Sometimes we wear our traumas and tragedies and losses like a badge of honor. Our misery on display for all to see, as if it were some kind of twisted accomplishment. We do not mean to do this. People do not mean to “honor” us like this, for this, and yet, it’s all around us.

I am called a “Gold Star Spouse.” A Gold Star, since childhood, has held the connotation of an award or recognition for a child or person doing something special; some special accomplishment. The military adopted this in our history and yet I would argue it is NOT APPLICABLE. There is NO accomplishment in my husband dying, certainly not for me. Yes, he made the ultimate sacrifice. Yes, he is a hero. Yes, he should be honored. Yes, it is not wrong to pay respect or homage to me or my family for our sacrifice of him. However, it is NOT an accomplishment. I did not choose to sacrifice him that day. He did not choose to die. He took the risk. But he took the risk every day he served and lived, and that risk should be honored JUST the same.

I want him to be honored not for how he died, but for how he lived. In order for that to truly be, we would have to honor ALL who take that risk, not just the ones who actually die, but the Veterans who took the risk and lived; not just on Veterans Day, but on Memorial Day too.

To separate Veterans Day and Memorial Day is to say that the risk those who died took is greater than those who lived, and that is often not the case. Life and death are just the natural order of things and some people make it and some people don’t. I am not mitigating my husband’s heroism, but what if he had survived that tragic day? Would he be less of a hero?! HELL NO. He was a hero long before he died; long before he made the “ultimate sacrifice.”

People say “don’t say happy Memorial Day” because it seems thoughtless. However, it is only thoughtless if the person is truly ignorant to the meaning behind the day. It is ignorant to assume what another person knows about the meaning. Yes, those words can hurt if we take them in under the assumption that the person has no awareness of the sacrifice this holiday is all about, and yet, what do we want, a sad day???? Our heroes do not want us to be sad. They do not want us to wear their death as a badge of misery and morbid honor.

All they want is for us to appreciate them, to remember them, and not to remember that they died, but remember who they were when they lived. There is NO sadness in my remembering who Jerry Gass was when he lived because he was happy. He was fun. He was kind and caring and generous and positive and funny. No one gains anything by presuming they have cornered the market on misery, or have some special stake in sadness. That is no way to live. Honor them by living.

Back to the term “Gold Star.” No, I did nothing to earn a gold star. I did not WANT to make that sacrifice that I did; make no mistake, it was against my will and beyond my control. If I had ANY control, I would rewind time and do something, anything different to prevent losing him that day. I do not, like my husband, want to be appreciated for losing him, for being a widow, for making that sacrifice. On the contrary, I want to be appreciated for who I am and what I have done. For the good I have done, not for the bad that has happened to me.

Just as true appreciation of the sacrifice by my husband would require us to appreciate all those who RISK the sacrifice, the same is true for spouses. If you want to honor me for being a “Gold Star” you would have to in equal measure honor ALL military spouses for taking that risk of giving their spouse a kiss goodbye and then watching them walk away into harm’s way, knowing they may return in a flag-draped coffin. No one chooses this life. It just happens. As death does. No, do not honor me because my husband died. Honor my husband for how he lived; by how you live.

I know how bittersweet and painful this whole topic is, and I know what a loss we are at on how to truly deal. I mean, you care, you so deeply care and you don’t know what to do and you don’t know what to say. I understand. Think about what my husband would want. He wouldn’t want you to be sad for me today; somber as a form of honor. If you want to do something for him, help me to live, not to mourn.

Help me smile, laugh, do something fun with my kids, help me care for my kids, go on a walk with me, talk with me; show up for his loved ones like myself, his kids, his parents, because this is what life really is, love really is, what truly heals; it is getting through all of it TOGETHER, because we are stronger together and it takes a village, not just to raise a child, but to heal a broken heart. It’s time to be there for one another through it all because none of us is getting out of this alive.

Love lives on,

Nancy Gass

Surviving Spouse of SSG Girard David Gass Jr., 3rd Special Forces Group (A)