➣ Memorial Services for Veterans: Facilitate Healing
by Deborah Grassman
Ritualized formats that incorporate the three stages (separation, transition, integration) of change can provide effective bereavement care for Veterans’ families. Community Veteran Memorial services, Memorial Day programs, and Veterans Day services are just a few of the opportunities that agencies have to develop services that support the needs of Veterans’ families. The following are an example:
by Deborah Grassman
Consider offering a communal service designed specifically for families of veterans. Décor can be militarized and patriotic music played. The printed program cover might display military symbols. Posting of the colors, pledge of allegiance, singing the Star-Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful can enhance the military milieu.
Separation Stage of Ceremony: This portion of the service should acknowledge the problem: the death of the veteran and the family’s pain with the loss.
The Ceremony Host might:
• Acknowledge the sacrifice of military service that their loved one made
• Acknowledge the sacrifice that family members may have made
• Acknowledge the role that stoicism may have had on the dying/grief experience.
• Acknowledge the pain that families are currently experiencing with the loss of their veteran
Next: Read the names, but first prepare the audience. The goal is to take them into their pain, not away from it or gloss it over: “In a few moments, your loved one’s name is going to be read while you stand to honor him or her. This may be painful for you. You might feel a lump in your throat. Don’t shove it back down. Instead, let it come out in tears. This is a sad time in the life of your family. Everyone around you also feels sad. Your grief is safe here. We are here to hold your grief with you.” Then, dim the lights. Formally and with a slight staccato style, read each veteran’s name; have their family stand; thank them for their veteran’s military service; light a candle.
(An effective way to provide the candle lighting is to have a stair-cased platform made of 2x4s and painted a dark color. Position tea-lights in such a way that the word “Hope” is spelled out. Have the candles draped before the service so that it is hidden from participants’ view. Four candle lighters can stand before each letter and the drape removed after the room is dimmed so that participants’ view remains blocked during the candle lighting. After the last name is read, THEN the candle-lighters step aside to reveal the word “Hope” ablaze. This always draws a collective gasp from the audience. See picture below)
Pat then shows how hope can be restored. (Before the service starts, she gave some people who agreed to help her out, a soft flannel swatch around cotton stuffing. Each swatch has a piece of advice about how to do the work of grief recovery. She instructs them to bring these forward when she asks with the words: “I can help”!) Now, she invites them forward with a “Who can help with this broken heart that’s turned inside out?” One by one, people jump up saying, “I can help!” They bring forth tips that help as well as things that don’t. The advice that can help is written on the soft flannel; the advice that doesn’t help is on large plastic cards that won’t fit into the heart.
By the end, the heart is re-stuffed and looks reasonably heart-like: “It doesn’t look quite the same and the stuffings are different, but it’s capable of beating again.”
Integration Stage of the Ritual:
This part of the ceremony should focus on integrating the pain that was brought out into the open. This can be done in several ways:
• Sharing with the person sitting next to them one helpful thing they learned today
• Coming forward to retrieve the candle lit for their Veteran
• Participants reminded to take bereavement literature, attend a support group, speak with staff in attendance, make a private appointment with a bereavement counselor or whatever else they may want to do to take responsibility for their recovery.
A closing song, blessing, retrieval of the flag concludes the service.
Memorial Day Program
by Deborah Grassman
Memorial Day is an opportune time to facilitate grief recovery with Veteran families. National Cemeteries usually have services on their property. You might coordinate a bereavement program to be held after the cemetery service is over. The program can focus on the specific ways to recover from their loss. Sending out invitations to Veterans’ families to attend both the Cemetery and the bereavement programs can help assure that bereavement needs are being met.
A program that I’ve participated in includes a picnic which allows interaction among grieving families of Veterans. The picnic follows a bereavement program held under the trees of the park. We bring the “Old Rugged Path” out from the hallway to hang from a branch of a large oak tree. The “Old Rugged Path” is a ten foot long path with captioned graphic figures along its way.
I then talk about the relationship between grief and depression and the importance of getting depression treated. I then ask the audience if any of them can relate to Dan’s story. Many do, and are willing to share their experience, which encourages self-reflection for everyone else.
I share my story of grief after my father died. Marie shares her story of coming back from Vietnam and the losses she felt. Sheila talks about her faith journey surrounding her agnostic quest. Shaku speaks about the estrangement she had with her son. All stories are different, yet all connect. After each person speaks, I briefly explain the bereavement principle surrounding the issue and go into the audience to solicit stories. The vulnerability of each staff person easily gathers them!