Linda Downing

Memorial Day thoughts of comfort

"Comfort ye, comfort ye my people." cried the ancient prophet Isaiah (40:1), mourning the loss of Jerusalem, the slain, and the plight of those left. We not only seek to remember the dead on Memorial Day but also to support the living. The federal holiday originated after the Civil War and now extends to honor all Americans who have died in military service. Marking the beginning of summer vacations makes it seem even more poignant. It is strange that we commemorate death with barbeques, picnics, and beach outings, right alongside placing wreaths and flags on graves. But food and fun produce companionship that helps life be about more than survival. We grasp for meaning. With so many grieving, yet elevating, their dead, we cannot help but extend Memorial Day to think of all those we have lost. Life itself is a battle. The wounded surround us. Healing requires believing love is stronger than hate. That was illustrated by Martha Mullen earlier this month. She is the Virginia woman who succeeded in acquiring a burial site for Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the 26-year-old Boston Marathon bombing suspect. Hearing that cemeteries in Massachusetts and other states refused the body, Mullen says her first thought was Jesus' injunction to "love your enemies."
Not everyone agreed with Mullen, so she has been vilified and threatened. What if we refused to bury all our enemies? Would we not live in the stench of our own revenge? It requires a certain innocence and vulnerability to give and receive comfort. Grief longs for, yet resists, pacification. To read the daily news is to know that comfort is needed. This past Monday 18-year-old Zach Sobiech died. During his four year fight against bone cancer, he sang his song "Clouds" over the Internet, moving and comforting all who face death. His own comfort came in the form of increased wisdom, a knowledge many 80-year-olds never acquire: "I want everyone to know you don't have to find out you're dying to start living." The Tribune last Sunday made comfort a theme. One feature told of Ireland Nugent, the two-year-old girl who recently lost her feet in a lawnmower accident, being reassured by Winter, a dolphin who swims with a prosthetic tail. Other articles showed trained dogs consoling victims in a court room, live music soothing preemies in intensive care, and wearable robots helping the disabled to walk. Comfort does not come by dwelling on the how, when, where, or why of death and loss. It comes by believing that life goes on-for the living and the dead. A recent national poll set out, not to showcase our differences, but to highlight what unites the United States. The first thing on a list of what 9 out of 10 Americans agree on is "belief in God." Surely that majority conviction offers solace and direction for a nation facing so many challenges this Memorial Day and every day. Not only did Zach Sobiech die this past Monday, but also that morning one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history hit near Oklahoma City. And, all over the nation and the world, in the military and out, others of us died or faced catastrophe. S. H. B. Masterman makes it plain: "God often comforts us, not by changing the circumstances of our lives, but by changing our attitude toward them." Finding truth requires the right starting point. That is the quest of this column. If we seek simple truth, we can find it together-side-by-side. Linda M. Downing is a freelance writer. Contact her at