For many Americans, Memorial Day means the unofficial start of summer. It may mean a long weekend getaway or finding bargains at supersales. But for those who have served in the military, and particularly for Gold Star families (the immediate family members of someone who died while serving in the armed forces), the day is far from a happy celebration.
"The intent of Memorial Day is to remember those who have given their lives for the service of our country. …This is the only day the government has said, ‘OK, we're going to remember those who have fallen for us,’" says Joanne Steen, an author, instructor and speaker on grief with a specialty in military loss.
Steen, a Gold Star widow, suggests that Americans get out of the habit of wishing people a happy Memorial Day and instead say, “We will do our best to remember."
"To a Gold Star family member, every day is Memorial Day. The void left after losing a loved one is never filled,” says John Raughter, an American Legion spokesman. “The pain of losing a parent, child, spouse or sibling never fully goes away. We can only support them and let them know that the sacrifices that they have made will never be forgotten by our grateful nation.”
"When you want to offer condolences to someone, it's best to say, ‘I'm sorry for your loss,’" Steen suggests. “You don't want to say, ‘I'm sorry for the loss of your son, Lieutenant Steen,’ because Mom and Dad didn't bury Lieutenant Steen; they buried Ken.
"Even if the child didn't die in war… I'll say something like, ‘Your son John volunteered to serve to protect and defend his country at a time where people are looking to do us great harm,’" she adds.
Steen advises steering clear of often-used phrases, including comparing someone's loss to another person's death or adding a religious tone. She suggests personalizing the condolences.
"What you can do for a family, which I did recently, is say, ‘I didn't know your son very well, but the times that I spent with him I always walked away feeling good.’ With this parent you would have thought I said, ‘Hey, you just won the lottery!’ It meant a lot to them because it's personal,” says Steen, whose latest book, We Regret to Inform You: A Survival Guide for Gold Star Parents and Those Who Support Them, hits bookstores on Memorial Day.
If you're not a Gold Star family member but still want to show support on Memorial Day, Steen recommends that you attend one of the day's services in your community.
The American Legion has 13,000 posts across the country and overseas that observe Memorial Day. Observances include events like the wreath laying at Arlington National Cemetery and local community parades.
Many states and large cities also have a run for the fallen. If you don't want to take an active role, you can still be supportive by attending.
"You can visit surviving veterans at VA hospitals or support wounded warriors,” Raughter says. “Fly the American Flag at half-staff. There is nothing wrong with enjoying a holiday weekend at a beach or barbecue, but never lose perspective about what Memorial Day is about, and try to find some way to observe and acknowledge the sacrifices that make life possible in the greatest nation on earth.”
Additionally, Steen says that simply raising your American flag or wearing a patriotic T-shirt (that doesn't say “Happy Memorial Day") is a great way to get the message across.
"As a Gold Star widow, it means a lot when you're out some place and you see someone on Memorial Day that has a shirt that represents the holiday,” Steen says. “It does mean a lot — it means that somebody cares.”