EDITOR’S NOTE: When this article was published in 2020, U.S. deaths from Covid-19 numbered just over 90,000. As of late May 2021, more than 585,000 Americans have died from Covid-related causes. That’s more than all the American combat deaths since the end of the Civil War.
How do we wrestle with grieving this Memorial Day?
How do we honor soldiers who have died in service to our country and deal with the weight of the 90,000 American lives taken by Covid-19? Black and white statistics rolling across our news feeds instead of their names and faces?
Growing up in a small town, I didn’t understand Memorial Day until I came home from the Iraq War as a veteran. Taking my young sons to the sunrise Memorial Day service at my local cemetery was the first memorial service I ever attended in my life. I grew up the daughter of two veterans, and I’d never been shown how to observe Memorial Day beyond the flags, bumper stickers, barbeques and patriotic beliefs.
Holding my toddler son’s hand while sitting on the cold, metal folding chair, I noticed for the first time the slow quiet tears of the families around me. Tears rolling down weathered, crinkly cheeks under a crown of gray hair. The white crosses behind the speaker were personal for them. Punctuating their grief, the burnt smell of gunpowder hung in morning air after the 21-gun salute around us. It was the first time I noticed all the family members who were left behind.
Memorial Day taught me something else that day.
The way to honor those soldiers who have died is to acknowledge the living they leave behind.
Honor the Fallen, Heal the Wounded, Work for Peace
We can honor the dead by caring for those who are wounded by the loss of a loved one. We can work for their healing. We can work for peace so there will be fewer grieving mothers and fathers and sons and daughters gathered around the cemetery next year.
How do we mourn this Memorial Day and acknowledge that more Americans have died in the past 90 days from Covid-19 than soldiers died in the entire nine years of the Vietnam War?
This tidal wave of death is capsizing our communities. Its grief is rippling far and wide into living rooms, classrooms, churches and hospitals. Its magnitude doesn’t even have a scale for us to compare it. We can honor the fallen this Memorial Day and acknowledge the hurricane of loss that pummeled and devastated our fellow Americans in the past 90 days.
We can do both.
VIDEO: Diana Oestreich speaks at the 2018 Rural Assembly in Durham, North Carolina.
We can choose to honor the families of fallen soldiers and the families of those killed by Covid-19. We acknowledge them both, because we are One Nation.
“E Pluribus Unum” is engraved across the seal of our country and etched into our foundation. It means “One, out of Many”. We are One People. One Country. Created by each township, each county, each city, knitting themselves together into a state. When states link arms with each other in brotherhood, they become something greater than themselves. We become the United States of America. We are One, out of Many.
Maybe where we live hasn’t been devastated by Covid-19 the way New York City, Seattle, Detroit or Chicago have. If our communities aren’t burying their own dead, then we have the chance to lend our strength to those who are overwhelmed with loss this Memorial Day and show them that we are One People. One Nation. 9/11 directly involved four airplanes that struck three locations, but that didn’t stop every single state from carrying the grief and pain of the loss as their own.
This Memorial Day we can honor fallen soldiers across our country from Albuquerque, to Austin, from Tallahassee to Trenton. This Memorial Day we can mourn those killed by Covid-19 from Baton Rouge to Boise, from Sioux Falls to Santa Fe, from Seattle to New York, from New Orleans to Detroit.
What Can Memorial Day Teach Us?
Memorial Day can teach us how to grieve as a nation.
Here’s what we can do. Make a public place a memorial to honor our nation’s Covid-19 losses. Decorate a public bench, tie a ribbon, or lay flowers at the base of a tree to show up and mourn with those who are grieving the loss of their family members. Place a white cross to remember all those soldiers past and present who have died in service to our country.
Make it personal instead of a hashtag. Make your hometown a Memorial Day celebration. We can show up as many people, spread across the country from the redwood forests, to the prairies of the Midwest to the rural sweeping South to the shores of the Eastern Seaboard to memorialize our soldiers and our citizens. Seeing small towns across the country dotted with signs of hope and support will heal those families who are left behind. They will know they are not alone. Just like the grieving families I noticed at my first Memorial Day service.
We need to express love loudly this weekend. When you decorate your yard, a park bench or the courthouse steps with flowers, signs and a white cross, you are showing your children how to celebrate Memorial Day. You are teaching them how to show up for their neighbors and be part of our country’s story that is bigger than themselves. Carrying our country’s grief and embracing our national story is what builds up resilient and strong communities — communities that know the pain of loss and carry the power of hope into the future.
We are indivisible when we show up together.
Diana K. Oestreich was an Army medic in the Iraq War.