Today is Memorial Day. I want to start by saying thank you to all of the people who have served our country, to their families who have sacrificed so much, and to everyone who has lost someone who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. The words “thank you” feel inadequate to express sincere gratitude for the selfless courage in choosing to protect our country and our freedoms.
I knew that I was scheduled to write a blog post today and at first I was resistant to discussing Memorial Day. As a benefactor to the sacrifice that others have made, I felt inadequate to share my perspective on this holiday. I didn’t want to take the stage away from those who have served or those who are grieving for heroes lost. However, many of us do fall into this “outsider” category and it can be easier, or at least more comfortable, to focus on BBQs and long weekends than to discuss the meaning behind the holiday. Because of this, I wanted to provide a post as someone who falls into the benefactor category. This led me to reflect on my first visit to Arlington Cemetery in Washington, DC.
For my experience during that visit to make sense, I should mention that I have big emotions. I feel ALL the emotions, good and bad, with surprising intensity. When something makes me happy, I can feel it throughout my entire body; it runs through my veins and bubbles out in uncontainable smiles and laughter. I have been known to squeeze my kids a little too hard for what appears to be no reason when they do something minor that fills my body with gratitude. Sometimes, my kids unexpectedly saying, “I love you, mom!” is enough to make me tear up. Honestly, my emotions can be a bit “extra” (a word my middle school students often use to describe me).
The flip side to these intensely happy emotions is their opposite: intensely sad emotions. People often talk about pregnancy hormones and how movies or commercials will make them cry. I think to myself, “Yeah, just like every other day of my life.” The intensity of sad emotions can impact me for hours, sometimes for an entire day or longer. Because of this, I have had to put down really good books, never to be picked up again, because the heart-breaking story line kept me up at night in tears. I stopped watching emotional TV shows or movies where fictional people are hurting because of tragic circumstances. I stopped listening to certain music, filtered my podcasts, and limited certain aspects of social media. I have a long list of things that I do to avoid being perpetually overpowered by feelings of anguish and extreme sadness.
This does not mean that I avoid my emotions (that would be impossible due to the sheer number of emotions I feel). I do allow myself to lean in and feel even the deepest moments of grief and sadness when it is caused by something real. I made the decision awhile ago to not allow my days to be hijacked by sadness caused by fiction, such as the examples listed above. However, it feels as if I am not fully living when I protect my heart from the emotions caused by situations which happened, and continue to happen in real life, in the real world.
Which brings me back to my visit to Arlington Cemetery. Before I visited, I was confronted with a choice: guard my heart from the intensity of big emotions in order to intellectually take in the history, honor, and somber beauty of the place, or allow myself to feel all of it. To lean into the heaviness, the grief, the emotions attached to the uncountable rows of tombstones shadowed by the flag which the people buried died for. I chose to feel. To feel the weight of freedom. To recognize that each name was a person who lived, loved, and was loved. Each grave represented a family who was left with an unfillable hole of loss and grief. I felt this while I was there and I continued to feel it later when I was alone, visions of all of the loss kept finding me. It was intense, but it was real.
The difficult thing for me about big emotions is that emotions (especially sad) can often be paralyzing, almost as if they want me to get stuck in despair. However, I honestly believe that living forever in sadness should not be the end goal of allowing the real emotions in. Instead, I have found there is power in channeling emotions into action.
Some people are exceptional at this and their action looks big! Like, save the world, organize a movement, create lasting change, big. I feel the big emotions, but I haven’t found my big response yet. However, I have found smaller steps to take forward, to move rather than be paralyzed by emotion. The night after my visit to Arlington Cemetery, as I laid in bed thinking through the heaviness of grief that I imagined so many people feeling, I made a plan to remember. To remember the sacrifice that so many people made for this country. By doing this, allowing the intensity of the emotions to create a reminder in my heart for our veterans, I found my action through gratitude. Giving thanks to all our veterans, to their families, and to the people they left behind. Not only on Memorial Day, but every day that an opportunity presents itself to share gratitude for our freedoms.
To all of the families that are moving through today with hearts full of grief, I am sending extra love to you, with a heavy heart full of big emotion, and with never ending gratitude.
Author: Jessica is a wife, mom, school social worker, and aspiring writer. She is co-author of the blog The Unexpected Ever Afters.
*photo credit: personal photo from Arlington Cemetery, Washington, D.C., layered with the American Flag