Memorial Day brings a mix of emotions

Author: Rachael Hill

Memorial Day used to be simply a three-day weekend that our family spent doing some kind of adventure — camping, 4-wheeling, barbecuing, etc. Since becoming a Gold Star family however, the meaning of the day has changed dramatically.  The true meaning of the day is now etched into our minds and brings with it sorrow and tears, but also pride in remembrance. 

Rachael and Jeffrey Hill

Rachael and Jeffrey Hill and boys in cockpit

Since my husband Jeff’s death, my boys and I now spend every Memorial Day weekend at the TAPS National Seminar in Washington, D.C., and during the weekend we take a number of trips to Arlington National Cemetery.  The tributes to the fallen and displays of patriotism are a beautiful sight to see.  What fascinates me is the vast difference in how some friends and family choose to celebrate the day and remember the fallen comrades.  For some, it is packing a picnic and staying at the cemetery all day, or even all weekend.  For others, visiting the cemetery is too difficult to bear, so they choose to forgo a visit.  Despite the differences and no matter how the day or weekend is spent, the loved ones lost are never far from the minds of those who love and miss them. 

Captain Jeffery Hill Headstone

As for me, I have my own traditions when it comes to Memorial Day. One of my first stops in Washington, D.C. is always the cemetery to put my husband’s picture at his gravesite. Arlington brings many visitors throughout the weekend and as people walk through Section 60, I want them to see Jeff as more than just a name on a headstone. I want them to know that he was a real person with a real family who loved him. Sharing a picture of him seems to bring that realness to the forefront, for unfortunately sometimes that realness is lost in translation. Visitors walk through the cemetery grounds and take in the incredible history Arlington holds, but too often the present seems to escape them. The names on the headstones can seem far reaching when they are from generations past, however some sections are not from generations past. They are from today. This is what I hope his picture represents—that Arlington is not only the past, but also the present.

Rachael Hill at her husbands gravestone

How do we explain Memorial Day to someone who has never experienced a military death or been handed a folded flag? How do we explain that Memorial Day is not the day to tell a living military veteran “thank you for your service,” but a day to remember the lives lost and the deepest depths of the sacrifices made, not only for the service member who died, but also for the family and friends who survive them?   Perhaps the depth of the loss and the stinging pain of hearing Taps or holding the folded flag is one that can’t really be explained. What we can do, however, is continue to share their stories. We can continue to talk about the kind of people they were and the honor they upheld in service to our country. We can share their pictures and show that they were so much more than just a name etched in granite. We can say their names over and over again so the world knows they were here.  If we do these things, their legacies will live on.   

Rachael Hill is the surviving spouse of US Air Force Capt. Jeffrey Hill. She lives in Minnesota with their two sons.

Photos courtesy of Rachael Hill.