Memorial Day weekend in the United States is, in practice, often celebrated as a joyous holiday. People get time off work and spend time enjoying the weather, which is usually warming up, and Memorial Day boat outings and barbecues are common ways to spend the weekend.
But for veterans and Gold Star families, Memorial Day isn’t about celebrating warm weather. It’s about remembering and honoring lost loved ones, including those who died while serving in the military.
“Memorial Day is a time to remember those who lost their lives while serving in the military,” says Brian Wagner, senior director of strategic communications with defense technology company Peraton. “Veterans Day is a time to honor all who have served in the military, past and present. Don’t feel like you need to also thank your veterans for their service on Memorial Day.”
And that’s why organizations looking to mark the occasion for their employees should be extra sensitive with how they choose to do so.
How to support employees
The first step in ensuring that any employees who have lost a military family member or friend feel seen and supported is to find out how much of your workforce is personally affected.
Ami Neiberger is a comms pro with Maple Avenue PR whose brother, U.S. Army Specialist Christopher Neiberger, was killed in combat during the Iraq War. This August will mark the 15th anniversary of his death.
Neiberger says comms pros should feel comfortable asking their employees about what Memorial Day means to them.
“Invite them to share their stories if they are comfortable doing so and be clear about what could be done with information that is shared,” she says.
Among other things, Neiberger suggests using internal newsletters, blogs or your intranet to highlight employee stories about the holiday.
The most important thing comms pros can do in this situation is to create a safe place for Gold Star families or veterans to share about why they mark Memorial Day. Talking or writing about a loved one’s death is never easy, and as Neiberger notes, fallen service members often died in violent or unpleasant ways.
“Our loved ones often died horrific and violent deaths at young ages – their losses were traumatic for us,” she says.
If employees aren’t comfortable sharing stories about their loved ones, another way to honor Gold Star families and veterans at your organization is to collect photos of their family members who died in service and compile a graphic to share on internal channels. Keep in mind that some employees may not be comfortable sharing anything at all — in that case, don’t push them to share but instead remind them that they are supported by you and the company.
How to mark the day for all employees
That being said, you don’t have to cancel your company-wide barbecue to make space for your employees who observe Memorial Day more solemnly. There are plenty of ways to bring employees together and mark the holiday in a respectful manner.
Neiberger suggests that organizations consider supporting Memorial Day-centric nonprofits like the Memorial Day Flowers Foundation, which works to lay flowers on the graves of fallen service members at national cemeteries every year.
Peraton supports the foundation, both financially and in-kind.
“The Foundation’s simple effort allows our employees to feel a deeper sense of connection to the memories of those we honor on the last Monday of May,” Wagner says. Peraton’s CEO also sends out a company-wide note to employees about what Memorial Day means to him.
Memorial Day is also an opportunity for education.
“If you don’t have employees on staff, you can invite area Gold Star families to talk about the service and sacrifice of their families,” Neiberger says. “Ask how our loved ones lived, not just how they died. Ask us to share memories and let us know how you’d like to share it.”
Organizations can host lunch-and-learns with local Gold Star family advocacy groups alongside a company barbecue or family event or distribute educational information via email newsletters or intranet posts.
Whatever you choose to do, Neiberger says, make sure you tread carefully with the language you use and how you encourage employees to talk about Memorial Day — even after the holiday is over.
“For some Americans, Memorial Day weekend is not about barbecues and sales,” she shares. “It’s kind of awkward to go back to work and everyone else is talking about their over-the-top cookouts and fun trips and you say, ‘I went to the cemetery,’ or ‘I attended a parade for Memorial Day where I carried a photo of my loved one who died.’”
Comms pros, how are you marking Memorial Day this year? What are your best practices for celebrating a holiday with sensitivity and respect? Let us know on Twitter @RaganComms.