This speech was given at the Marines’ Memorial Club in San Francisco, California on 22 February at the 2019 California Gold Star Families’ Honor and Remembrance Formal Dinner. A video of the speech can be found here courtesy of the Marines' Memorial Club and Contrast Productions.
In peace, children inter their parents; war violates the order of nature and causes parents to inter their children.
We live in a society that skirts around speaking of grief, even more so, of death. All of you are poignantly enduring one of the most tragic events in any person’s life. You are all in a dark, raw place. The meaningless flutter of platitudes, the misplaced focus of awkward proffering of condolences in the guise of others’ own—almost universally minor—trials and tribulations, more often the fumbling offerings of insensibilities that neither grasp nor can even begin to appreciate your acute pain. These gestures, well-meaning in principle, offer scant recognition that you, all of you, are in an unknown and terrible twilight from which you will never entirely emerge.
You are literally transformed, forever changed. And, let’s be honest, the change is life long and not always propitious. It is true that some degree of redemption from, a coming to grips of sorts with, the mortality of your dearly beloved; and, yes, with your very own mortality, does occur. That is but meager comfort, much less any recompense for, the irreplaceable losses you have suffered. You have an absolute right to whatever you are feeling, and whenever you are feeling those feelings. It is correctly said, “to weep is to make less the depth of grief.” Absolutely no one can, nor should they ever try to, deny you your departed loved ones. They are the children you lovingly brought into the world and unfailingly stood by, the loved ones you will forever cherish, and whom you so lovingly adored. Each and every one of them has been viciously ripped from your arms, violently torn from your sides, unforgivingly rendered from you forever, physically removed from your undying adoration, from an indiscernible emotional and physical devotion of unfathomable depth.
You are driven upon your knees by the overwhelming conviction that you have nowhere to go. The heart of grief, its most difficult challenge, is not “letting go” of those who have died but instead making the transition from loving in the present to loving in separation. In being loved and always remembered they are forever in your hearts. And, from your hearts you will evermore speak of them.
I am no stranger to the loss of loved ones to abject violence. Nor will I ever be unburdened of grief. Grief is universal. Yet, and yet, grief is so intimately personal. How we grieve is who we are. And, as were your loved ones, we, each and every one of us present this evening, is a unique individual. And, as individuals we grieve individually, uniquely, each within our own private solitude. That does not assuage the pain, the reality of ultimate loss, but it does give due to the fact we are each human individuals.
The grave poignancy of the grief shared within this room puts on vivid display the increasingly rare type of individual your loved ones embody and represent—yes, I intentionally use the present tense. For they have done more, and paid the ultimate price through their sacrifice, in upholding the universal legitimacy of humanism. Individuals such as your sons, daughters, spouses, or siblings aren’t supposed to exist anymore, except in our honeyed remembrances of the so-called greatest generation. Your presence this evening puts a lie to that tale. Perhaps more importantly, our gathering together on this evening of honor and remembrance unapologetically and openly displays a collective embrace of the critically important sensitivity of sharing that which all but defies sharing.
The very commemorating of your loved ones’ lives provides a clear marker of the significance of each and every one of their singular presences on this earth. Though we walk together down an unpredictable, painful, draining, and exhausting path, we collectively seek hope.
We seek the courage not to forsake hope. In loss, hope hides itself. Through our gathering together this evening, collectively commemorating our losses, we are challenging hope to once again show us the way forward. Allow strength from life’s surges of the cruelest kind, caste light upon the darkness of despair, through hope, faith, love and the common bond of this shared evening.
I am privileged beyond description to have shared a few moments with you. Thank you.