Why a Gold Star Widow Hides on Memorial Day

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Sacrifice: A Gold Star Widow’s Fight for the Truth by Michelle Black is the memoir of a gold-star widow searching for the truth behind her Green Beret husband’s death. When Bryan Black was killed in an ambush in Niger in 2017, his wife Michelle saw her worst nightmare become a reality—but what followed Bryan’s death was even more difficult. After receiving few and contradictory details about the attack that took her husband’s life, it was up to Michelle to find answers. It became her mission to learn the truth about that day in Niger, and Sacrifice is the result of that mission.

Certain times of year the pain of losing Bryan and the sacrifice of so many comes back to me. One of the hardest times each year is Memorial Day, which most people think of as the exciting start of summer. Last year I was at the grocery store picking up items, and as I laid them out on the belt the checker cheerfully asked if I was doing something fun for Memorial Day. I was about to travel east to attend several memorial services for the men and women killed that year and in previous years. I thought about the stone bearing my husband’s name, birth date, and date of death, and a towering wave of emotion hit me. I looked down at my purse, pretending I’d dropped something, so she wouldn’t see my eyes filling with tears.

“Well . . .” I faltered.

I thought of a friend who had lost her husband the week prior and was about to bury him. I would be seeing her at the bar where Bryan’s picture hangs. Together with other Gold Star families, we would toast those we are meant to remember on Memorial Day.

“No,” I said, “I’m not doing anything fun. What about you?”

“Just relaxing and barbecuing,” she said. “I love having a long weekend!”

Not so long ago I was just like her. Memorial Day was the beginning of summer, it was big sales and sunshine. Barbecues, swimming pools, laughter, and drinks. It has something to do with celebrating our freedom, right? Happy Memorial Day! Happy. Memorial. Those two words merged together create an indescribable level of pain for those of us who have lost a loved one to war.

Memorial Day is not about me. I have plenty of days to learn to feel good again.

My children lost their father. Bryan’s parents lost their youngest son. I lost the love of my life. So I will not have a happy Memorial Day. That’s simply not possible for those who understand what Memorial Day is. It is not a happy day; it is heavy and somber and gut-wrenching.

Bryan, Michelle, and their sons outside their home in Fayetteville near Fort Bragg, where Bryan was beginning the SF Q Course.

Courtesy Karen Black

The last time I was happy on Memorial Day was May 2017. I remember looking at Facebook and seeing a picture of a woman at a cemetery with her young children. They were taking flowers to their father’s grave. It was the first time I truly took the time to consider that Memorial Day should not be thought of as happy and that people need to learn the difference between Veterans Day, which honors those who have served or currently serve in the military, and Memorial Day, which is for remembering those who died in service to this country. I stared at the picture, unable to comprehend how this woman had the strength to do what she was doing with her children. Little did I know that just six months later I would be doing that very thing with my two sons.

Looking back, I am so grateful for the time I had not knowing that a gravestone is the closest we will ever get to Bryan. Not knowing that you go to the cemetery not because you are strong but because he is there, and it hurts, but so does not going. So does breathing. Everything hurts, so you go because maybe he’ll know you were there. You go and face your biggest fear over and over again, and in facing it there is strength and healing.

Bryan and Michelle after his Special Forces graduation.

Courtesy Karen Black

The pain doesn’t end, but the darkness dissipates over time. The tears are still there, but now I see the flowers laid on the headstones and am grateful for the passing of time. I go on Memorial Day to the graves and honor those who gave their lives in service to our nation. I say their names, and I remember what they did and why. Dustin Wright, Jeremiah Johnson, LaDavid Johnson, Bryan Black. It is not happy, but it is right. It doesn’t make me feel good, but Memorial Day is not about me. I have plenty of days to learn to feel good again. That’s the beauty of being alive. Memorial Day is for the fallen. That is the lesson I didn’t expect to learn as I stared at the photo of the widow in the cemetery. A lesson in sacrifice I now can never forget.

From Sacrifice: A Gold Star Widow’s Fight for the Truth by Michelle Black, to be published May 4 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2021 by Michelle Black.

Courtesy Michelle Black