Growing up, Newmarket, Ont. resident Kateland Prentice never felt any real connection to Remembrance Day.
She’s referring to Jack Brynaert, a Second World War veteran for whom her mom worked as a caretaker. Brynaert and his wife moved into the Prentice family home for around-the-clock care, and Prentice and Brynaert immediately connected.
“He became like a grandfather to me,” she said. “Before him, I never really understood the war or why someone would want to fight … Jack made it real.”
Brynaert was very proud to have fought in the war, and in the three years that he lived with Prentice, he shared many stories about his time overseas.
For Brynaert, Remembrance Day was one of sorrow and celebration — and it demanded respect.
“The first year he lived with us, on November 1, my mom dragged out her Christmas decorations. In the kindest way, Jack asked if — out of respect — we could wait until November 12 to decorate,” Prentice explained.
“We had never even considered this in the past, but even since his death in 2012, we wait until November 12.”
Prentice says her perspective on Remembrance Day and the war more generally has completely changed, thanks to Brynaert.
“I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to know someone who was there,” she said.
Ritual can make grief more ‘manageable’
Doreen Arcus says for some people — like Brynaert — rituals like Remembrance Day can make the grieving process more manageable. She’s an associate professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
“They’re a way to deal with something that can be somewhat overwhelming,” she said.
Knowing that November 11 is approaching each year can, for some people, provide a “script” that allows them to feel emotions more fully.
“You don’t have to carve out how you’re going to do that from scratch,” Arcus said.
Remembrance Day can also make grief experienced by veterans and their communities less isolating, according to registered psychologist Melanie Badali.
“Remembrance Day ceremonies can help individuals and their communities acknowledge the pain of loss while also offering an opportunity for social connection,” Badali said.
“They can help people make sense of tragic loss by looking at it in a frame of honour and service to country instead of as something meaningless.”
Having a set day each year to honour Canadian war veterans represents a sort of anniversary, and it can be a powerful tool for helping those affected by the war move through grief.
Having an annual day to signpost the experience of grief can help someone “integrate the loss into their life and continue to move forward.”
“It’s not that you close the door on something and move on, but it’s that the loss has been integrated into your life,” Arcus said.
Everyone experiences grief differently
Remembrance Day can mean different things to different people. Not all those affected by war will see it as a celebration — and that’s OK, too.
Badali says grief is a response to loss that can include cognitive, emotional, behavioural, physiological and social dimensions.
“Any or all of these aspects of grief can bubble up when we are reminded of loss,” she said. “People experience grief differently.”
People suffering from more severe forms of grief, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), may find it difficult to attend Remembrance Day ceremonies.
“For some veterans with PTSD, there may be aspects of the ceremony that increase their symptoms,” which may include intrusive memories, avoidance, negative changes in thinking and emotions, Badali said.
“In my clinical experience, Remembrance Day ceremonies can be difficult not only for people directly who had or have direct involvement in the military or been touched by loss, but by other service members suffering from PTSD, such as RCMP members.”
Badali emphasizes that it’s totally normal to feel this way about Remembrance Day.
“Remembrance Day is only one day. If someone is experiencing severe grief or PTSD, they would likely benefit from additional help and support.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.