: my mother was dead. My family was different from the families of my schoolmates. I couldn't pretend I had a mother like the other the kids.
Some of you know my story: how my mother and grandmother died when their Braniff DC-3 crashed into an Iowa cornfield:
Because it wasn't handled well, healing from this loss has been a slow and painful process. The Enneagram of Death by Elizabeth Wagele will be published shortly. You'll find my story, "There is to Be No Grieving."
A Pity Party for Me, Me, Me
In my child's mind, the meaning of Memorial Day got garbled. Somehow it became all about me, me, me -- my misery in losing my mother.
I lost sight of the real meaning of the day. I think part of me knew the day really wasn't about my mother. I think I really did know it was to honor those who died serving their country.
Yet, my overriding memory was the dread of that long drive to the South Omaha cemetery, stopping on the way to buy flowers.
This day for honoring the dead became a day of dread. The day came to symbolize the rejection I experienced from the abandonment. Accompanying fears followed me into my adult years. Memorial Day remained difficult and depressing. I shunned picnics and barbecues.
As you might guess, isolating myself made the holiday even more lonely.
Then a few years ago something shifted for me. A good friend, a Vietnam War vet, sent me a Navy Times article describing the high rate of military suicides.
The article surely heightened my awareness of the men and women who have died in the service. Mostly, though, it got me thinking about the growing number of active duty suicides. As well as the climbing rate of suicides by veterans..
These days the statistics are shockingly higher. The Vice Chief of Staff of the Army reported 164 active-duty Army, National Guard, and Reserve troops took their own lives in 2011.
However the rate is surging in the early months of 2012. Recent Pentagon data shows 154 suicides for active-duty troops in the first 155 days of 2012! This almost one-a-day average is 50 percent more than U.S. forces killed in action in Afghanistan.
The suicide rate for veterans is even higher. The Department of Defense now estimates 18 veterans die by their own hand every day. That would be one every 80 minutes. Over 6,500 a year. (The total number of military deaths since the start of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is over 6,200.)
As I became aware of these numbers Memorial Day began to take on new meaning. This year I felt connected in a way I never have before. Interestingly, I'm hearing the same from several of my coaching and therapy clients.
Have you had a similar experience? Have you, too, noticed your connection to Memorial Day has changed? Is this year different for some reason?
The Comfort of Heartfelt Reflections
This year I was also affected greatly by the abundance of poignant commentaries on death and dying in honor of Memorial Day. But perhaps I am just more open now to noticing.
I was especially moved by two touching tributes: Writer Susie Madrak's poignant observations son combat deaths and Joe Biden's deeply emotional sentiments as he spoke to families of fallen military. I'm grateful to those who forwarded these links to me.
Madrak writes how "each soldier has a reason for being caught in a war . . . And when they die in the war, each death leaves a hole in the world . . . No loss is acceptable. Ask the parents, the spouses, the children."
Vice President Joe Biden spoke to families of fallen military about the anguish of losing a loved one. “And just like you guys know by the tone of a phone call -- you just knew, didn't you? You knew when they walked up the path. You knew when the call came. You knew." He recalls how he, too, "knew" when that call came his. The one informing his wife and infant daughter were killed in a traffic accident.
The audience laughed in recognition and understanding when he told them, "I knew people meant well, they'd come up to me and say 'Joe, I know how you feel.' I knew they meant well, I knew they were genuine, but you knew they didn't have any damn idea, right? Isn't that true?"
I sure can relate to those reflections! My memories are pretty spotty around the deaths of my mother and grandmother, but I think back to how hollow sounding people's comments seemed. I remember thinking: "How can they say they know how I feel?"
If you haven't seen the short video, here's the clip:
Joe Biden's last lines remind his grieving audience – and the rest of us – how healing from a loss is a process. He speaks from his own life experiences when he promises that a time will come when "it can and will get better." And how the time will come when thinking about the lost loved one "brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye,"
This Memorial Day has been transformative for me. It doesn't seem so long ago that I was capable only of wanting this long and agonizing day to be over.
This year I actually celebrated the day with a barbecue! And, yes, the memory of such a good time brings a smile to my lips. And now I find myself choosing to continue my connection to Memorial Day as I write and post this blog.
© Elayne Savage PhD
Until next month,
Elayne Savage is the author of ground-breaking books published in 9 languages.
You can order books and CDs directly from my website:
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