by Krista Wells, The Military Spouse Coach (R)
Deployments are extremely difficult, but finding out that your spouse is coming home later than expected makes things even harder. We all attended the pre-deployment orientation where we discussed planning, preparation, and reunion, but we are seldom told that deployments can be unexpectedly extended.
Extended deployments are incredibly hard. If the extension happens to fall during your family’s first deployment or is a further extension of your family’s first extended deployment, you might be extra upset. You may have bargained with yourself just to get through that fixed deployment period, but now you find yourself forced to renegotiate that bargain and are struggling to cope with more than you originally signed up for. Perhaps you were just starting to adjust to the fact that your partner was coming home and now you have to reconsider all of these complicated emotions.
It’s not fair and you can only take so much. I find that extensions are even harder than the initial news of a deployment. My first reaction when speaking to spouses in these situations is just to offer a big hug and say, “this sucks” and “thank you so much for YOUR service too.”
The extended deployment is yet another example of the unseen sacrifices that spouses make which, sadly, often go unrecognized in our society. That’s why it’s important to remember how important you and your sacrifices are.
Civilian articles on “coping with stress” can be so trite, filled with tips on self-care and deep breathing exercises. While these tips are well intentioned, they just aren’t that helpful when you are dealing with this unique deployment stress. You need to arm yourself with more than meditation, and you need to know that you WILL get through this and come out stronger.
It’s more than okay, however, to take a minute and have a pity party. The well-intentioned civilian-authored tips that you’ll read in many magazines or blogs simply tell you to focus on gratitude. While I love keeping a gratitude journal, there is also some benefit to allowing yourself to grieve. Sometimes, you can’t just focus on the small, beautiful things in life; when you are really bummed out, watching that gorgeous butterfly in the yard just isn’t as comforting as the articles promise such moments to be. And I really don’t like the “oh, it could be worse” mentality. While, granted, a sprained ankle may be better than a broken leg, it still hurts a lot!
Acknowledge your suffering and do your best to cope by following these six tips. And remember that your military spouse community is always here to support you.
#1 Switch to an Offensive Position
This may seem easier said than done, but switching from a defensive to an offensive position really helps. When you get bad news, it’s normal to feel self-protective, but this kind of defensiveness can actually impede your progress and leave you stuck in a rut. Instead, try taking action. Action lowers anxiety and tricks your subconscious into thinking about the things that you “can do” rather than dwelling on the “what ifs” and getting caught in a cycle of toxic thinking.
Switching yourself to the offensive mode is optimistic and can be achieved with even the smallest of actions. It could be writing a simple note to your loved one telling them that you are sad, but reassuring them (and secretly yourself) that you WILL get through this and that you are a tough and resilient family.
Make some calls and inform your support network that there has been an extension. But also let your loved ones know what they can do to support you. Tell them that you are disappointed but feeling strong. By doing so, you are reiterating to your subconscious that you are in the driver’s seat and that you will make the best of this very difficult situation.
#2 Let Friends and Family Know About Your New Situation
Let friends and family know that the deployment has been extended and write down a list of things you may need help with. You can let them know that, while you are sad, there are concrete ways that they can help ease your burden in the face of the extension. People from work and church often want to help but don’t know how. If they ask what you need, be prepared with some specific tasks that they can do to take the stress off of you. You can be honest and say, “I really need a babysitter on xyz day” or “I’d love company over the upcoming holiday weekend”.
Let your friends and community know the truth.
I often hear “Thanks for asking, but I’m okay” from military spouses when they’re offered a helping hand. It’s just as easy, however, to say, “Oh my gosh, thanks for asking! Maybe just take my kids to the park one day if you are going anyway,” or “I’d love some frozen pizzas so I don’t have to worry about dinner for once.” It can also be hard to tell your “sob story” again and again, so don’t! Instead, ask a family member or friend to call other members of your community to pass on the news about the extension and help secure the support you need.
When I’ve faced an extension in the past, I liked to tell friends and family members not to feel sorry for me but just to be sad with me.
#3 Acknowledge Any Real “To Dos”
When deployments change, there can be some added logistical steps that you need to take care of. I find that this period of numbness is actually a good time to take care of your to-do list. Sit down and push through this phase of filling out forms and dealing with finances. You know what you need to do.
Sometimes, your family receives different tax and interest rates during deployment, so make sure you take care of the things you know you need to deal with. Putting your to-do list behind you is a gift because, once you have dealt with all of the necessary logistics, you open yourself up to the next step of grieving gracefully.
When your brain is spinning in anger, write out your to-do list, grab a bag of M&Ms, and work on completing the list. If you have friends who are also facing extended deployment, invite them over and tackle your lists together. Then make a cup of tea and do something fun.
Sometimes, a meditative task like organizing the photos on your phone or treating yourself to a small splurge item can be just enough to lift your spirits. This is a time to be gentle with and proud of yourself, so a small reward is more than okay.
#4 Seek Support
There is a bit of a leadership vacuum when it comes to genuine support for military spouses. I mean, there are spouse appreciation events and family days but, when you are really grieving, these occasions can often feel like lip service. There isn’t enough of a focus on how difficult deployment is for military spouses and, when deployments are extended, there is even more focus on the service member in harm’s way rather than the family working through his or her absence on the home front.
I feel that the military and civilians really care about military families and often want to help, but that they never quite know what to do to support us. We are often so shocked when we are asked if we need help with anything that we automatically respond, “No, thanks for offering but I’m fine.” Or we are simply too angry about the extended deployment to call the support line number given to us by our unit at the original deployment debriefing.
During such a difficult time, we sometimes feel like we hate everyone and we don’t even know what we need; then, a few weeks down the line it all sinks in and we realize just how depressed and overwhelmed we are.
Just remember, it’s okay to seek support. It’s okay to let your kids’ elementary school teachers know about the deployment, to tell your homeopathic doctor that you aren’t sleeping, and to ask your chaplain if you can come in and vent. Many of the support services that are available to the military spouse community often go underutilized. Most commands offer spouse and military family support through volunteers or even paid staff members. But, if you don’t reach out, they don’t know that you need help.
I remember when my husband (a reservist) was deployed during the winter. I was pregnant at the time, so I couldn’t shovel the snow from my driveway. I eventually asked my neighbor for the number of a plowing service and her husband ended up snow blowing my driveway for me. If I hadn’t asked around, I would have struggled in silence. Make sure to reach out and let people know the specific things that they can help you with. I always suggest letting your coworkers, your friends at church, and other members of your support community know how they can help during the extended deployment.
I know that it can be hard to ask for help, but many people are genuinely happy to help you—they just need to know what kind of support you need.
#5 Create a “New” Vision
Having a vision is a great way to take away the pressure of feeling like you have to do everything right away. If you have read my articles or listened to my show, then you know that I am a big fan of having a vision and seasonal goals, which is a great way to stay in an offensive position. An extension, however, can throw a wrench in a family’s vision for the next season.
This means that it is a great time to make a new vision. Think about your health, wealth, and relationships, and treat the added time apart as a renewed opportunity to work on your fitness goals, a new part-time business, reading about relationships, doing special things with the kids, or writing love letters. I read civilian goal-setting articles on taking daily action steps. They explain the importance of eating the “big frog” in the morning and pushing yourself to make the important calls needed in order to grow your business. These tactics don’t work, however, if you aren’t in the right mindset to attract success.
My advice is to acknowledge the ebb and flow of your energy and do what you can. I am a big fan of tiny triumphs each day. If you only have the energy to clean out your pantry or hose off the lawn furniture, then just do that. It’s okay to take baby steps. There is time for bigger action steps later. Just do something little to lift your vibration instead of trying to move mountains.
A great action step might be painting your nails, buying yourself fresh flowers, drinking your favorite tea, or taking in a great novel or movie. Think about the lifestyle you are moving toward and just take care of yourself as you imagine creating new dreams both individually and as a family. Meditate on the life you want and share this vision with your loved ones when they return so that you can create it together.
#6 Plan Extra Grieving Time
Do what works for you. I’ve always read that it’s best to let yourself grieve and then deal with paperwork, but I like to suggest the opposite approach. I feel like we can often just push through what we need to do when we are angry or in shock, as long as we know that we are going to give ourselves much-needed grieving time afterwards. There is something comforting in telling myself that, after contacting my loved one to offer support, letting my friends and family know about my new situation, filling out paperwork, and acknowledging my new goals, I am going to give myself some time to mourn this crappy situation.
I literally recommend putting in a personal day at work or asking a friend if they can take your kids for an afternoon so that you can get a pedicure and cry it out. Plan for your pity party day.
I love the idea of taking care of everything when you are “in shock” and then grieving.
Civilian articles on coping often forget the importance of good old-fashioned mourning. Your spouse is staying away longer than you expected and you are pissed. You still pack lunches, water the lawn, take the garbage out, go to work, clean the house, and put the kids to bed. Well, guess what, you are also allowed to go outside and scream into the woods, punch the sofa pillows, or just cry.
And you get extra time, in my book. I mean, you are often already riding that roller coaster of emotions when life adds this tailspin. It’s daunting and draining. While I think that you should tell your spouse that you are okay so that he or she can focus on the mission at hand, there is nothing wrong with taking a long teary-eyed drive with the music blaring or eating a cupcake for breakfast.
Do what you need to do; you are entitled to a small pity party.
These six tips don’t necessarily need to be addressed in the order that I presented them. Do what works for you and your family, but know that you are part of a loving community that notices your hard work and struggles. I see spouses dealing with extended deployments and I just want to give them a hug and let them know that I care about them and to encourage them to do their best.
Extended deployments are so hard and can make the eventual reunion much trickier, so just be proud of yourself and know that you aren’t alone. Reestablishing routines isn’t easy but you will get through this time and flourish.
One of my readers shared that it helped her to let go of thinking that things would finally “go back to normal” after her spouse’s extended deployment. After all of that time apart and so much personal growth on her part, she embraced “a new normal” that she was able to share with her spouse upon his return.
I invite you to join our community of spouses who are getting through this experience and growing together. Feel free to share tips and tricks that work for you and I will pass them on to the broader community. Your sharing can make the difference for a new spouse facing similar struggles.
Thank you for listening! Let us know what you think of this episode! Have something to add? Share your tip in the comment section!
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