My husband and I have been together for almost twenty years. We have spent literally dozens of holidays apart due to deployments, his TDYs, and my work travel. Our first separation as a couple was in the days following 9/11, and time spent apart has been the norm ever since.
My children, who are still young, know nothing but the military life. They love the military and what it means to serve our country. They know that what their father does is important. But just because something is important doesn’t mean that it’s easy. Each new separation brings its own challenges. This current deployment is new territory for our family because it’s the longest period of time my kids have ever been apart from their father.
The holiday season makes the distance feel even farther. Growing up, the holidays meant spending time with family. There was always someone to see and somewhere to go, but now, living in different states from our families means this isn’t always possible. At times, it can be much lonelier when your spouse is on the other side of the world, and your family is separated by hundreds of miles.
It’s not all terrible though. Military life means doing what it takes to get through it.
We always plan an extra vacation over the holidays when my husband is deployed. It’s nice to have something to look forward to when the family separation becomes heavy.
Friends and acquaintances can make a big difference too. Yes, holidays separated can be sad because of the noticeable absence, but there is also an opportunity to reframe the situation and make the most of the time apart.
Holidays are a time when friends often offer a helping hand. Rather than saying “I’m so sorry you are separated this year,” ask “how will you and your family be celebrating the holiday?” Yes, we’re apart, but it’s not always a cause for sadness.
Because our family is separated for the holiday, and people recognize it, one of the best feelings in the world is to be offered a seat in someone else’s home for a celebration. For the Fourth of July, we received an unexpected invitation to join a crab feast. For Thanksgiving, we were surrounded by friends and other families not traveling for the holiday and my husband skyped in to have a quick chat with everyone.
Joy in the holiday can be found in other ways when a loved is on deployment, and it’s important to take the time to find that joy. My husband was combat wounded in late October. We could have lost him, and the family would have been challenged to learn how to readjust to a new life. Since then, we have spent more time than before communicating via Skype. It was a reminder to us that we needed to spend more time connecting and not putting off reminding people that we care.
The holidays also present an opportunity to serve others.
I can’t tell you how many times (just about every time my husband has deployed) friends, family, or neighbors say “let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.” I appreciate the sentiment, but I truly have come to dread hearing it because it places a burden on me. Think about it, when you say this to someone, they then need to think of a way you can help, and then seek the person out again to see if, in fact, they are still interested in helping, and then ask for the favor.
Many military families would rather, and fully appreciate, a friend, family member, or neighbor coming to them with a concrete offer of assistance with something specific they feel able to provide.
For instance, I work with a lovely retired Colonel. Once a month or so, she arrives at work with a casserole she’s made for the family so I don’t have to spend time in the kitchen. She doesn’t ask, she just does it. Another friend spends an evening with us every couple of weeks to break the routine of just my kids and me in the house. An offer of “can I take your kids today so you can go get a pedicure” almost never goes unused, or an offer to help decorate the house for an upcoming holiday.
Each of our friends, family members, and neighbors have special talents and time opportunities. While it’s definitely not necessary for them to help us out, I greatly appreciate it when they make a specific offer of assistance that removes the burden from me to think of how they can help.
A holiday apart isn’t fun, it isn’t easy, and it isn’t something I would wish on another family, but, I don’t want to waste a holiday season with my children on being sad. Instead, I am focused on finding adventure at our duty station, building relationships with friends and family, forging new connections in my community, and creating new holiday memories and traditions with my family.
The Military Family Advisory Network is spending this holiday season telling military family stories. Please consider supporting military families and our work with a generous donation. Thank you.
Stacie Oliver is a hardworking defense sector professional, Marine Corps spouse, mother of two, and avid volunteer. During her 16 year career on Capitol Hill, she worked to advance benefits and improve programs for military families.