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Memorial Day For Children: Helping Them Remember What We Hope They Never Know

Memorial Day is a patriotic American holiday which is unique among the others. It is the day that we remember all military members who have died while serving in the US armed forces. Memorial Day acknowledges a hard truth. How can we honor this without freaking out our children or being sooo serious? Here are my thoughts.

Independence Day (July 4) and Veteran's Day (Nov. 11) celebrate our national history and honor those who preserved our freedom in the past. Armed Forces Day, although not a federal holiday, offers thanks to those who are currently serving our country through military service. All of these dates remind us of who we are as a nation, and why we should continue to work toward becoming a better nation of better people.

But there is another day which we observe together. We honor on this day something that has impacted all the diverse factions of our population. It is Memorial Day. It reminds us of the price tag for maintaining a nation of people who are free to speak out against our leaders. A nation that is free to vote for new leaders on a regular basis. A nation for whom a peaceful transition between leaders is something we take for granted. These freedoms cost many young people their lives, and they went willingly into danger for these freedoms.

When powers rise up against powers the cost is steep and steeped in sorrow. Young people have been killed in wars since the beginning of human history. It is the primary indicator of the depth of the sin nature that it at the core of each soul. We are willing to kill each other. Actually take lives in order to gain something. Power, wealth, influence. The willingness to kill or die for such things is a puzzle to the vast majority of us. Especially when we realize how little is gained and how great is the cost. And yet wars continue across the earth and too many of our young are killed.

Memorial Day, which dates back to an idea proposed in 1869, was originally called Decoration Day. It was a day on which the graves of all those who died fighting in the Civil War were decorated with flowers. Later, the idea expanded to include those killed in all American wars, but placing flowers on graves remains the focus. Late May was chosen as the official date of Memorial Day so that flowers would be in bloom all across the nation.

How do you celebrate this day with your family? As the traditional kick off for the summer season. a cookout of hamburgers or hot dogs or other grilled meat is a staple as is camping or stuff like that. We certainly know how to throw a feast. We gather in yards and parks, on lakes and rivers, on beaches and mountainsides. We celebrate family, friends, and freedom. And most of us stop to remember why we are honoring this day. We stop for a moment of prayer or silence and we cast our minds to those who gave the "last full measure of devotion" as our 16th president Abraham Lincoln said. It is right that we do this.

How do we explain all this to the children? How do we talk about this sadness in such a way that our children can be made aware of the meaning without being freaked out? Children should be told about about their heritage. The history of their own family, their faith, and their national history are important narratives. Children have a great curiosity about these things and we, as the adults, should be faithful to satisfy that curiosity.

When we explain to our children about the people and events that came before them, we are including them in the greater story. Children love to know how and why they are connected to their community. This connectivity helps children feel secure and gives them the sense of belonging to the group. What a great way to grow up. Within a family. That sense of inclusion. The safety of being a loved member of a good community. We solidify this security in our children by telling them their history and heritage. We can tell them about this day.

There are ways to explain to children why we celebrate Memorial Day and what it means without dwelling on the frightening aspects of war or death. Children under five don't really have the capacity to understand death. But somewhere between the ages of 5-7, children begin to understand that death is permanent. People or pets who die do not ever come back. When they reach later elementary school age they begin to realize that death is inevitable. It is the last phase of the life cycle of all living things.

There are a couple of rules of thumb that I use when explaining hard things to children.

  1. Start simply. When explaining why we celebrate this weekend, begin with the name. Memorial Day. You might suggest that it is like a memory day; a day to remember that our country has fought in several wars and we are remembering the ones who died in those wars. For many, if not most, young children this is a sufficient explanation. Each year your child grows in wisdom and stature and you explain a bit deeper. But this simple explanation is enough for the little ones who are 8 or younger.

  2. Just answer the question then ask one or two. If your child begins to ask questions, answer the question that they ask. Don't get into big philosophic, political lectures. Just answer the question they ask. Then pause and wait for the next question. Or ask if there is anything else they want to know. Allow lots of room for organic conversation around the subject of war and the horrible consequences of it. Ask your older child open ended questions about why they think people have wars or what they believe God wants humans to do during times of war. Ask them what they think about war. If they say they are afraid of war, assure them that you are too. Spend time assuring children that wars in our country are only fought by grownups, not children. You can say that the vast majority of military people do things like office work or food service, or laundry, or computer stuff. Only a few fight in combat zones. Have the conversations that will offer assuring truth that can be digested easily.

Several years ago I was flying home from a visit with my Air Force son and his wife. At my first connection we stopped short of the gate and the pilot told us that we had the remains of a soldier killed in action in the cargo hold. His escort was onboard. He asked us all to remain seated so that those military personnel could perform the ceremonial duties surrounding their fallen comrade. We all stayed completely still and silent.

I couldn't stop the tears from pouring down my face. I watched as they saluted the flag draped casket and bore it away with profound dignity and care. I thought of the grieving mother. I thought of the children that would never be born. I thought of a world that must go on without this young man. I knew how easily it could have been my son or my step son (US Navy), both frequently deployed in combat zones, brought home in this way.

Memorial Day. I honor and revere this day and my heart is beyond full when I reach out in prayer and love to each Gold Star family. I will remember. I will not ever take for granted the freedom we have or your sacrifice. On behalf of a grateful nation, you are in our hearts.

Grace and peace to us all.

These links are for two books that I recommend to help explain military roles to children. I am not compensated in any way for sharing these.

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