The holiday season is upon us – and for my military family, we’re feeling the impact this year. For our tight-knit family, the holidays mean a moment to relax, unwind, and reconnect with each other, days to dine together, and opportunities to learn family history and stories from one another. These are days in which new family memories are made – and they are simply amazing. But this year, we’re not together. Our loved ones are living in a place that we consider home, some 2,907 miles away!
It’s not easy for us, but it never is. Throughout the year during deployments, families like mine sacrifice time with their military family member, which in my case is my husband. We sacrifice our peace of mind knowing someone we love works in a dangerous occupation. And as part of our commitment to the military, we also sacrifice friendships and closeness with our communities and extended families, plus a stable and consistent home life, each time we move across the country to a new base assignment.
These psychological and emotional stresses, while common for military families (and for many others living many miles away from loved ones) seem to be magnified during the holiday season, since they are times meant to be celebrated with close friends and family.Before I talk about more about tips on how to cope with the holidays for those of you (or your loved ones) who are away from home like we are, I’d like to point out that these stressors I’ve mentioned aren’t unique to us or a few families we know.
It has been scientifically proven that children of military personnel sometimes experience mental health problems and trauma as a result of these and other issues related to the difference in lifestyles that their families lead (from that of an average child in a non-military family). According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, military life can be a source of psychological stress for children in that multiple deployments, frequent moves and having a parent injured or die is a reality for many children in military families.
In fact, during one of the deployments my husband was on, one of my children began to emotionally regress. He was school aged but began to display some behaviors of a child much younger than his physical age, and typically only displayed these behaviors at home, never at school. Regression is considered a very common behavior for military children to display during all three phases of deployment (before, during, and after).
In addition to regression, my children have also experienced emotional breakdowns or meltdowns during moments in which they were totally unexpected. These breakdowns usually come when they see someone else with a grandparent, cousin, aunt, or uncle. In fact, they all had a meltdown on the way to the birthday party of a close friend’s cousin. When my husband and I asked why everyone in the back seat was crying, they simply said (between sobs) “we miss our cousins!” It’s very typical behavior while they learn to adjust, since it’s expected that children may lose their ability to keep their cool and cope with problems that they’ve easily handled before. They may have heightened emotions and lower thresholds for minor incidents, or be more moody and irritable for a short time.
Knowing this, how can you, we, and anyone, avoid these issues when you’re new in town or when it costs practically two mortgage payments to travel to see these loved ones, to reconnect with the people who help keep our families centered? The reality: it is very difficult.
In 2014, when my family moved across the country to a place where outside of an aunt and uncle, we practically knew no one. We were fortunate enough to have my parents come out and celebrate Thanksgiving with us that year, it really did ease the pain. Christmas we spent with said Aunt and Uncle, they did everything they could to make us feel comfortable to make us feel at ease about not being “home for the holidays.”
But I remember times that haven’t looked like that. And here is what I recommend for families in our shoes:
- Continue celebrations with your extended family: You do not have to physically be together to celebrate. Consider video chat, social media, and online chat as outlets or means to celebrate the holidays together;
- Start something new: While the holidays are often filled with tradition, consider starting new traditions with your family;
- Celebrate with other families who understand what you’re experiencing: there is no better feeling than surrounding yourself with people who “just get it!”;
- Giving thoughtful gifts: This is a great idea especially for children of deployed personnel. Gifts such as books that come along with a recording of that parent, or even of a family member (grandma or grandpa perhaps?) reading that book, can mean so much to a child;
- Utilize your resources: Groups like the Military’s Morale, Welfare, and Recreation services department are put in place to assist military families in need. They have much to offer and are always happy to help.
So here we are, 2907 miles away from home and now 431 miles away from that wonderful aunt and uncle. And while the distance makes me completely and utterly sad, I will try my hardest to enjoy this holiday season. I plan to dive in head-first. Yes, it’s easy to feel down when you are separated from your loved ones. However, I will keep my family busy and as wrapped up in the joy of the holidays being celebrated as possible. I will be mindful of my husband and my children by remembering, that I’m not the only one spending holidays without extended family. And I will most grateful that my husband is home for the holidays this year, especially since we’ve spent so many apart!
If you know a military family or a family who lives far away from their loved ones, consider making them a part of your family over the holidays. Invite them over for Christmas dinner or New Year’s Eve. I am positive they will be grateful for your kindness.