As a military Veteran and a military spouse, deployments were an accepted and many times anticipated part of my life. I met and married my Marine husband in Jacksonville, North Carolina. He was assigned to a Marine Special Ops Command and deployed regularly. For years two through six of our marriage, my husband was gone 10 months out of every year. At one point I had a survey from his command about the effects of deployment on family and I realized he had been home for a total of 80 days the entire past year, only about 14 of those days being continuous. Needless to say, his deployments definitely affected our family.
Throughout the years, he has missed every holiday at least once. For some, I don’t think he has ever been home. We have two amazing kids who adore their dad, but are, unfortunately, very accustomed to his absence. One thing about my husband’s team was they usually deployed and came home around the same time every year. This meant he missed our son’s birthday, my birthday, his own birthday, our anniversary, and Easter almost every year. He was home for my daughter’s birthday, as well as Thanksgiving and Christmas most years. However, the year before he retired, he missed those too! Missing Thanksgiving and Christmas were definitely the toughest, because those are the ones that are so closely linked to family time.
As I recently reflected on these missed holidays and the challenges that went along with them, I came up with a list of my 10 Holiday Survival Tips for a military family.
- Celebrate! – Don’t skip a holiday because your Service member isn’t home. This is especially true if there are kids in the picture.
- Maintain Traditions – Traditions are important and make the holidays feel special. In our family, we trace our hands and make turkeys on our Thanksgiving tablecloth every year and everyone writes in permanent marker what we are thankful for. On the years when your loved one is absent it is still important to remember joy and celebration. These traditions allow our family to look back, reminisce, and share those memories with my husband. On the one Christmas my husband missed, his Christmas stocking was hung and filled by Santa, we still went Christmas tree hunting (my son chopped the tree), and we still cherished the memories we made.
- Take pictures – Include the loved one when possible. Send pictures and videos to them. Have them share how they are celebrating with pictures and videos when possible.
- Help your Service member pre-plan and purchase gifts or make delivery arrangements before they go. One of my girlfriends’ husband stopped by the florist before a deployment and hand-wrote cards to go with flowers which he ordered to be delivered on set days. Have your loved one write letters to family members before leaving (and maybe they will do the same for you!). Kids love mail and having personalized gifts from the absent parent will be treasured.
- Plan phone calls for down times when everyone can focus on the call. Feelings get hurt when there are too many distractions. It is fun for everyone to shout hello on a video call, but this is not the best opportunity for a real conversation. Both have tremendous value but it’s helpful to recognize that when you’re in the middle of holiday melee, a real conversation is not going to happen.
- Find new ways to celebrate. My girlfriends and I always went out together for sushi to celebrate my birthday and anniversary. This became a cherished tradition even when my husband was home (well, not for the anniversary, once he was home...). In so many ways, our friends became family and our holidays were shared with them. It helped to distract the kids and me from the absence.
- Make a small separate space that can stay decorated to share when they get home. We kept up a small tree for Christmas. His presents and stocking were waiting for him to come home and we had a mini-Christmas with him when he came home along with some really gross Easter candy and some 4th of July sparklers.
- Have another celebration when the Service member comes home. Recently my husband was gone for our daughter’s birthday, but he had a pretty dress for her to unwrap from him on her birthday and she wore it on a special dinner with just the two of them after he came home.
- Send the holiday to them. Wrap gifts, decorate a tiny tree, fill easter eggs or a trick-or-treat bag and send them to the Service member to open on the holiday. We usually included a few things the kids had at home too. I found a small cardboard tree that had sprinkles on it which grew when it was wet. The kids had one and we sent one to my husband too so they could have a similar project to compare. It’s also nice to include some extra items for the team as well because there are always those without packages.
- Don’t try to pretend it’s perfect. Acknowledge that some days just suck and missing the Service member is okay, just don’t wallow there. Talk to good friends who understand that this is a bad day and can sympathize but who don’t feed the pity. Remember that the deployment is temporary, there are more holidays to celebrate, and this is just one day in a lifetime of memories.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Katie Medina, B.A., is a Regional Coordinator for the CDP at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USU) in Bethesda, Maryland.