Lieutenant Commander Landon Jones was killed on September 22, 2013, when his helicopter crashed into the Red Sea. He was based out of Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado, California, where his widow Theresa and sons Anthony and Hunter still live. LCDR Jones, along with Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jonathan Gibson who died in the same crash, are among 7,075 U.S. service member casualties since 9/11, leaving behind thousands of grieving families like theirs. Jones is now development manager for the Pat Tillman Foundation, honoring another Gold Star widow.
The Home Tribute
The passage of time does not lessen the loss for surviving spouses, parents, siblings and children and many create visual tributes to their loved ones at home. This can be a memorial garden, bookcase or mantel display, or photo gallery. “These displays often contain pictures, special items that remind them of their person or represent something about them, special recognitions, military honors, or items that reflect their service and sacrifice, as well as their personality,” shares grief counselor Andy McNiel, senior adviser to the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) Youth Programs. “All of these are ways that people visually honor their person and their service, while also navigating the pain of their loss.”
“One family I supported years ago created a memorial garden,” McNiel recalls. “This became a sacred place for them. They were able to further build it out and create a special place of remembrance right there in their yard.” Nature itself has healing powers, according to research, making a garden display an ideal tribute.
Memorials crafted by family members are also supportive, given the wellness benefits of art and art therapy. “One family shared a quilt they had made from pieces of their person’s clothing with items pinned to it that represented aspects of their person’s life,” McNiel shares. “Many of our military surviving families create items out of their loved ones’ military uniforms, such as bags, pillows, Christmas ornaments and wall hangings, to name a few.”
Gold Star Children
There are numerous factors that influence how children grieve a lost family member, including age, personality, available support and their relationship to the deceased, McNiel explains. “Some children are comfortable talking about their person who died and looking at pictures, while others struggle with this. There is no right or wrong and no ‘cookie cutter’ approach. However, the best way to provide children the opportunity to remember is by offering them a caring, supportive environment in which to do so.” That environment includes their shared and private home spaces.
Teenaged Anthony Jones is old enough to remember his father, while his younger brother Hunter has only his family’s remembrances and visual tributes. These have evolved in the nearly nine years since that fatal crash, their mother recalls. “Initially there were old family photos displayed everywhere, a Gold Star flag that hung inside the house and one that hung outside. As my sons grow up and try to fit in with their peers, such grandiose displays made them feel uncomfortable. I toned down the displays and let them have a choice in what they want to take for their own.”
Jones has her late husband’s helmet, cover (uniform headgear) and the folded flag given to the family in a living room bookshelf display, and other tribute items in her home office. Anthony now has a photo of his dad on his nightstand and a bookshelf the helicopter pilot built is in Hunter’s bedroom. Hunter also likes to take down his dad’s helmet from the display and wear it around the house, Jones muses.
Gold Star Families
Spouses and children are not the only family members mourning a killed in action service member. Parents feel these losses acutely, as do siblings. Ryan Manion created the Travis Manion Foundation in honor of her brother, a Recon Marine killed in 2007 in an Iraqi insurgent ambush. The nonprofit she created to continue his legacy of service supports other Gold Star families with numerous programs, events and expeditions. Occasionally, her youth volunteers are called upon to create a memorial project for another Gold Star family, she says.
While the foundation, her speeches and book, The Knock at the Door: Three Gold Star Families Bonded by Grief and Purpose are among her greatest tributes to her brother, Manion also has memorial displays in her Doylestown, Pennsylvania home’s living room and lower level, she says.
They started with the folded flag given to her after his funeral. “The memorials are ever evolving in our home. When we receive something special that honors Travis, we always look for a place to properly display it.” These displays are highly personal, but also integrated to the interior design and décor of her home, she notes. “We wanted to be thoughtful to the space feeling like a natural part of our home and our lives, and not a space that stuck out from the overall esthetic.”
“Almost all of the Gold Star families I have become close with have some sort of memorial honoring their loved one,” the foundation president shares. “I think most families want to make sure that everyone who enters their home understands and recognizes the sacrifice their loved one made.”
This can bring emotion to visitors who knew the deceased, Manion and Jones agree. “Landon’s parents come down and they like to see his presence still in our home,” the widow says.
Grief Counselor’s Advice
McNiel suggests, “It is okay if you choose to be more private in your remembering, as well. You are the one grieving and you have the right to move at a pace that feels most comfortable to you.” That ‘you’ often includes family members. “Some may need the memorial in the home to be behind a closed door, instead of an open space, if they aren’t ready to be daily reminded. Having it in a room, rather than a shared common space of the home can be a healthy compromise,” he counsels.
McNiel also observes that visitors sometimes offer their own advice and judgments about a home memorial. “Giving yourself permission to create and maintain visual tributes is empowering, and no one should feel obligated to remove a memorial under these circumstances. Following your own lead, along with your family, is key to creating a space that feels healing for all those sharing that space.”
Every family grieves differently and at their own pace, but a common bond is the preservation of loved ones’ memories in respectful visualizations. These tributes fit into the fifth facet of wellness design, (the practice of creating spaces that support their occupants’ health, safety and overall well-being): comfort and joy.
“I think the best thing I can share, is that you can never do too much or too little,” Manion advises. “Home memorials are very personal and should be a place that makes you feel comfortable and bring remembrance to your loved one.”
These families remember their loved ones every day. “But for the rest of America, take Memorial Day as a time to learn the story of a fallen hero and pass it on to someone else,” the Gold Star sister suggests.