Originally referred to as Decoration Day in honor of those who died in the Civil War, Memorial Day - observed on the last Monday in May - now honors all men and women in the U.S. military whose lives have been lost.

The first large observance of the holiday was held at Arlington National Cemetery in 1868, three years after the Civil War ended. The date was a time for the nation to unite and commemorate the lives lost during the war. Civilians decorated the graves of the war dead with flowers. Following speeches, people proceeded through the cemetery, reciting prayers. At the same time, smaller, local tributes were occurring across the country.

After World War I, Memorial Day extended to honor those who died in all American wars. And, in 1971, Congress declared Memorial Day a national holiday. In December 2000, Congress passed "The National Moment of Remembrance Act" to encourage Americans to commemorate Memorial Day by pausing - wherever they may be - at 3 p.m. for a minute of silence. It is a gesture, said Moment of Remembrance founder Carmella LaSpada, to "help put the memorial back in Memorial Day."

But today, many decades after the original founding, the flurry of shopping sales and picnic spreads tends to diminish the original meaning behind Memorial Day. Children especially may not understand the tradition that extends centuries back to honor the casualties of war.

If you want to explain the meaning of Memorial Day to your child, consider offering a frank explanation. Be prepared beforehand and begin by asking your child what he or she already knows about death. We've gathered a few tips below to make the discussion a little easier.

Be Direct

While death may be an uncomfortable topic, you want to be honest and open with your children. Keep in mind that their capacity to understand death will vary, especially according to age. A younger child will maintain a very literal view whereas a teenager will possess a more evolved understanding of death.

This could be a good opportunity to share spiritual beliefs you have about death. Try to avoid couching terms with euphemisms - "went away" or "went to sleep" or "is lost" - since children, up to the age of 5 or 6 years old, view the world quite literally. Young children might not yet grasp the inevitability of death, and these phrases may only further confuse them into thinking that the deceased will return at some point in the future.

Show Emotion

Don't be afraid to show emotion in front of your children. If you grieve openly, this allows your children to grieve openly as well, rather than feel the need to shelter their feelings. However, children may respond to the subject or experience of death in various ways. They will require space and patience as they come to terms with death in their own way. They may not exhibit outward signs of grief. A young child may act out in a hyperactive manner, instead of crying. A teenager might act distant to parents, preferring to confide in peers.

Whatever the reaction, understand that coping with grief and death is a process. And the process takes time. If your children's behavior becomes radical - suffering grades, exhibiting anger or anxiety - you will want to seek professional help from a doctor or mental health counselor.

Explain Rituals

Memorial Day is a day of remembrance for the dead. This can provide an opportunity to explain mourning rituals to your children and allow them to ask questions. Discuss the viewing and funeral as a time to express feelings and show respect.

As parents, it is natural to want to shield your children from painful events and loss, and even the ceremonies surrounding death. But rituals are part of the healing process. And the feelings of grief experienced after a death don't follow a straight path, often resurfacing days, weeks, or months later. Helping children understand the topic of death and grief - and maintaining an honest and open discussion - will allow them to cope and build emotional strength and maturity.

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