While the Memorial Day holiday marks the unofficial beginning of Summer and provides a welcome long week-end for Americans, it also is an important time to reflect. In remembering those in the military who have died serving our country, we are reminded of the many personal sacrifices that sustaining our great nation has required.
On an individual level, Memorial Day can also be an opportunity to remember those important people in our own lives who have sacrificed for us and died. It can be a time to revisit and review the pain and losses and place them into a broader perspective. Looking back can be a powerful way to discover the transcendent meaning and purpose in our own lives which may have been lost in the wake of death and tragedy.
Psychologically, grieving is the painful process we go through after we encounter loss. At its conclusion, we are able to recover and come to terms with the unpleasant and threatening consequences of separation and death. In its wake, loss disrupts our life’s patterns and forces us to construct new personal and emotional structures for living. We hate having to change and long for what we have lost. If a loved one dies or a relationship ends, our emotional stability and sense of security is temporarily shattered and we experience the immediate void and chaos of uncertainty. Emotionally, going through and expressing all of the feelings of anger and denial and sadness helps us to get back on track and gives us a sense of acceptance and better understanding of what has happened.
Death and loss damage more than our emotions and sense of order. They also threaten our spiritual confidence and trust in the ultimate goodness of life. Tragedy can also undermine our faith in the very existence of divine purpose in the world. In addition to disrupting familiar patterns, death and loss often intrudes out of context. It doesn’t fit in with our sense of the way things are supposed to be. Loss can destroy one’s faith in the ultimate meaning of life and make it seem absurd. Recalling the past, looking at the pictures and videos and retelling old stories, however, is a helpful way for us to discover and re-experience lasting meaning and purpose in our life. With the passage of time and calmer emotions, we are able recapture a sense of context and gain an awareness of a larger significance which endures.
The recovery of meaning requires the recovery of a perspective. While it’s normal to lose perspective in the wake of loss, looking back at the past reveals a wider and truer perspective . Just as in therapy, remembering the past from the safety and calmness of the present allows us to perceive crucial, meaning-changing details which were previously blocked or overlooked.
The dark shock of loss is confusing and disrupts our ability to think calmly and reason. Looking back from a more reasonable and brighter perspective can allow us to see the missing pieces and better understand the ultimate meaning of our lives . Although unwanted losses are never easy to accept, it is possible to understand, with time, that sacrifices are sometimes necessary for the larger good or make possible greater accomplishments.
Memorial Day is a perfect example of how transcendent meaning can emerge from tragic death. Remembering that those who died did so defending and preserving our nation and its freedom changes the meaning of their deaths and gives lasting significance to their sacrifice. Indeed , Memorial Day is not only a time to express gratitude for sacrifices in the past but can also be an affirmation of the meaning of life yet to be lived. So, as you visit the grave sites of those loved ones who have passed on this Memorial Day, take a moment and reflect. Think how, beyond the pain of loss, the larger meaning of your life and of the divine purpose is present in the world and continues to unfold.
Rev. Michael Heath , LMHC, Fellow AAPC
* Attribution for image: http://www.pbs.org/national-memorial-day-concert/home/