A war widow chooses to spend her day quietly instead of at the parades.
For one high-profile war widow (who, for this piece, prefers to remain anonymous), her feelings, activities, and thoughts about Memorial Day reflect a decade-long struggle to honor her spouse’s memory in a constructive way for herself and her daughter, whom her husband never met. “To tell you the truth . . . I don’t want to submerse myself in my feelings around Memorial Day. I spent years after my husband’s death immersed in loss and memorialization. I don’t want to go there again.” She points to the real memories of her husband as the only ones that hold any meaning now. “Well-meaning platitudes are kind but not memories. They have no essence of my husband.”
A Solo Mom with a newborn baby girl to raise, she initially embraced Memorial Day as a way for them to connect and remember: “I gathered for Memorial Day on the Hill—concerts, Rolling Thunder, Arlington visits, and weekend barbecues. It was exhausting and left me raw rather than rested.” As a result, this evolved into a more traditional Memorial Day celebration over time: hosting a backyard barbecue with her daughter.
Gathered with close friends, she points to the more intimate setting as being truer memorials of her husband and many other loved ones lost in war. In a tone of exhaustion, familiar to Solo Moms who are doing it all with little or no support, she says this year she will likely go to the retirement party of a dear friend on Memorial Day. It is clear that although she looks forward to seeing old friends, the stress of attending a ceremony she was never able to participate in with her husband will take a toll. “Many old friends will be there—an opportunity for sharing and celebrating them and their friendship but also a reminder of what will never be.”
Learning to help her daughter grieve has been a difficult path for this war widow. For the first time, she is going to let her daughter, now 10, attend a camp for children of the fallen. “She has wanted, for years, to gather with other children like herself, but I did not want to throw her into the bowels of grief exploration. . . .” She points to the everyday activities that her daughter will miss as a result of going to the grief camp, and she admits she is conflicted about her going but rationalizes that “still, it is probably wise to crack open the door.”
While acknowledging the universality of grief, she also points with disgust to a public that she feels is so deeply disconnected from the reality of its service members making the ultimate sacrifice. “It is amazing . . . that we have now been ‘at war’ for so many years, and there is still such a civilian detachment from the effort and sacrifice.”
Recently, a blogger wrote about the events surrounding her husband’s death, “It is always surprising to me to see the reactions from college buddies and new friends. While tender, it is revealing about the disconnect our country has from the ‘war’ and daily sacrifices of service members and families.”
She also points to “how truly ‘universal’ the human experience can be,” not just as a war widow grieving but as a Solo Mom. “Surely, as a single mother, you experienced those moments when your kids yearned for someone to care for you or help them help you.” Clearly, she struggles with balancing the need for a “normal life” with her daughter’s desire and need to grieve. And her daughter undoubtedly feels a need to connect with other children who’ve lost a parent to war in a society that is completely disconnected from her experience.
Her final remarks are indicative of the complete disconnect she speaks of when she points to how we need to change our typical hollow Memorial Day traditions to include real memories and actions to honor the families of the fallen: “Our nation can best memorialize our fallen by doing the right thing—funding and paying the service-earned Survivor Benefit Plan annuity to spouses without the offset of other benefits, and restoring benefits that were transferred to children in order to avoid these offsets. These benefits expire when the child reaches the age of majority rather than being paid for the lifetime of the spouse and are subject to alternative minimum taxation. And stop creating legalese loopholes, such as ‘killed in action’ versus ‘death in service.’”
Although she apologizes for these demands as they might seem like a “rant,” they are illustrative of the reality and complex labyrinth survivors must navigate to receive benefits after the death of their spouse and the tendency of the American public to be completely unaware of these issues. Her responses are thoughtful, and she is hesitant to make her experience exceptional, but she did have one final thought on Memorial Day that we all need to remember: “When all is said and done, our nation needs to keep its promises to our veterans and their families.”
It’s our duty to hold true to this all year, but Memorial Day is certainly a good place to start.
A fourth-generation Montanan, Andre Zollars is a former U.S. army major who has also held management positions in marketing with MCI and the Sacramento Bee. She now resides in Lewistown, Montana, with her husband, four kids, three dogs, a cat, and a horse. Andre has published in print and online publications, including USA Today Travel, Yahoo! News, Livestrong.com, Big Sky Journal, and more. You can connect with her on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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