Pausing for Reflection on Memorial Day

On Monday, our nation will be observing Memorial Day, an event we began recognizing after the Civil War and officially established as a federal holiday in 1971 to honor the memory of those who died while serving in the military.  Although we more commonly celebrate Memorial Day as the unofficial start of the summer season, it’s important to remember the more somber roots of the holiday.  Many of our families have at least one such member to memorialize, in addition to friends who may have sacrificed their lives in military action.  However, it is nearly impossible to recognize fallen service members without also reflecting on other loved ones we’ve lost over the years.  This post acknowledges the broader grief that we may experience during this Memorial Day Weekend.

Grief is a normal response to the loss of something or someone that we love.  A range of emotions may be stirred, including sadness, anger, disappointment, regret, relief, guilt, and frustration.  Depending on the circumstances of the death, we may feel that we have not had a chance to say goodbye.  In our communities, there is a higher rate of sudden deaths as compared to other communities.  For example, African Americans are more likely to lose a loved one to community violence (e.g., drive-by shootings, gang violence, shootings by law enforcement officials) and relational violence (e.g., domestic abuse).  Our life expectancies, particularly for black males, are several years shorter compared to our White counterparts by nearly a decade.  Due to chronic health disparities, we are more likely to be diagnosed with a more advanced disease, and to die sooner from those diseases.  For all of these reasons, our world may be turned completely upside down by grief.

In some instances, a loved one is diagnosed with a life-threatening or terminal illness.  When this information is shared with the family, each family member, in her or his own way, enters into a period of anticipatory grief.  Even though your loved one is still present with you, the disease has likely compromised her functioning.  Thus, other family members have already begun to step into those roles of decreased functioning.  Moreover, each family member begins to imagine what life may be like without the dying loved one.  These reflections, while they may be sad, help to generate practical considerations, such as getting one’s affairs in order, finishing or supporting items on a “bucket list,” and giving final instructions, wisdom, or other blessings, and saying last goodbyes.

Sadly, many of us are familiar, either directly or indirectly, with a loved one who was aware of a grim prognosis, yet did not share the news for many weeks or months, if at all.  If you are ever in the shoes of receiving a terminal diagnosis, it may be a part of your constitution to carry on and to protect your loved ones from this news so that you won’t “impose” on them.  Still, I implore you to reconsider this conclusion.  Not only can you benefit immensely from receiving care when you need it most, but you also can allow your family as much time as possible to adjust to the possibility and consequences of your demise.

Because of cultural pressures, we may not take the time we need to fully, or even partially, engage the grieving process.  We may tell ourselves that we are too busy to grieve.  This feels like reality, because if we lose someone close to us, we may find ourselves having to assume the responsibilities of the person who died.  For example, if our partner was always responsible for maintaining the household finances, we may have to step into this major gap in order for bills to be paid and investments maintained.  Also, we may find that our jobs are less than supportive when it comes to time off from work.  In previous times, jobs could give up to two weeks as a standard bereavement leave.  These days, some employees can barely get time off to attend the funeral, and then, it must be for a member of the immediate family (a policy that does not take into consideration the value we place on extended family and fictive kin).  We may also tell ourselves that grieving is too painful to confront.  Some of us worry that if we ever open the floodgates to our grief, the results could be disastrous.  We worry that we may be completely debilitated by our grief, and won’t be able to provide important functions to our families, which themselves are even more burdensome due to the loss.  So it can be very easy to find ourselves striving to “get back to normal” and throwing ourselves back into an even busier routine, when the grief actually doesn’t go away.  In fact, we can store grief for months or years, and eventually find ourselves falling victim to what mental health professionals refer to as complicated or prolonged grief.  This type of grief reflects challenges with eating and sleeping, trouble concentrating, difficulties with functioning in our basic roles, and even suicidal thoughts.  These challenges often occur as a result of not working through the process of grief for so long that these symptoms have become intense, frequent, and of such long duration that support from a mental health professional is often required.

No one is in the position to place a time frame on our grief.  At the same time, it’s important for us to be honest with ourselves about whether we are working through grief, or simply running from grief.  Doing needed grief work can allow us to progress to other lessons/tasks, those activities that are intended for the living.  Do something special to memorialize your loved one(s), such as visiting the gravesite, displaying their pictures more prominently in your home, or posting a tribute via social media. Your loving gesture will make your Memorial Day even more meaningful.


À votre santé (“To your health”),


Dr. T

Tonya Armstrong

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