Commentary

Memorial Day survival tips for Gold Star families

Memorial Day 2020 will be unlike any other — but you already know this. Like most events and holidays so far this year, COVID-19 has stolen the traditional Memorial Day ceremonies and remembrances we’ve come to expect and cherish. The National Cemetery Administration remains committed to honoring all who have served and died in the line of duty, in wartime and times of peace, but ceremonies and remembrance activities at Arlington National Cemetery and veterans cemeteries across the country will be different this year because of the pandemic.

This feels personal. Like another loss. And it is — but this time it’s temporary. Memorial Day has been an American tradition since the days of the Civil War, more than 150 years ago. It has evolved and changed over the years but that’s a topic for another time. And in years to follow, we’ll again see individual flags on the tombstones of our loved ones; we’ll go to parades to honor the fallen, and we’ll gather as family and friends, individual communities, and as a nation to remember the thousands of husbands and wives, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters whom we know by their first names.

How do we handle Memorial Day this year?

As with most things in life, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. But with a little planning and some determination, we can find ways that’ll work for us this year. Let’s start by going over a few key points:

• Gold Star emotions are raw around Memorial Day. This is true in any given year. The anxiety of COVID-19 only makes things worse. Helpful hint: Protect your emotions like you would an open wound. Keep your distance from people, places, and things that will only irritate this wound.

• Grief increases our hypersensitivity. Being cooped up for more than eight weeks has done nothing but decrease our tolerance levels to the annoying people, places, and things mentioned earlier. Helpful hint: Keep this thought nearby and revisit often.

• Be extra good to yourself. Before Memorial Day, do what it takes to recharge your batteries, increase your energy, and build resilience. Helpful hint: It may take a little outside-the-box brainstorming to come up with ideas, if the pandemic has eliminated your go-to ways of recharging.

• Gold Star families are strong. And tough. We are stronger than we realize. And when people, places, things — and pandemics — get us down, remember that we’ve already faced the worst thing that could have happened to us, and we’ve survived! Helpful hint: Repeat as often as needed.

Dealing with Memorial Day isn’t easy for Gold Star families even without a pandemic. If this isn’t your first Memorial Day, you know that how you approach it has probably evolved over the years. You’ve learned what works for you — and what doesn’t. Using that knowledge, plus knowing what’s available in your area can help you create a meaningful Memorial Day this year.

* Here are 3 ideas for surviving Memorial Day this year:

1. Have a plan for the day. Try to be as specific as possible about your plans for the day. Know that “I’ll just stay busy all day” isn’t a good plan. The more structure you have for the day, the better it will be.

According to the Veterans Administration website “All 142 VA national cemeteries will be open for visitation throughout the Memorial Day weekend.” However, visitations may be limited to family members at some cemeteries and portions of the cemeteries may be closed, such as information centers. Check with national, state, and local agencies for the latest veterans cemetery plans in your area if you plan to visit your loved one’s gravesite.

2. Create your own personal ritual. We love rituals. They provide us with the means to do something out-of-the-ordinary, plus it’s a personalized way to show the specialness of the loved one we’re remembering. Rituals don’t have to be costly, lengthy, or epic productions. They are often uniquely personal.

For instance, my way of handling Memorial Day has evolved over the years and so, once again, I’ll place seven 8x12 inch American flags in my front yard, one for each of the crew members who was killed along with my late husband Ken. Afterwards, I’ll say Ken’s name out loud and toast him with a Guinness Stout, one of his favorite beverages. This works for me, especially this year.

3. Have a backup plan. Also known as Option 2. This one is tricky, particularly with limited options available. But give some thought on how to spend the day if your original plan doesn’t work out the way you hoped, or you’re uncomfortable with what you’re doing. Many cemeteries are holding private wreath-laying ceremonies that will be streamed live. Check them out ahead of time. Once again, just trying to keep busy isn’t a good plan.

While the country is laser-focused on reopening this Memorial Day weekend and the time-honored Memorial Day ceremonies we’re all accustomed to have been cancelled in compliance with CDC guidance, you may be feeling particularly anxious and stressed. Know that you’re not alone. In fact, you’re in good company with other Gold Star families! Keep in mind that these restrictions are temporary because of COVID-19.

As Gold Star families, we will get through this and become stronger because of it. Because Gold Star families are strong. And tough. And Gold Star proud.

* Ideas presented here are from Chapter 11, Handling Holidays and Important Days of Meaning, in “We Regret To Inform You. A Survival Guide for Gold Star Parents and Those Who Support Them.” More information on handling holidays and personal days of meaning is found on pages 131-141.

Author of “We Regret To Inform You. A Survival Guide for Gold Star Parents” (Central Recovery Press, 2019) and coauthor of “Military Widow: A Survival Guide” (Naval Institute Press, 2006). Joanne Steen is a board-certified counselor, remarried Gold Star widow, and founder of Grief Solutions, a training company on grief, loss, and resilience.

Editor’s note: This is an Op-Ed and as such, the opinions expressed are those of the author. If you would like to respond, or have an editorial of your own you would like to submit, please contact Military Times managing editor Howard Altman, haltman@militarytimes.com.

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