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How to honor a fallen service member’s life this Memorial Day

Amid the backyard barbecues and price-slashing sales, thousands across the country are remembering their loved ones

Memorial Day Mississippi

It’s not easy being somber on Memorial Day, as the rest of the country — untouched by war and loss — celebrates a day off work, and it can make remembering a loved one even more difficult.

Rogelio V. Solis/AP

It’s the scent of summer and the aroma of steaks on the grill that fill the air at the end of May, when everyone spends a long, lazy, three-day weekend with friends, relishing in the longer days. Memorial Day is the unofficial start to summer and a highly anticipated federal holiday.

Except that it’s not a holiday, and all over America, millions of families are staring at a shadow box of a folded flag that holds more meaning than they ever thought a simple triangle could. On that last Monday in May, what was once a celebration for them, too, with pool parties and cookouts, is now a reminder that someone they love is gone.

It’s not easy being somber on Memorial Day, as the rest of the country — untouched by war and loss — celebrates a day off work, and it can make remembering a loved one even more difficult.

But, it’s necessary.

There are so many poignant and beautiful ways to remember and honor a fallen service member’s memory, and despite the way the rest of the country views it, Memorial Day was created especially for that reason.

Donate or volunteer for a cause that was important to them

They may be gone, but their legacy doesn’t have to end. Reach out to an organization and make a memorial donation in their name to a charity or organization that they held close when they were alive. Even if you didn’t know of any personal charities they supported, consider a donation to veterans’ organizations that help wounded warriors when they return home, or military children who have lost a parent. A donation in their memory is a beautiful tribute to their service.

Write them a letter

The distance felt after the death of someone close can make it hard to gain closure, or to move on from grief. The intimate nature of writing a letter breaks through the distance caused by pain or shock and provides a way to release those emotions by putting into words what their death means for those left behind. Afterwards, the letter can be left at a gravesite, under an urn, or in another special place. The letter can also become a tradition each year, which will help keep their memory alive.

Talk about them

Their life and legacy matter, so don’t let them fade. Remember every good thing about them and talk about them often. Laugh about the humorous times and let yourself be sad, or even angry about the not-so-good times. They were a person, not a saint, so keep their memories human. Don’t let them fade from people’s memories, because their courage and self-sacrifice are important.

Fly the American flag high

Memorial Day is meant to honor those who died while serving in the U.S. military in defense of America. Their sacrifice should never be partisan, should never be controversial and never politicized. When the American flag is ceremoniously removed from a casket, folded and handed to a service member’s family, it takes on an entirely different and deeper meaning. It is a symbol of their loss, but also of love; love of country, love of family and love of duty.

Remember the fallen this Memorial Day. Raise a glass, fly the flag and take a moment to remember those families who are starting at an empty chair at their backyard barbecue.

Memorial Day has a specific purpose, and maintaining that purpose is important

This article, originally published on May 26, 2017, has been updated.

Rachel Engel is an award-winning journalist and the senior editor of and In addition to her regular editing duties, Engel seeks to tell the heroic, human stories of first responders and the importance of their work. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from Cameron University in Lawton, Oklahoma, and began her career as a freelance writer, focusing on government and military issues. Engel joined Lexipol in 2015 and has since reported on issues related to public safety. Engel lives in Wichita, Kansas. She can be reached via email.