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John James, founder of The Grief Recovery Institute

John W. James

Founder of The Grief Recovery Institute®
Co-Author of The Grief Recovery
Handbook & When Children Grieve

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Memorial Day, 150 Years Later. Lest We Forget!

Memorial Day as we know it today began as Decoration Day in 1866, in upstate New York, after the cessation of the Civil War. First conceived as an homage to those who had given their lives, it soon evolved to also honor those who had survived. Within two years it was renamed Memorial Day, and over time came to symbolize our community need to stay ever mindful of those who had sacrificed their lives for our freedoms. Although the official birth of this annual event was in the North, the Southern states had parallel ceremonies, which were eventually joined as the national holiday we commemorate every year.

A tremendous amount has transpired in the intervening 150 years.

For millions of us, September 11, 2001, and subsequent events signaled the end of our metaphorical Disneyland. The fantasy that all is okay in our world has given way to the terrifying survival reality that is a daily diet for people in many corners of the globe. Sadly, we must face up to that reality. With all of this going on, the need for a Memorial Day is as important as ever. Since 9/11, we have been forced to re-examine how we live our daily lives, how we travel, and how we observe the normal events that swirl around our public movements. And with the death of Osama Bin Laden, we were reminded that we are still under potential daily assault by terrorists.

Most of us were not related to or even acquainted with anyone who perished on September 11. But most of us heard the recordings of those phone calls made by people on the doomed aircraft that day. What we heard provided us tangible proof of what the real "bottom line" is for us creatures called human beings. In the heart-stopping moments before the ends of their lives, the people who could, contacted their most precious loved ones to tell them how they felt about them just before they died. None of those calls had anything to do with mundane, day-to-day details. They had nothing to do with money and possessions. They had only to do with one combined thing, love and relationships. There was no time for small talk, or anything other than, "Thank you" and "I love you" and "Take care of yourself and the children." And, "Goodbye." We were deeply affected by what we heard in those recordings and the reports of calls from within the collapsing buildings and doomed aircraft. It opened a place in our hearts, in an inward spiral, first for those who had died, then for those who survived them, and finally for all the people—past and present—who had affected our own lives.

Our collective grief expanded our sense of love and connection to the single thing that stands out above all other things—our relationships with other people. Little by little, our lives got back to normal. Our fears subsided. We re-boarded aircraft, and though still very alert, our hyper-vigilance was reduced to manageable levels. We stopped being glued to the news channels in dread terror of the next horrific chapter. We learned a lot about potential dangers and we may even feel better prepared to deal with a variety of life threatening possibilities, on behalf of ourselves and our families.

For a while, the impact of September 11 brought us together, at least in the ways we've mentioned here. But then we slipped back to pre-September 11 levels in our sense of relationship to those outside of our own inner circle. And then came the terror alerts, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq 2, and the lingering aftermath. Only this time, we are not joined together communally the way we were on September 12. We are divided into camps that split families and friendships apart. People can't seem to talk civilly with each other when they have opposing views. A friend of ours said, "The country is totally polarized and evenly divided." What a chilling comment. There is an abyss. It is one that overlooks the ultimate message that we needed to take from September 11. We must pull together not apart.

Lest we forget.

Memorial Day evolved from its original and singular idea to include a far-reaching concept of honoring all who had fought for us. However, somewhere along the way, like many holidays, it took a commercial detour that replaced the true intent of memorial. As we drove to a meeting the other day, a voice on the radio announced that this Memorial Day was truly going to be one to remember. The voice went on to tell us that the cause of such powerful emotion was the incredibly low interest rate that was available on Memorial Day weekend for the purchase of an expensive luxury automobile. You know it's true, you hear the same ads we hear.

We are not trying to change commerce. We are simply pointing out that the idea of honoring those who have made it possible for us to afford those cars and drive them safely inside our borders is getting lost in the shuffle. We must remember all the brave souls who created our freedoms: in our American world; in the larger world; in our cultural, religious and philosophical worlds; and in the heart of our most personal family world. We think it’s also appropriate for us to honor the memory of family members and friends who have died.

Lest we forget.

Above all, we must remember the real purpose of Memorial Day and make our communications as poignant as the ones we heard on those tapes. To all the veterans who have served in situations beyond our comprehension, we say, "Thank you and we love you." To all the veterans who have died for our way of life, we say, "Thank you, we love you, and goodbye.”

© 2022 John W. James and The Grief Recovery Institute®. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this and other articles please contact The Grief Recovery Institute at info@griefrecoverymethod.com or by phone, 800-334-7606.

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