05/26/2012 08:37 pm ET Updated Jul 26, 2012

Take Time to Make This Day a Memorial Day

Traditionally Memorial Day is to honor the memories of those we've lost, particularly those who sacrificed their lives in military service for our country. In contemporary practice, some visit cemeteries to plant flowers at graves, some attend memorial services with their religious community, but typically we celebrate this long weekend by opening swimming pools, firing up the barbecues for the season, or making a fashion change. Rabbi Steven Moskowitz learned this from his religious school students, as related in Hadassah Magazine, 2009:

One girl told the rabbi, "After Memorial Day, one can wear white." I had no idea what she was talking about. With complete unawareness of my social inadequacies, I asked, "What do you mean you can wear white?" The girls became excited and animated. Here was a chance to teach their rabbi about fashion etiquette. "After Memorial Day, you can wear white pants and carry a white pocketbook," one girl explained. "You can always wear a white shirt, but only after Memorial Day can you really wear white." I was dumbfounded. I looked to the [women] ... teachers for help. "Yes," they nodded to me. "It is true. After Memorial Day, you can wear white. But only until Labor Day." "Why?" I asked. One girl attempted to answer me. "You just don't." They all looked at each other and nodded. I was still perplexed. They were still certain.

As a society, we're seduced from our values by speed, instant communication around the globe and ever-more-dramatic distractions. We're so busy doing -- persuaded that what we do will give us meaning. If we stop long enough to take a breath, which is the opportunity of a holi-day (holy day), we realize that what we really yearn for is relationship, real intimacy that tethers us to earth and to each other.

Our deepest bonds and fondest memories may be bound up with those who are no longer living. Intimate connections are not limited to life.

In a program I recently led, I invited participants to write a legacy letter to someone to make an amend or express a regret. After the workshop, a rather troubled-looking young woman approached me to say that she thought she'd "done it wrong." I assured her that every legacy letter is unique and there is no way to write it wrong. Did she want to share what she'd written? She explained: She'd written to apologize to her father. I felt confused; what was wrong? She continued, clarifying that in fact her father was dead. I said, "No problem; now you know that relationships and love don't end with death." She looked relieved... and then before she walked off, she reflected that she felt really good about what she'd written, and believed she couldn't have told her father while he was alive.

This experience reinforced my understanding that relationships don't end with death -- that healing and transformation can happen when we simply stop, recall, reflect, and reclaim our memories, honoring those no longer here in the flesh.

One more thing before we get practical with some ideas for legacy writing to transform your weekend into a holi-day.

Many years ago my former husband and I went to a professional dinner; we were seated with a couple we didn't know. As soon as we introduced ourselves, the men began to talk business, and I guess we did too. We began a conversation about our children. I no longer recall why, but she told me that she'd lost a child in his first few weeks of life. I murmured some appropriate words of condolence, and then I asked her what his name was. She began to cry, hesitated, and through her tears spoke his name: Alexander. She went on, still crying, to explain that she'd not said his name aloud since he'd been buried 15 years earlier. She thanked me for asking, and giving her the opportunity to speak aloud the name of this beloved and lost baby, rarely spoken of, and never named.

The very first legacy we receive at birth are our names. I quote here from chapter one "What's in a Name?" in my own book, Women's Lives, Women's Legacies:

Most of us take our names for granted, never fully exploring this essential part of our identity.

Your name connects you to your family and ethnic group, to your heritage. It marks the place in the world where you belong... Your name connects you to the past. It speaks of memory, legacy, and immortality, of a special relationship with the person for whom you were named.

From a legacy perspective, Memorial Day gives us an annual opportunity to make the secular sacred, to name, remember, communicate with, and preserve memories of family members and loved ones now gone.

Some suggestions/action steps:

1. Choose someone who's died who you want to remember today. He or she may be a war veteran (Afghanistan, Iraq, Gulf, Vietnam, Korea, WWII or earlier) or your parent or grandparent, a partner, a child. Choose someone whose memory you want to honor, someone who you cared about or loved, someone who was special in your life, someone who left legacies especially for you, perhaps someone for whom you were named.

2. With your favorite pen and paper, write the person's name and today's date at the top of your paper.

3. Take a few minutes to focus your thoughts on the person you chose: reflect, remember, recall jotting notes as you do.

4. Next: Take no more than 15 minutes to write a letter to the person or your recollections about the person to capture and preserve your memories.

5. Consider sharing what you write with family or others who knew this person, perhaps making it part of the weekend's barbecue. Or consider inviting those at the pool party to share memories of or a legacy from a family member who has died. It may be the beginning of a new family tradition, a deepening of relationships with those in the conversation, or a legacy book to preserve memories that can be read again and again, added to each year. Take time to make this day a Memorial Day.

"May your Memorial Day be filled with the riches of memory as you remember your loved ones." -- Rachael Freed

You can find out more about communicating and preserving your legacy (ethical will) at or through e-mail,

Rachael Freed has published: Women's Lives, Women's Legacies, Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations, The Women's Legacies Workbook for the Busy Woman, and Heartmates: A Guide for the Spouse and Family of the Heart Patient. She is currently working on Your Legacy Matters: An Intergenerational Legacy Guide to be published early 2013. Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, Rachael is a clinical social worker, adult educator and legacy consultant. Her home is Minneapolis, Minnesota. For more information, visit and Follow her on Twitter:

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