How to Talk to Your Children about Memorial Day

explaining memorial day to children - how to talk about memorial day to kids

My 12th Memorial Day since losing my first husband (Dimitri) in combat in Afghanistan is approaching.  At this point, now that I’m happily remarried and in the trenches of motherhood with 3 young children, my past life with Dimitri almost feels like it was a lifetime ago.  Or perhaps even a dream.

Reflections on Memorial Day

The pain of losing a spouse as a newlywed is excruciating, and it’s hard to fathom the fact that I’ve now survived nearly 12 years without him.  How has it been 12 years?  These days, my heart and mind are now mostly full of happy recollections of our brief 5 years together, rather than all-encompassing sadness, but my breath is still taken away and the tears still flow on days of remembrance.  The period between Memorial Day and the end of June contains Memorial Day, Dimitri’s birthday (early June) and his death date (late June), and it is always the hardest part of the year for me.  Not that I don’t think about him every single day, but I often don’t have the opportunity to slow down and reflect on the life of that kind, brave, selfless man that was taken too soon.  This used to be a straight forward time of grief, but now I am also navigating how to teach my children about the life and sacrifice of the man that I loved before I met their daddy.  It’s hard, but important, and there is no guidebook for doing so.

explaining memorial day to children - how to talk about memorial day to kids

How to Talk to Your Children About Memorial Day

Memorial Day can be an uncomfortable subject to discuss for all parents, but it’s a little more complicated and personal for me, having lost a spouse in combat before becoming a mother.  They will never know him, but I want them to be proud of this piece of their mother’s story.  I myself am grappling with how to talk about Dimitri and all the others who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, so I wanted to share some of the ideas that I think could be helpful if you are in the same boat.

I think it’s incredibly important for all Americans to teach their children that this holiday is more than just a day to wear patriotic colors, shop the sales, have a BBQ with friends, and kick off the summer.  In all honestly, I will be likely doing all of those things- I think it’s important to keep living and enjoy the freedoms that have been provided to us, but I’ll also be sharing stories of duty and sacrifice with hope that my children will have grateful hearts and gain a true appreciation of what Memorial Day is all about- honoring and remembering those who died in defense of our nation.

memorial day

Talk about Sacrifice and Memorial Day Throughout the Year

My children are still young (ages 3, 5, and 7), so when we talk about Dimitri we call him “mommy’s friend who died fighting for our country” just to simplify the complex situation a bit.  I talk broadly about how there are brave men and women who choose to defend our country and keep us safe.  I try to talk about it more often than just on Memorial Day, so whenever it comes up we have a little talk about it.

Visit Washington, DC and Arlington National Cemetery

We live in Arlington, Virginia (just across the Potomac River from DC), so we have the unique opportunity to routinely see the headstones in Arlington National Cemetery as we drive by, and we often visit the National Mall and the various memorials around DC.  These tangible experiences are invaluable for children as well as adults.  Seeing name after name on the Vietnam Wall, or seeing the rolling hills dotted with white headstones at the cemetery helps them wrap their little minds around the magnitude of the sacrifice that has been made.  DC is magical in the summer because summer tends to be such a patriotic time of year, but a visit to DC at any time of year will always be a memorable experience.  There is also a Poppy Wall of Honor (placed by USAA) on display this weekend (May 26-28) from Friday morning through Sunday evening, and it will display 645,000 poppies in honor of every person who lost their lives defending our nation since WWI.  We plan to visit tomorrow, and even though my children are young, I think it will be a very good visual way to explain the true meaning of the day to them.

Visit a National Cemetery Where you Live

When we aren’t in DC on Memorial Day we try to visit a National Cemetery or a memorial wherever we are.  When we lived in Kansas when Jack was toddler we visited the WWI Memorial.  When we lived in Hawaii we took the children to Punchbowl National Cemetery.  When we spent Memorial Day on Fripp Island, SC in 2021 we visited the Beaufort National Cemetery.  If we lived in New York we would visit the cemetery at West Point, as that is where Dimitri is buried and it’s where many young men and women who were killed during the war on terror (and other wars) have been laid to rest.  Even if the names you read on the headstones do not indicate that the service member was killed in combat, it is still a good way to talk about service with your children.

Read a Children’s Book about Memorial Day

A few years ago someone recommended the children’s book Rolling Thunder to me, and it is a wonderful book to have in your collection, especially if you feel like you don’t have the appropriate words to open up the discussion.  Other books that tackle the topic of Memorial Day include The Wall, and Twenty-One Steps.  If you have any other recommendations please share them in the comments!

Run a Memorial Day Race or Do a Hero Workout

I haven’t done this yet with my children, but I look forward to running a Memorial Day race with them one day.  Running was a huge part of my grieving process and it’s always a good way to remember those who are no longer with us.  Many people also do the Crossfit Workout of the Day “Murph,” which is dedicated to Navy Lieutenant Michael Murphy, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2005.

Volunteer as a Family to Place Flags (or Wreaths) on Veterans’ Graves

If you’ve ever seen a national cemetery covered in flags for Memorial Day or with wreaths at Christmastime, you understand how striking the sight is.  Many organizations have ways to volunteer your time to place flags or wreaths (depending on the time of year) on our heroes graves.  We have yet to do this as a family, but I hope we can participate in this event soon.  Children love helping out and it is a great way to open the conversation about the importance of selfless service.

These are just a few ideas that came to mind as I wrote this post.  I’m sure there are countless other ways to discuss this important day with your children.  Please leave your ideas in the comments if you have anything else to add!



Katie Vail
Katie Vail

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  1. Elizabeth
    May 25, 2023 / 7:00 pm

    I truly love your insight into such an important day as an American. Your words flow. I admire what your experience can mean to so many people, but mostly for the loved ones of our fallen Americans, who will always be part of two worlds, grief and joy. It’s okay to feel both.

    • May 25, 2023 / 7:42 pm

      Thank you so much for those kind words, Elizabeth. I appreciate you taking the time to read.

  2. Elaine
    May 25, 2023 / 8:13 pm

    Thank you for sharing so vulnerably and for the idea to take our children to National cemeteries or memorials. I imagine this is a difficult stage to straddle and share/process with your children! Hugs!

    I will be checking out the book recommendations too!

  3. May 25, 2023 / 9:25 pm

    I loved reading this post and I, too, feel that its so important to talk about. I cannot fathom the grief you feel but I appreciate all those who serve this country and those who have given their lives for this country. I was taken about to see the book Rolling Thunder mentioned. Artie Mueller, the co-founder of Rolling Thunder is a close family friend and its AMAZING to see the impact Rolling Thunder has had over the past 30+ years. I love that there is a book written about it. Thank you for your Service and thank you for this post.

  4. Rachel
    May 25, 2023 / 10:24 pm

    Thank you for sharing- your story has been impactful to me and has changed how my family and I approach Memorial Day. I hope to help my children understand the importance of this day and these are such practical ideas to do so!

  5. Kara D
    May 26, 2023 / 12:46 pm

    Fantastic points! I was thinking about you today. We had a student run Memorial Day assembly at my middle school (I am a teacher now) today and I was able to honor my 7 friends who lost their lives in Iraq or Afghanistan. It was powerful. As parents, teachers, and citizens we are responsible for keeping these memories alive and teaching our children about the values of our country and the sacrifices so many have made for us.
    🙂 Kara
    Navy ’95

  6. Bridget Westfall
    May 26, 2023 / 5:13 pm

    My boys are lucky to have many classmates and friends who are active military, so they are pretty familiar with Memorial Day. We also have a dear neighbor who gifted them “girl soldiers” aka little green Army women toys when that was my son’s big ask from Santa one Christmas who is a para Olympic. Each Memorial Day, I try to have them organize making cards and letters for the National Rehabilitation Hospital. We then send them each month with volunteers who play games and visit solders with TBI or other injustices going through rehabilitation.

  7. May 26, 2023 / 9:40 pm

    Katie –

    Thank you for sharing. I’ll be thinking about Dmitri this weekend and all of those who gave so much.

    If you’re in DC this weekend, we hang a yellow ribbon for every solider who lost their life since 9/11 and honor them by reading their name aloud in rememberance at the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Here’s the website if you were interested in learning more:

    Sending hugs!

  8. hrplo
    May 30, 2023 / 1:44 am


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