Memories of bereaved mothers, fathers, wives, and husbands me haunt me on Memorial Day. I recall being a part of next-of-kin notifications after soldiers or family members died. As a Chaplain, I rarely told the grieving, often disbelieving widow, parent or child that they had lost one they had loved. Another officer said those words. Sometimes they didn’t need to speak. Just the sight of two military officer in our dress uniforms at their door told them that the moment that they feared most had arrived. On a few occasions, a spouse had suspected and was waiting outside for us so that the children could be told later. I remember only one time when a young woman had no awareness of why we were walking up her driveway. Sometimes, the family had moved and had not informed the unit. We had to find them. Our goal was they would not learn about this from the news or from someone’s Facebook post, or from a friend who somehow had learned. The Army wanted us to be the ones who told them, who answered the questions we could, who thanked them. Even when they knew, we had to tell them. If the other officer was overcome with emotion, I told them. My usual role was to watch, to listen, to console, and if desired, to pray. I saw and heard denial, but also rage, and at times, simply a numb shock. Most often their prayers might have been like this prayer from Lamentations:
“See, LORD, how distressed I am! I am in torment within, and in my heart I am disturbed, for I have been most rebellious. Outside, the sword bereaves; inside, there is only death. People have heard my groaning, but there is no one to comfort me” (Lamentations 1:20-21a).
They had not always had perfect relationships. Some had not approved of their loved one’s choosing to serve in the military. Some felt guilt because of past quarrels. Some parent/veterans had survived their own wars, and were broken when they imagined what their child had experienced. Some of them had worked hard in their Soldier’s absence, encouraging other families and sending packages to cheer up those who were deployed. What they all shared besides loss, was that because of their relationship to the Soldier, they too had served our country.
Remember these people on Memorial Day. As you look at rows of tombstones in a military cemetery or attend a Memorial Day event, imagine a family and friends alongside each name. If you’re at the Vietnam Memorial Wall, you may read my uncle’s name – James F. Akins. He had just returned to the combat zone from a leave spent with his wife a few days earlier. Their only child would be born as a result of that leave. My aunt and my cousin lived very different lives without him than they would had he survived. When Uncle Jimmie died, I did not know that I would serve in a combat zone. I did not know that I would be part of a notification team that would tell families of their loss in several states, in Germany, and even in Afghanistan. Those memories haunt me, as I’m sure they do even more with the families and with the other officers who went with me.
Pray for the survivors as you honor the dead.
- Quotation from the Bible is from the New International Version, 2011.
O God who sustains, We honor the dead, our military warriors who gave their lives on our behalf, on Memorial Day. Help us to remember the living who knew them and loved them. Renew our energy that we may be alert when they need us to listen or when they ask us to help them. Comfort and strengthen them. Show them the path to peace. With some of them, Lord, it will be a more arduous trail to navigate. Give them hope and refresh their memories of love and laughter. Help them to know that others grieve with them, and thank them as our hearts are torn by imagining their grief. Show our world the path to peace and to justice. Give our leaders the courage to know when to fight and the wisdom to know when to negotiate. Thank you for our heroes who have fought for us. Protect and heal their survivors. In Jesus’ name, amen.