Our family recently had the honor of visiting Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, DC. While in this beautiful park-like memorial to those who honorably served our country, our hearts were deeply moved at the immense dignity of this noble place.
Wanting to see the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we walked past rows and rows of gleaming white headstones until we found the solemn tribute to unnamed soldiers lost in war. Upon reaching this sacred site, we were awestruck to see a single soldier keeping guard.
Silently captivated, we watched:
He marched 21 steps down a black mat behind the Tomb, then turned and faced east for 21 seconds. Turning, he faced north for 21 seconds and then took 21 steps to the other side of the mat. Back and forth. Solemn-faced with precise movements, the guard changed the position of his weapon and snapped his heels together at each turn.
…And to think this happens over and over again. Rain or shine. 365 days a year.
As I watched my five little children respectfully and curiously observe this reverent ritual – and because I have two sons actively serving in the military, I was filled with deep gratitude for all those in our country who have given any measure of sacrifice for the freedoms I daily enjoy.
Some visitors may come to the Tomb of the Unknowns to lay a wreath, stick a flag in the ground, or offer a respectful salute in honor of lives lost in war. Others, like myself, make a brief visit and then return home. But it is the profound duty of the guards to exchange shifts and stay attentively focused on their immense responsibility of vigilant respect.
When my littlest daughter tugged on my shirt and quietly whispered, “What is that guard protecting the Tomb from?”, I will admit I had no answer. But her question did get me thinking about the sacred and personal vigil each of us keeps in our hearts for our loved ones who have died by suicide.
Some suicide survivors fiercely guard against whispers or gossip or the community’s ignorant stigma of suicide. Others feel their loved one’s character or reputation may have become tainted or stained by their choice of death. Many just truly fear their loved one will be remembered only by their death and not by the way they lived.
With utmost respect and vigilance, 24/7, suicide survivors walk back and forth, pausing at our turns to snap our heels together as we remain focused on our fight against criticism or misunderstanding. We are always defending our loved ones to be certain that the knowledge of their deaths does not destroy the memory of their lives.
Occasionally, some might pause to remember a birthday or share a fond memory, but it is us – the loyal loved ones – who walk back and forth loyally guarding what we know to be the truth.
May we do it with perseverance and love.