(This post was first published in 2013 and by request we are reposting for Memorial Day 2016!)
I have fond memories of Memorial Day from my childhood. We would go around to the cemeteries where my great-grandparents, great aunts and uncles, and grandma were buried. It always took more time than we (as kids) expected because we would run into neighbors or friends who were also honoring their loved ones.
But, my favorite part was that this activity would prompt my parents and other relatives to start telling stories about the family members I was helping to remember even though I had never met most of them. Some of the stories were funny, some I didn’t understand at the time, and some were honest explanations of challenging times. I found it fascinating to hear about my own parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods and who they looked up to as they were growing. More than anything, I cherished the sense of family that I learned from these weekends.
Of course, I didn’t understand at the time what that feeling was, but I knew it was something special. It didn’t matter to me that I hadn’t met some of these people because I felt like I knew them. The stories I heard about them, the love I could see that my parents still had for them, and the intentional connection we made with them each year helped me to understand who they were, what they taught my parents, and how they impacted our entire family. It was as if I had known them myself and I came to love them for the role they now played in my life.
Now almost twelve years after my son Garrett was stillborn, Memorial Day means a lot more to me. But the principle is the same. I know in my heart that Garrett will always be a part of my life, but I still enjoy taking time out of our busy lives to pick out flowers and spend a few moments at the cemetery remembering him, honoring his memory, and cherishing the time we had with him. I don’t have as many stories about Garrett to share with my children as my parents did of their grandparents to share with me. But the quantity doesn’t matter. This has become a time when my children, who were born after Garrett, get to make a connection with their brother in a tangible way and to the extent that they are able. We are comforted by thinking about Garrett’s role and place in our family, what he has taught us, and what he means to us – just as we do with our other deceased relatives.
A few months after Garrett was born, I was asked when I would be ‘over this’. At the time, the concept seemed absurd, but it was only because I couldn’t even imagine a day that I didn’t sob uncontrollably and feel the physical ache in my chest. Today, the concept still seems absurd, but it is because I have a different perspective on why. What does it mean to be ‘over’ a loss? Does it mean we don’t cry in front of others? Does it mean we don’t remember? Does it mean we aren’t sad about the situation and wish things had been different? Does it mean we stop loving them?
I will NEVER be ‘over’ Garrett’s death – and I’m happy about that.
I would be devastated if there is ever a day that I don’t remember him or think about his impact on my life. At this point, remembering him is more comforting than forgetting him. I can laugh about the lighter moments of my pregnancy and I can talk to others about him without dissolving to tears every time. This is adjusting to my new normal. This is recognizing that I will parent Garrett differently than my other children and I have learned how to do that in a way that feels good to me. This is not being ‘over’ him.
But this is not a new or unique concept. This is what my parents were teaching me over the years during all the Memorial Days at the cemeteries. When they experienced the loss of their grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, friends, or any loved ones, they did the same thing I have done. They found a way to have a relationship with that person that doesn’t involve the physical relationship they were used to, but one that works for them and allows them to function in their new normal. They found ways to be grateful for the time and experiences they had with them, and they took the opportunity to share those people with my brother and I.
Placing flowers on graves for Memorial Day may not be a tradition for everyone, but I believe we all find our own ‘Memorial Day’. Whether you’ll be celebrating your loved ones on Monday or any other day of the year, I wish you all a gentle and loving Memorial Day spent with those you love.