Written by Joshua F. Medeiros, MS
Benjamin Franklin once quipped that, “in this world, nothing is certain except death and taxes.” While many Americans spend an entire season worrying about taxes, there are precious few days where we collectively reflect on death. In this post, I would like to begin by giving a very brief history of Memorial Day and then transition into a discussion on grief and the grieving process, of which, days of remembrance like today can play an important role for the bereaved.
Memorial Day (formerly dubbed Decoration Day) was first recognized on May 30th, 1868. While its roots are ancient with similar days of remembrance dating back to early Greco-Roman practices, the early American version sprung from events like the May, 1st 1865 gathering of freed slaves to decorate the graves of fallen union soldiers after the Civil War. States began declaring versions of the official holiday in 1873 (New York was the first) and it was codified as a federal holiday in 1971.
With precursors dating back thousands of years, days of remembrance enjoin us to commemorate (com = altogether / memor = mindful > memorare = relate “mindfully relate together”) about the men and women who have died for a common cause. For those friends and family members of deceased military personnel, today holds a particular significance in their grieving process. However, before we explore what today can mean for affected family and friends, I would like to take a moment to explore grief and give a better understanding of what it is and dispel some common misconceptions.
Many people will be familiar with Kubler-Ross and Kessler’s five stages of grief, later revised to include two additional stages* (shock*, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, testing*, and acceptance). However, these stages were never meant to describe the grief of someone who has lost a friend or family member, instead, their initial research was on patients who had received a terminal diagnosis and the stages of grief experienced by those faced in a particular way with their own mortality. Grief experienced by the bereaved is something altogether different, though the original concept of “stages” has been hard to shake and has, in some way, informed each subsequent model of grief. In another emerging conceptualization, grief closely mirrors the process by which people experience and grow from traumatic experiences. Considered this way, grief can be understood to move through three parts, namely, impact, recoil, and integration or accommodation. What can I say, counselors love talking about things in stages…
Before I describe these phases, it should also be noted that this is a process, not a one and done event. Elizabeth Gilbert said, “Grief does not obey your plans, or your wishes. Grief will do whatever it wants to you, whenever it wants to. In that regard, grief has a lot in common with love.” This quote points to the heart of the complications inherent when trying to explain grief in any universal way. Understand that the grief process outlined below happens many times in many ways on many different points along the scales of time and intensity.
To begin, there is the obvious initial impact of learning of a loss, but as anyone who has experienced loss can attest, the effect does not stop there. Wave after wave of emotion comes at varying times after the loss. As time progresses, an emerging realization about the meaning of loss continues to affect the bereaved. Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays (like Memorial Day), public celebrations, missed milestones of the deceased or major events in the lives of family and friends all remind the grieving of their loss and represent a new impact event in the process. The analogy of waves is so apropos as I hear it time and time again from grieving clients when describing the emotional swells over time after loss. As important anniversaries or milestones pass, the bereaved realize what losing this person means in deeper and more encompassing ways.
From this realization about the meanings of a loss, I have called it a greater understanding of the scope of the loss, comes the natural response to recoil from the pain. For example, there was the initial reaction to the loss of my grandfather, but it was not until later I recognized that this meant I had also lost the one who instilled in me a love of model trains or the one who taught me bible stories as a child. Each of these realizations came with their own waves of grief. Emotions of sadness, longing, feeling lost, anger, relief, bittersweet, injustice, a dip in one’s sense of hope, and urges to withdrawal and any nameable or unnameable feeling are all normal responses to the pain of grief. Making these responses more confusing is the fact that life continues outside of the grieving process. One of the most difficult aspects of grief, especially in the early months after the loss is the return of happy or joyous emotions in response to positive events or interactions, which are often stifled when the grief feelings intermingle. The little voice inside says, “I am not allowed to feel happy because they are not here anymore.” This is also a natural response and part of the final phase of integration.
Integration or accommodation is the process of coming back into balance. The behaviors related to self-soothing (coping), whether positive or not-so-positive may bleed between recoil and accommodation as the ways we find to relieve the pains of grief can also help to give meaning to the loss and help us grow.
Grief takes time. Healing after loss also happens most effectively in communion with others. Family, friends, faith communities, professionals, or society can provide the healing relationships necessary to those who have lost a loved one. This brings us back to the importance of Memorial Day in the grieving process of military families. Days of remembrance are a time where we can mindfully enter into the pain of loss of those in our communities, hear their story and hold space for them. Remind them they are not alone and that you are thinking of them, offer fond memories of their loved ones, or simply be with them as they take time to grieve and know that you do not need to fix it or make them feel better.
For those survivors of fallen veterans, thank you for the sacrifice you and your families have made. You are not alone; they are not forgotten.
For additional resources on grief, click the link below or speak to a mental health professional in your area.