Staying positive in the midst of disappointment
by Karen Pavlicin
Sherri Fassbender and her family were looking forward to her husband Carl’s return from Iraq. He was home recently on a two-week R&R leave and they had made plans for homecoming. “I’ll be home before Easter,” he had said. Major Fassbender had been away from his family for 15 months and was just two months away from homecoming when Sherri received an email from the commander. Carl was being extended another seven to eight months. He would miss Easter at home. He would miss their son’s first communion, a daughter’s confirmation, and their oldest daughter’s graduation from high school. The family vacation they had planned would have to wait. He would not be home for the summer as planned.
Many units, even those whose service members have already been deployed a year or more, have been extended as part of the updated military strategy for the war on terrorism.
Deployment extensions can feel very different from regular deployment situations. Suddenly you have a new time line, a new date to push forward to. Fears and anxieties you may have worked through can resurface. On the positive side, you are already in a deployment routine. Sherri explains, “We had fewer adjustments to make compared to the beginning of the deployment.” You might look at your list of goals and think, “Well, at least I have more time to reach those goals now.” Depending on the circumstances of the extension, however, you might also feel a host of fresh emotions, such as:
- Disappointment, especially over new milestones your service member will miss
- Anger or frustration
- Physical aches or exhaustion
- Quickness to tears
- Increased fears and worry
While these responses are normal, there is a danger in allowing any of these emotional reactions to continue beyond a week or so. Some of these dangers include:
- Apathy, including not caring about taking care of yourself or providing a structured, consistent environment for your children
- Reduced communication
- Unhealthy anger, resentment, negativity
- Increased physical stress, sickness, injury
One of the first things you can do to deal with a deployment extension is to find a safe outlet for your initial reaction to the news. Be angry at the situation, but don’t blame a particular person. Keep in mind that a normal reaction for everyone in the family is guilt: service members may feel bad that they won’t be coming home and worry about additional stress on their family; kids may wonder if their behavior or fears caused the extension. Try to work out some of your emotions by writing your feelings in a private journal or going to a safe place to scream or complain. Help those around you do the same. You had no control over this extension but you can control how you respond to it.
A few tools you can put in your deployment extension kit to help you combat the negative effects and turn back to the positive approach of celebrating each day:
Put on good dance music. It’s hard to be angry or depressed when you are listening to music that makes you want to dance.
Put a recent photo by your bed stand – a photo that depicts a wonderful aspect of your loved one’s personality or your relationship – so the first thing you see when you wake up and when you go to bed is a reminder of your love.
Watch a funny movie, one that really makes you laugh. Laughter and a sense of humor can help lighten any moment and give you perspective to deal with a situation with a little more patience.
Surround yourself with positive people and influences. Post an inspirational saying on your refrigerator.
Create a worry notebook. Any time you feel worried, whether it’s a medical test result or the fear that your service member will be injured or killed, write your fear in the notebook. Do you have questions on your mind about a possible second extension or a redeployment shortly after homecoming? Do you know how you would be notified in case of injury or death? Write down your questions so you can get them off your mind and answer them as needed. Set an appointment for no more than 20 minutes and no more than once a week when you can look in your notebook and “worry.” The rest of the time, live your life. Don’t spend that time worrying. Just get it off your mind and into your notebook for your worry time.
If you don’t already have one, create a “me time” plan. There are 1440 minutes in a day. Even if you spend 60 minutes on yourself – to exercise, meditate, shop, pray, participate in a creative outlet, whatever you need to keep balance in your life – that still leaves 1380 minutes for everyone else. Do you give yourself at least an hour a day just for you?
Give yourself a fighting chance to deal positively with the challenges of each day by making sure you and everyone else in your family gets enough sleep, healthy food, and exercise. Get the basics every day.
Ask a friend to help coordinate offers of help. Tell that person what would really help – perhaps someone to get your groceries or mow your lawn or babysit young children while you exercise – and ask her to talk with people who have offered to help. Your friend can match up willing volunteers with what you need most.
Express your love. Make time in each communication for feel-good love talk – include it in every letter, email, or phone call with your service member and each interaction with your family at home. During a deployment extension, reaffirming your love and commitment can go a long way to helping each person in your family feel more positive.
Plan at least one fun activity for yourself and your family during this extension. Give yourself permission to really enjoy this time.
Consider this deployment extension as a new beginning. If there are things you wish you had done during the deployment, you can do them now. If there are routines that aren’t quite working for you, go ahead and change them. Yes, deployment extensions are disappointing. But you can do this! A few months is a short time compared to spending your life together. Take all of the positive things you learned during this deployment and use them to turn these next few months into a positive, rewarding experience. Find ways to continue to connect with each other and grow even closer.
“We’ve all grown so much,” says Sherri. “I’m past the anger now. We’re back in survival mode. The video camera will get lots of use in the next few months!”
Karen Pavlicin is the award-winning author of Surviving Deployment: A guide for military families and Life After Deployment: Military families share reunion stories and advice, both available at MilitaryFamilyBooks.com.