November 11th marks the federal holiday, Veteran’s Day. This is a day we use to honor all the individuals who have served in the armed forces, both past and present, along with their families. In a previous blog post, we discussed How Our Heroes Grieve, but today we will focus on the grieving that is experienced by family and friends with loved ones in the military.
It’s not uncommon for military families to be required to move to unfamiliar places or go through long stretches of time while their loved one is away at duty or training. Those impacted by the demanding lifestyle of military members include spouses, children, parents and friends. Anyone with a close connection to someone in the military has probably had to make some adjustments in order to cope with their temporary, or sometimes permanent, absence. If you’ve ever lost someone in active duty, Veteran’s Day may be a particularly difficult reminder of your grief.
While there are lots of benefits to be gained through military service, it is certainly not an easy road to take. Perks like free tuition, job training and health benefits are a strong draw for those who sign up. Beyond a job, motivations to join the military are often rooted in its view as a civic duty. The honor associated with being in the service helps solidify this heavy decision for many families.
Nonetheless, the payoffs from military service come with a cost of putting your country first. When you’re in the military, you don’t always have a choice of where you can live, when you can travel and how much time you can take off to spend with friends and family during holidays and special events. Especially in the beginning, or during a deployment, soldiers must do what they’re told. They aren’t always available to be present with those closest to them, even when they’re sorely missed.
This is tough on the family and friends who are used to having their loved one readily available. When someone joins the military, they aren’t always just a phone call away. They may have limitations on when they are free to speak on their cell phone or use the Internet. Writing letters and sending packages is an old-fashioned way to show that you care, but these slower methods of communication might leave you feeling a bit down about the person you miss spending more in-person time with.
If possible, it’s helpful to try and prepare yourself for the changes of being a military family before your loved one decides to sign up for the service. Knowing what to expect and connecting with others who have already lived through the experience can reduce common feelings of frustration and loneliness while your loved one is off at basic training. The void from their absence can sometimes be eased by keeping the perspective that training is temporary. Knowing that eventually your loved one may have more autonomy over their schedule can sometimes be helpful to keep in mind. Although not a substitute for face time, getting into a routine of communicating with letters on a scheduled basis can make it feel like you are still connected to that person while they’re away and keeping them up to date with your life.
For children, the rituals of writing letters, sending photos and talking about the adult who is away can be comforting ways to expressing their feelings. Being as open as possible and encouraging communication is important for children who are still learning to understand and identify their emotions. Rather than pushing children to be brave or suppress their feelings, allowing them to be sad and truly listening to them without judgement goes a long way towards fostering healthy coping skills. You may not be able to solve the problem that is causing them grief, but you can let them know that you hear them and offer them your love and support.
Although keeping busy isn’t a cure for grief, sometimes taking your mind off the person you are missing by working on other areas in your life, can provide temporary relief. Tackling important projects, taking classes or learning new activities will give you something else to focus on as you wait for your loved one to return from training or deployment. Joining a group exercise program or book club could give you something to fill your day when you’d normally be spending time talking or doing things with your loved one in the service.
If you are struggling with the loss of the way your relationship used to be (whether you’re an empty-nester with a child who signed up for service or a spouse or sibling who misses their deployed loved one) you may benefit from a Grief Recovery group.
Certainly, anyone who has lost a close contact to war or military operations should seek support with grieving. Beyond death, grief occurs when someone you love has been altered as a result of their time in the military. It’s not unusual to notice a difference in people when they return from service. Mental and emotional changes can range from the positive (like higher confidence and maturity) to the negative (such as post-traumatic stress and depression). Feeling like the person you once knew has been forever changed can leave you grieving your old relationship and the person you once knew.
Regardless of whether it’s a positive change or negative change, change is difficult. The military brings about changes that can be hard to cope with, especially when you try to do it all on your own. Connecting with new acquaintances (if you moved to a new environment) and old friends (who serve as an important support system while your loved one is away) are both key ways to set yourself up to be successful with a loved one in the military.
Finding support for Grief Recovery is another, often overlooked, avenue to consider. Grief is valid, regardless of the cause. If you are experiencing a void in your life which leaves you feeling sluggish, depressed, lonely or heartbroken, these are all potential symptoms of grieving.
Veteran’s Day presents an opportunity to reflect on how the military has impacted your life and the life of your loved ones. If you have a close relationship with someone who recently signed up for service, has been deployed for a period of time or has changed after returning from the military, you may be experiencing grief as a result. Giving yourself the gift of healing will let you move forward with positive relationships and emotional growth to get you through this tough time.
Many of the circumstances discussed here show parallels to other situations in life. Beyond the military, people who are near and dear to us will undoubtedly change over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps, they move away to college, or commit to a job that consumes their energy or changes their demeanor. When our relationships are impacted, we feel it. With some adjustment, patience, reflection and a good dose of support, we find ways to ride the waves of our connections with others.