The month of May ends with the annual observation of Memorial Day, a three-day weekend marking the beginning of the summer season. Aside from the classic fashion rule giving us permission to begin wearing white shoes and accessories, Memorial Day is, in fact, a serious commemoration, a time to remember and honor those who have died defending our country.
For the many families who have lost sons, daughters, parents, siblings or spouses who went to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, this Memorial Day may be especially fraught with grief and sadness, along with other very complicated emotions. How can anyone possibly help these people to come to terms with such loss?
Regardless of one’s political leanings and opinions about these particular wars, it seems inevitable that people whose loved ones have been killed or permanently wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan will harbor very mixed feelings ranging from unspeakable pain to outrage and haunting doubt about the ultimate meaning of their sacrifices.
Were these young men and women really standing up for democracy and protecting the world from terrorism?
Were their military missions provided and fortified with sufficient manpower and equipment?
Did they get adequate training and preparation before being sent to war?
And, might they still be alive if their terms of service had not been renewed and extended one, two, three or even four times?
These are questions which may plague mourning families, and which may never have satisfactory answers.
Given our helplessness to change what has already occurred, what can we do — especially on this emotionally loaded holiday — to comfort those who grieve?
Many of us are familiar with the so-called stages of grief, originally proposed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, who outlined the five sequential stages of shock, denial, anger, sadness, and, ultimately, acceptance.
While Kubler-Ross’s work gave us permission — as well as a framework and vocabulary — to talk about death, dying and grieving, it has been my experience that most people find it difficult if not impossible to find the right words either to describe their own pain in mourning or to offer consolation to others in their grief.
No one can bring back a person who has died, and there are no magic words which can soften the pain of loss.
In fact, words which are intended to console often have the opposite effect.
Even the most heartfelt of offerings may be perceived by the mourner as insensitive, nonsensical, or downright insulting.
For example, “It was God’s will,” or “He has gone to a better place” may not comfort a person whose religious faith has been weakened or shattered by disillusioning events.
Likewise, “Time heals all wounds” may strike the mourner as simplistic and discounting of the enormity of their pain, and of the permanency of their loss.
Although seemingly obvious, the most valuable thing that one can do for another person who is grieving for a lost loved one is to communicate one’s caring through one’s willingness and ability to listen.
Despite the seeming simplicity of this “non-action,” it is something most people find very difficult to do.
There are several reasons for this.
Perhaps most common is the difficulty many people have in allowing themselves to feel their own pain.
Receptive listening to another person’s suffering might bring up one’s own sadness or vulnerability to loss, as well as one’s own feelings of helplessness.
Furthermore, most of us like to think that we can somehow control events around us, that we can prevent misfortune, and that we can fix things when they go wrong. It seems an affront to our competence and sense of mastery to be faced with situations which are excruciating and which elude our best efforts at healing.
Perhaps most helpful for a grieving relative or dear friend this Memorial Day is to offer our availability — and to graciously accept a refusal, if that is the response.
Some may prefer to spend these holidays alone or with very few people. However, if your offer of companionship is accepted, be prepared to say little and to take your cues from the people you wish to comfort.
If they seem to need to find distraction from focus on their loss, you can go along with that.
If, however, they choose to remember their lost loved one and express their anguish to you, your openness to hearing them, acceptance of their feelings, and empathy for them can be the most loving and valued gift of all.
On countless occasions, when mourners have thanked me or others for being helpful, a most common response is, “But I didn’t do anything. All I did was listen!”
Never underestimate the value of listening in an empathic and non-challenging way. It truly is what people often need most, and, ironically, what many often have the most difficulty providing.
If you are among those who are suffering from the loss of someone who was important to you, whether or not from war-related causes, and you would like to talk with someone who can listen to and accept your feelings, please remember that we at the MAP office are available — and that we are always willing to lend you our ears!