It is the most wonderful time of the year, for those of us that celebrate Christmas. School is out, families gather, and happy memories are made.
All the wonderful things about the holidays are exactly the things that can make it so difficult for a family when a loved on is deployed. We recognize, respect and honor all the professions that separate families: medical professionals, first responders, fire fighters, nurses, doctors, hospital staff and other callings that keep our society safe. When it comes to a deployment over Christmas there is no celebrating with your loved one a day early or once a shift is over. The absence is not temporary.
I write from experience as a medical professional who has spent holidays away from my family to support others. I also speak as a military spouse who has been the one at home while my spouse is away supporting a mission for weeks and months before and after the holidays. My heart knows the difficulty from those two different standpoints.
Instead of writing about local adventures today I want to write about strategies to manage the holidays as the spouse on the homefront. I will also share ideas for friends who want to support the military families in their lives during the holidays. I have a list of specific ways you can offer your support and gift ideas.
To the Spouse on the Homefront
My heart is with you; whether this is your first, or fifth holiday season holding down the homefront alone. Here are some thoughts I want to share
- If this is your first holiday alone prepare to feel differently than you think you will. You may find it more emotional than you expected, even if you are not big on the holiday. Milestones during the year can bring forward feelings that have been hanging out in the periphery. Make a plan to be near friends or family if you can. Plan to see others that fill your cup.
- Continue important traditions. Remember the holiday is still important.
- Don’t hesitate to begin a new tradition. It may feel strange to start a new tradition when one of your family members is not there. It may become something that bonds you and you children together. It may become a tradition you will use again on future deployed holidays. It may become part of your annual traditions and you will get to introduce your spouse to it the following year they are home for Christmas. There are many reasons making a new tradition can be a good idea. It may also be very fun coming up with the idea for the new tradition. If you need an idea for a new tradition: you could bring gifts to base gate guards, hospital staff, or first responders to thank them for being “on duty” over the holiday.
- Surround yourself with things and people that lift you up. You do not need any additional emotional burden. Do not feel bad about giving yourself distance from people who do not recognize or support your struggle. Avoid movies, shows, books, and other media that make you feel lonely, fearful, or anxious. Stick to content with uplifting messages.
- If the above extends to social media, it is ok to give yourself a break from it without owing anyone an explanation. Maybe seeing photos of other families enjoying the holidays will make you feel veryhappy. If they do not, it is ok to set it aside and focus on what you have in front of you. A break from screen time can be a wonderful thing when you are gathered with family and friends.
- There are lots of holiday parties and treats in the December atmosphere. Cocktails and champagne are a wonderful way to celebrate a happy time of year –but be mindful that alcohol is a depressant. If you feel unusually low already adding additional lows that come after drinking might be the wrong call at this time. Consider fun alternative like a soda water with grapefruit and rosemary, warm spiced apple juice, or festive eggnog.
- The hardest part may be seeing your children miss their parent. If you have children be prepared to answer hard questions over the holidays and experience bigger feelings over the holiday. Mention the deployed parent often and keep them a part of your routine. Remind children they are loved and missed by their deployed parent. Ask them how they will celebrate similarly or differently with their deployed parent when they are next home for Christmas.
To Friends of the Military Families that want to Support
It is well meaning to give the open offer of “let me know what I can do” but this places the burden of asking for help onto a spouse who may not be comfortable asking, nor do they know what you are comfortable in offering. As an alternative I recommend you offer detailed offers of ways you can help. This shows you have thought about ways to support them and are willing to do so. I have some recommendations of ways to help and gifts to offer below. These are suggestions, but any gesture of being remembered and supported will be welcome to these families over the holidays.
Offers of acts of service
- Offer to help get a tree into the home. If they buy a fresh tree every year it may present extra difficult with one adult and little kids getting a tree transported and set up in the house. If you can lend a hand, offer it.
- Offer to help get Christmas lights hung. Even if the military spouse you know is incredibly strong and capable (they probably are) maybe the person who always hangs the lights is the one that is deployed. If that is something you are comfortable with then offer!
- Invite them/ their family over for a meal or fundistracting activity like cookie decorating. Spending time with family and friends is a welcome distraction.
- Ask them to come along to holiday outings with you. Include them. Be an extra set of hands. Make them feel welcome and part of your family.
- Offer to watch children so the adult can Christmas shop, get care packages to the mail alone, and enjoy some kid freetime to themselves ( I promise you this will be a rare and welcome gift).
- Children may be especially missing their Mom or Dad. If you are a friend of the family consider having an adult offer to spend quality time with the military kids. Maybe a Grandfather, Grandmother, or neighbor can take a military kid ice skating, or to see the ballet, or any activity that would be meaningful and help a child feel the support of their community. It will not fill the void of missing a parent but it will make them feel loved. Bonus: this gesture can also free up the Mom or Dad to have some needed time away from the demands of solo-parenting.
Offers of gifts
- An annual pass to a local attraction. Having somewhere fun and distracting to go, especially with little kids, helps during the entire year. Zoos, aquariums, botanic gardens, children’s museums, andtheme parks are of the kinds of places that may offer annual passes and can become a happy place for families of the deployed to enjoy their time together.
- Voucher for a cleaning service. It is difficult for all of us to stay ahead of neccessary chores at home. If there is only one adult at home to meet all the responsibilities a cleaning service may take alittle off their plate at a very busy time of year.
- Vouchers for drop-in daycare service.
- A custom ornament commemorating the year.
- A food gift basket or grocery store gift card. Relieving some of the financial and/or time burden of grocery shopping is a wonderful gift.
- Voucher for a photography session to be used for family photos or homecoming photos.
- Massage gift certificate. Stress can cause muscle tension and being the only parent often means doing all the holding of small children. A massage will be a welcome treat.
- Gift certificates for date nights when their spouse returns. Local restaurants, movie theaters, or activities like indoor skydiving or rock climbing are a few ideas.
I hope this article proves helpful to any military spouse whose partner is deployment during the holidays. It is hard. Find ways to make it easier. You are strong and only getting stronger through the struggle.
Families and friends of military families, thank you for thinking of us, supporting us, reaching out to us, and taking the time to think about how you can support the military families you love.