Unless you have lost a loved one in combat or to complications from an injury, remembering what Memorial Day actually means is something that many people tend to forget. Originally known as Decoration Day, this observance began after the Civil War to honor the Union and Confederate dead. It wasn’t until 1967 that President Richard Nixon made it an official holiday renaming it Memorial Day, and declaring that it be honored on the last Monday of every May.
Many Americans celebrate Memorial Day by having a barbecue or family picnic and, for the most part, they really treat the day like another Independence Day by flying their flags and eating burgers. But how does this honor the dead? Memorial Day was not reserved to celebrate America but instead to pay tribute to those who sacrificed their lives in the name of freedom and democracy. Finding a way for adults to truly honor this day is a challenge, but getting creative and using the right approach to teach your kids about Memorial Day can be a whole other challenge unto its self!
Start with a Conversation with your Child
Start out by giving your kids a brief history lesson on the origins of Memorial Day at a level they will understand, and you can even show pictures from the Civil War if they are of an appropriate age and maturity level. Then tell them what Memorial Day means to you, and if you can share a personal story that correlates with your message it will provide a path for your children to form a better emotional connection with Memorial Day, which might otherwise be interpreted by them as a concept or something people honor out of habit.
Pick a Theme for the Day
When celebrating Memorial Day with your kids, start by picking a theme and use it as a springboard for the activities you perform. For example, the theme of sacrifice is both an obvious and practical one. You can start by asking your kids what they would normally do if they were home from school on an average day. They might respond by saying skateboarding, watching a movie, or playing Lego. Then explain how making the small sacrifice of giving up play-time to do something nice for Veterans and loved ones of fallen is an ideal way to observe Memorial Day. Here are some ideas.
Baking and Crafting Activities for Veterans
One way you can spend quality time with your kids and do something for Veterans and the loved ones of fallen soldiers is to make cookies and a card. These can be taken to your local VA Hospital, or to an American Legion—a social club gathering spot for Veterans. You can also contact Operation We Are Here and inquire as to where you can send thank you / condolence cards. For example, there is a Non-Profit on Facebook called Friends of Gold Star Wives—an organization supporting widows whose spouses died while on active duty or who passed away from injuries received on active duty. You can request the address right off their page, and send some heart-warming cards. There may also be a support group in your city for the families of fallen warriors that welcomes visitors. You can inquire at the nearest VA Hospital, or perform a simple Google search to find one.
Reach Out with A Card
The most cost-effective way to make a batch of 100 cards is to perform some smart shopping. Rather than buy expensive card stock from a big office supply store, you can generally save more than 20 percent off card stock from local printers. Some even have older card stock they sell for dirt-cheap, and there is nothing wrong with it.
You will also need full ink cartridges or toner. 1ink.com is a discount online ink cartridge company that sells high-quality remanufactured inkjets and laser toner for up to 85% off. These cartridges offer OEM performance and the same page yield as the big brand versions. You might even qualify for free shipping.
Next you will want to pick two templates or designs. There are a number of companies offering free downloadable greeting card templates, like American Greetings where you can browse a large selection for an ideal design. If you are savvy with PhotoShop, or a number of other programs, you could even opt to make your own.
Send A Thoughtful Card
Creating a patriotic theme is acceptable. Something showing the American flag, a saluting soldier, or even a Naval craft cresting through the waves is appropriate. You also have the option to appeal to the emotional side of the Veteran—create a card showing a sleeping child safe and sound in his bed, with a message that says, “Thanks to Veterans Like You, Kids Like me have a Safe Place to Sleep. Thank You”.
Cards for Widows of Soldiers
For these cards we suggest straying away from overly patriotic imagery and instead focus on a hybrid message of gratitude and sympathy with a streak of patriotism. You could write a message like this one:
"You have our deepest sympathy on your loss. Your son made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of his country. He is our hero."
A message like this one immediately addresses sympathy, offers some semblance of peace in that he died for a noble cause (fighting for America and democracy everywhere), and concludes by making him quasi-immortal by stating he is someone’s hero. It is nice for those grieving to know they are being thought of, and that people care about them.
Organize a Toy Drive
Spouses aren’t the only people left hurting when a soldier has been killed; often small children are left fatherless and these kids need to feel loved. You can contact FallenPatriots.org—an organization that raises funds for the children of soldiers killed in action to attend college, receive counselling, and other forms of support. Ask them where you can drop off donations. You would be surprised, but sometimes just receiving a new toy can make a kid’s day and help him feel loved.
It is wise to start advertising the toy drive a month before you actually head out to attempt collections. Create a colorful flier that clearly states:
Visit a Military Cemetery
At some point kids learn about death. It is up to the parent’s discretion as to when this subject should be addressed. Often the loss of a beloved pet forces the issue sooner than later. If your kids are of the age where you feel the subject is an appropriate one, taking them to a military cemetery on Memorial Day may be an ideal way to carefully introduce the subject of life and death. Regardless of your spiritual or religious beliefs (or lack of them) you will be able to take your ideologies and share them with your child within the context of a place where brave men and women gave their lives to defend democracy.
What if you see someone grieving at a grave? It might be appropriate (use your best judgement) to pat the person on the shoulder and offer your condolences. Walk around the plots with your child and read the markers, say the names out loud, and tell your kids what branch the soldier served in. Then follow through by stating why that person’s job mattered. For example, if a marker says “Air Force”. you can say, “These people risk their lives rescuing others and dropping food and water into dangerous areas where children are hungry and thirsty. Perhaps this man helped children and saved soldier’s lives too”.
Spend Some Time Reflecting
When evening comes ask your children what the day meant to them. Ask them what their favorite part of the day was, and invite them to ask questions. Taking a day out of the year to honor the fallen by doing a good deed for those left behind is a good way for families to bond, and make a difference in another person’s life.