Memorial Day Thoughts

This appeared in the Duquesne Times, June 1, 2011.

In our fast paced culture, speed wobbling towards an uncertain future, it is good to have at least a few days dedicated to memory. Religious and other public holidays are mostly celebrations, but this day is dedicated to the memory of those who fell fighting for us.

Memorial Day reminds us that there is no such silliness as “closure” when it comes to grief. Memorial Day dignifies our lives with grief. For some families, of course, this grief is a gaping wound, and our hearts and prayers are with them. But for many, the grief is communal, and is held for men and women we never met, who died in service for people whom they never even knew.

Our grief, even if simply held as a quiet acknowledgement of this Day, makes us better people. Grief is the most original way of remembering the dead. As the years go by Memorial Day is our way of honoring our forebears. Grief stabilizes our lives, reminding us that we are not self-made but belong to a story that is older and larger than ourselves. On Memorial Day, we are reminded that our personal history is not something that belongs to us–as though we can do with it what we like–but rather, it is the other way round. We belong to that history; we are their heirs carrying an inheritance to the next generation.

The images which stay with us, of the dead at their best, are always a mirror to those values we hold most dear. Remembering someone’s good cheer, helpfulness, or courage, for instance, makes us better people, dedicated to a future that might be worthy of their continued presence in our memories. I am struck how often I have heard a combat veteran come away from the funeral of a buddy determined to get his stuff together, and to live in a way so that his dead buddy would be proud of him (–like the aging private Ryan at the graveside of those who rescued him).

Think of how much a dog’s friendly approach means to us when we are in grief. Unlike depression, which distances the world, grief brings things and others closer. We are made tender in grief, and intimate with the world.

So I hope we never reach “closure.” I hope that we allow our grief to dignify and steady our lives, and to recognize the preciousness of the living to whom we remain indebted. I hope that today reminds us of the appalling waste that is war.

Roger Brooke.
Director, Military Psychological Services
Duquesne University