“Gratitude is when memory is stored in the heart and not in the mind.”– Lionel Hampton
What we remember (or don’t) about our past can define our future. Today, our nation observes Memorial Day to collectively remember and honor those who perished serving their country. As the families of those men and women know only too well, our freedom comes at a cost, and we should hold it in the esteem that its high price demands.
The end of May is a difficult time for me. It is the time when, 11eleven years ago, one of my dearest friends took his life. It also marks the beginning of my journey to recovery that started nine years ago. It is not a coincidence that those two events occurred on almost the same date two years apart. The way I responded to and remembered the first contributed to the second.
Our bodies have memory. Even when we are unable or unwilling to remember with our minds, there are physical memories that impact us. Certain places, sounds, or smells can trigger feelings ranging from happiness and contentment to unease and sadness. Sometimes we can connect the dots. “That smell reminds me of my grandma’s kitchen.” “When storms come, I worry that we’re going to lose our house again.” Often though, we are not aware of the impact our physical memory is having on our present state.
In recovery, I have been blessed to have people in my life that help me process my thoughts and feelings about past events (both from long ago and from yesterday).
Before recovery, those memories created disturbances that controlled me and determined my present and future state. Being aware of the way certain places or particular dates will make me feel gives me the opportunity to honor those memories in healthy ways while choosing my response.
What we now observe as Memorial Day started as a tradition to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers after the Civil War. This is a way for a community to collectively process the memories of those lost and, at the same time, keep those memories alive. It is a way to acknowledge the pain and sadness together and to share the grief, so it is not too heavy.
Community has the power to amplify. When we celebrate together, it is more meaningful and memorable. Birthdays, holidays, weddings, graduations, and many other milestones are celebrated with others because it multiplies the joy we feel and creates shared memories. We also often share tragic events and come together to help carry the burden of grief, but not always.
Sometimes people are hurting, and they are alone. It could be the person working next to us, a friend, a relative, or even someone we just met waiting in line at the grocery. People all around us are carrying pain, confusion, grief, anger, loss, and dozens of other emotions caused by things they may not even realize. Those physical and mental memories and the emotions they create direct the present and future for them.
Our community can be a place of safety, comfort, and healing. Each of us can help another person if we know and remember some simple things we can do, and some we should not…
Do acknowledge and empathize. It is so natural to say, “How are you doing?” but that is a difficult and awkward question to answer. A simple acknowledgement of their pain and being present is more helpful. “I recently found out that your uncle passed away. I am so sorry.” There is no need to say much else. Being still gives the hurting person time to open up if they choose.
Do not make comparisons. Empathy is incredibly healing and validating. Sharing that you understand what they are going through from your own experience can be a way to share in their suffering. However, be careful not to make the moment about you. If we share too much or begin to compare our situation to theirs, we shift the focus from them to us.
Do reach out and remember. One of the difficulties of having an anniversary of a tragic time in your life is that other people quickly forget, but you do not. We remember birthdays and wedding anniversaries and tell people we are thinking of them on those days. We need to remember the sad things too and let people know we are there for them in those times. On Memorial Day, we join together as a community with those who lost loved ones to remember them, mourn them, and celebrate them. This is healthy and important. I want to be part of a community where people acknowledge the body of memories that impact us individually and collectively. I am grateful that I get to do life with people who share my joy and my pain. I am grateful for people who sit with me when I’m hurting and celebrate with me when I’m happy. I am grateful for a community of recovery because that is the road to a future filled with hope, and it is The Kimray Way.