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The Gift of Memorial Day

by Ava Weiss

There is something really powerful about the idea of a memorial day – a day dedicated to remembering loss. For me, it’s an opportunity to practice what I preach and allow myself to feel my feelings, even the messy and complicated ones.

When something causes us emotional pain – when we experience a loss, or a trauma – it’s an understandable response to want to turn away from it and push it out of our minds. This is avoidance – staying away from the things that hurt. And avoidance makes sense! We learn early on not to touch the hot stove, to back away from the edge of the steep cliff. So why wouldn’t we do the same thing with painful thoughts and emotions, and try to stay as far away from them as we possibly can?

The problem is, avoiding emotional pain doesn’t tend to work as well as it does with a hot stove. One issue is that the more we try to avoid certain thoughts or feelings, the more they tend to pop into our heads uninvited. And then we try to clamp down more or distract ourselves more intensely, and then the thoughts come back with even more of a vengeance – and before we know it, we’re waging an internal war against our own minds. It’s exhausting, and it doesn’t help us feel any better.

But another, bigger problem with avoidance is that it comes at a great cost. When I avoid the memories of my loved ones that have died, I’m not just avoiding pain – I’m also blocking out the feelings of love that I have for them and my memories of the richness of their lives. When I avoid places and situations that remind me of an upsetting experience, I’m shrinking my world down to a smaller and smaller territory. Avoidance robs us of the opportunity to learn that we are capable, that we can handle it, that there’s more to the story than just the worst paragraph in the most painful chapter. If we only avoid, we never get the chance to live, let alone to grow.

Memorials are special because they provide us with a reminder to approach the hard things, rather than avoiding them. On Memorial Day, the entire nation has a chance to remember and mourn those who have died in the service of their country. Doing this is painful and brings up lots of messy and complicated emotions, but it also offers something powerful: a sense of meaning, and the knowledge that we are not alone.

And you know what? It doesn’t have to be a federal holiday to let yourself feel your feelings. Next time you’ve got a moment when you’re safe and supported, give it a try.

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