Celebrating the Holidays When Your Soldier is Gone

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Army photo / Sgt. Ruth Pagan

Soldiers carry duffel bags full of cookies, candy and holiday cheer to comrades at a remote base in Afghanistan last Dec. 25.

The holiday season is officially upon us. Thanksgiving is a past glance over our shoulder and Christmas is just around the corner. With an estimated 68,000 troops still deployed in Afghanistan, their family traditions will be celebrated through cyberspace or put on an official rain-check.

For the families of fallen soldiers, the holidays will require a drastic shift from much of what is familiar. The faces of the fallen number an estimated 6,612 and many of them have children left behind, and that doesn’t include those military parents lost to suicide.

One thing is clear, no matter what the cause of death—losing a loved one leaves an indelible mark on those left behind. Children experience grief just like adults, though they may lack the vocabulary to express their emotions in words. Confusion, frustration, fear, anger, and sadness, all show face during the experience of losing a loved one.

It’s not uncommon for family members to experience those emotions differently from one another. What one member is feeling, may at times, be opposite of another. It’s even okay to feel happy while navigating through a loss. Reflecting on good memories can bring strength and hope to adults and children alike.

Some families opt to spend their first Christmas away from home, while others may build new traditions alongside old ones. It may be that trying to maintain old traditions is simply too painful. Life won’t ever be the same for those children who have lost their mom or dad to war. Attending ceremonies that honor the fallen, such as Wreaths Across America, help children and spouses left behind to see that they’re not alone.

Forgetting, over time, is normal. For children who have lost a parent that can be quite unsettling. Sharing photographs and videos from time to time, especially during the holidays, can help keep memories of a parent’s features and voice fresh. Stringing up the Christmas lights up “just like Dad did” might stir up funny stories about his quirks.

Revisiting memories may result in seeing those faces of grief again. If a child loses a parent in elementary school, he or she may feel the loss again when transitioning to high school or college. Through understanding, learning and helping one another, families can emerge resilient.

When a child loses a military parent, from the war afar or from the war within, the measure of honor should be the same. Doing so does not glorify suicide; it recognizes the tragic loss that comes from it.

Thankfully, seminars and camps have been developed to help the loved ones of fallen soldiers. The season to honor a fallen hero’s children goes well beyond a month on the calendar. I hope and pray that community members, unit commanders, chaplains, and comrades will reach out to the families of all our fallen heroes.

Maryann Makekau is an Air Force veteran, spouse of a retired member, and mother of two grown military children. She’s also a children’s author and founder of Hope Matters.