My brother used Grandpa’s old tiller to work in his garden this week and it was Memorial Day, and that made me think about memories, legacies and forgiveness. My grandfather served in World War II, but he made it home. I’m not even sure what he did there or where he was, because he didn’t want to talk about those days. If he did, they tended to be stories about the three-day long train and bus trips he’d take cross-country to be with my grandmother for less than a day. My brother has that tiller and some tools of his. I have a high chair and some other items Grandpa built in his old tool shed turned workshop, but on days like Memorial and Veterans’ Day, I wish anew that I had pushed him a bit more to tell HIS story from the war. I wish I had done so not only for my own edification, but also because telling stories is one of the best ways to close chapters in our lives, especially painful ones. Telling stories does some of the legacy work we need to have the most peaceful end-of-life journey.
Grandpa’s generation was not the first and not the last to come home from war and be expected to step back into their old lives, to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get back out there in world and keep the wheels, mostly the capitalistic ones, turning. Grandpa built a house, had kids, served as an elder in his church and retired from GE. He gardened and fished and tinkered in his woodshed. He gave hearty hugs to all, and sloppy, scratchy kisses on his grandkids’ cheeks every time he saw us. He loved University of Kentucky sports, his wife and kids. You can probably say the same about your grandfathers or dads.
Future generations of soldiers came home even more tight-lipped but also unmoored, less able to participate in those daily activities due to cultural, societal and economic changes. The kids that had been raised by my Grandpa’s generation had become increasingly disillusioned with their government, society culture and the status quo. Today, their grandkids espouse their love and respect for the U.S. soldier, but fewer and fewer truly believe in the causes and conflicts for which these men and women fight, are wounded, traumatized and die. Many people smarter and more active in current veteran affairs have written about the current state of veterans in this country: trauma, mental illness, suicide, addiction, homelessness and hopelessness. Suffice it to say here, veterans of every stripe need to be able to speak of their experiences to someone who will not judge them, especially at the end of life.
In an ideal end-of-life journey, a person who is dying has the time and resources to spend time reflecting and ruminating on his or her’s life’s meaning and purpose. After the shock of being confronted with the shortening of the number of days on one’s life’s calendar, people can hopefully move into a stabilization phase where they attain some peace and acceptance and can do the work they need to leave a legacy for those left behind. As and end-of-life doula, I can steer you to resources and organizations that help people create legacies whether audio or visual recordings, pictures and letter writing, and self-written eulogies and obituaries. These things are important and fulfilling and can help people who are dying wrest some control over their lives and how they want to be remembered, but important spiritual and emotional work needs to be happening as well. And the simplest but most profound way to facilitate that work is forgiveness.
Before the pandemic, I used to spend an hour or so a week visiting with an 101-year-old man in an assisted living facility. I spent this time sitting by his chair and listening. The stories he told most often were those of his time as a soldier in Europe in World War II. He would tell me stories of the men he served with, of the places where he spent his time, of the scrapes he got into and how lucky he was to only lose a finger and gain some shrapnel in a leg. He’d tell me stories about being raised on a farm in North Carolina and how he was a favorite of his Dad’s, who was strict and authoritarian, how he wanted to be a soldier and was better at than his brothers and a lot of others were. And while he also told tales about his time as a pugilist and basketball player, the amount of time he spent telling me these particular war stories clearly indicated that these were the times that were most formative for him, most important. He needed to develop trust in my relationship with him so he could tell me that he was often mean to his brothers and his dad and the soldiers who were under him, to express the ways he had survivors’ guilt not in those direct words, but in the stories he told about the soldiers who served with him who didn’t make it home with one additional piece of detritus and one less finger on his body. While we did not spend enough time together for him to disclose deep, detailed information, I’m nonetheless convinced that him telling those stories helped him access some of those more painful memories that he needed to air out in the light of day.
Training materials and books I have read as an end-of-life doula repeat the importance of letting the dying tell stories to make peace with their lives, especially veterans of “unpopular” wars. Vietnam veterans, and veterans who have fought in conflicts since 9/11 in particular, need closure. Many of them were commanded to do things that we non-soldiers would never comprehend. These soldiers had to kill people and watched people die. It doesn’t matter what you think about the military-industrialization complex, your government or the rightness or wrongness of any of these conflicts, unless you are sociopathic, killing someone and/or seeing someone killed creates a spiritual wound, the depth of which cannot easily be overcome. It leaves a mark that is ugly, horrific and painful. Many of our veterans try to run from it, wall it away, ignore and deny it. But the pain and the mark is there, coloring every single minute of every single day they have remaining.
The emotional, mental and spiritual pain that infests so many of our veterans who come home and spend their days trying to escape it can be most easily defined as guilt – for things they have had to do or for surviving when so many others did not. Going back to address that wound is scary and incredibly difficult. All of us need a non-judgmental presence to hold our hand, to be with us when we must excavate these dark caverns of the soul, especially veterans and especially at end of life. There are hospice volunteers and end-of-life doulas who are themselves retired military, who specialize and step forward to be these presences in a difficult time for our veterans. But all of us who care can be that presence for someone we love. Reach out to a veteran you know. Let them know you want to know their story. Let them know they have a legacy, a meaning and an importance in life that has nothing to do with their status as a veteran. Emphasize their life as a civilian, a son, daughter, sibling, an important link in the chain of humanity that unites us all.
If you have a loved-one who has come home from conflict and has hurt you in any way, – inattention, coldness, abuse, anger – forgive them for it. And tell them you forgive them for it. If you are unable to be a judgement-fee presence, encourage them to reach out to someone who can. Or encourage them to write down their experience then do something ceremonial and sacred to commemorate it. Burn it. Bury it in a time capsule. Mail it to themselves.
Carrying the weight of guilt and shame onto our deathbeds is perhaps the most challenging threshold we must cross to have a “good” death. Forgiveness is the key to leaving a legacy of which we can be proud and at peace. At the end of the day, not a single one of us is perfect. We’ve all made mistakes and done misdeeds, large and small; mistakes and misdeeds that have hurt others and ourselves; mistakes and misdeeds that others have done that hurt us and those we love. We all will also reach a point in our lives when we will be called to remember and reckon with those mistakes.
If dying teaches us one thing, it is how we should live, which means we should not have to be facing those times of recall and reckoning at the end of our days. We need to be examining how we have affected others and asking for their forgiveness today. And most importantly, we need to be working on forgiving ourselves each and every day. You matter. You have value. You are worthy.