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Military members who have a spouse and children often say goodbye to a large part of their hearts when they board that plane or ship for deployment. For the spouses who are left on their own to hold down the fort, life can get chaotic, uncertain and lonely.
The holiday season brings a new set of challenges for military families, when maintaining holiday cheer and celebrating together can be difficult in the face of such uncertainty.
So how can civilians who have friends and neighbors facing the challenges of deployment help military families in their time of need? TODAY Parents talked with a few of these families about their sacrifice, their struggles, and ways they need help during the holidays — and every day of the year.
1. Keep their minor inconveniences in mind
Malcolm and Sarah Wilkerson have been through two deployments since becoming parents — once, just ten days after their first son was born and again when Sarah was pregnant with their youngest daughter. The Fort Drum, New York, couple says military spouses often need help with the areas of life Malcolm Wilkerson calls “minor inconveniences.”
“When you don’t even share the same daylight, the minor inconveniences of life — leaky sinks, flat tires, minor illnesses — disproportionately impact a military family, because the deployed spouse is not only unable to provide assistance directly, but cannot even easily coordinate outside help,” said Wilkerson, who serves in the Army.
Lindsey Furr’s husband, Anthony, has served in the Navy for 15 years. The mom of four, who lives in San Diego, says she, too, has appreciated help with these small household tasks during her husband’s deployments.
“Lawn upkeep is a big need where we live,” said Furr. “Or helping walk the dogs would have been a nice gesture.”
2. Help whether they ask for it or not
“Don’t expect the spouse to ask for help,” added Furr. “We have a mentality that we can do it all. Sometimes, it takes someone stepping in and taking a simple burden — laundry, house cleaning, meal prep — for the spouse to say, ‘OK, maybe I can’t do it all.’”
Sarah Wilkerson agrees, adding that while telling a military spouse to let you know if they need anything is nice, it’s better to jump in and help by doing something unprompted.
“What we need is to have our spouse home — or maybe soup brought over one night — but we won’t wish it aloud,” said Wilkerson. “Waking up to three feet of snow only to find that a neighbor shoveled the driveway for you is enough to bring tears of gratitude.”
3. Be careful what you say
Thera Lewis lives in Buffalo, New York, with her husband, Joshua and their three children. Joshua served for ten years as a medic in the Air Force, and missed their youngest son’s first birthday due to a deployment.
Lewis says she lived in constant fear during her husband’s deployments, worrying that every knock on her door would bring bad news. And, she says it wasn’t any specific word of comfort she received that made her feel better, but was her friends that allowed her to cry on their shoulders without offering advice that helped her make it through.
“The minor thing that bothered me was people telling me they knew exactly how I felt because their husband had to leave on a business trip for a few days, and they were alone for that time,” said Lewis. “I’m sorry, but you do not know how I feel…I will take a few days over several months to over a year any day. Your husband on his business trip is not in danger of being killed, so definitely don’t say things like that.”
Diane Rumley is co-founder of Support Military Spouses, an organization that seeks to assist and encourage spouses of deployed service members. Rumley, too, says it’s important to choose your words of comfort carefully.
“It may seem obvious, but the number one complaint spouses have is to please not ask things such as, ‘Has your spouse been shot?’ or, ‘Have they seen any action?’ The last thing the spouse wants to think about is combat,” said Rumley. “The second biggest complaint is when people ask, ‘Do you enjoy your husband being gone?’ or say, ‘You’re lucky to have that time away from him.’”
4. Offer to take their kids and give them a break
“Help give a spouse a break and take the kids for a movie or an afternoon at the playground,” said Furr. “Sometimes, all it takes is an hour for the spouse to reset and feel a little less stressed.”
Kimberly Perez is stationed at Fort Polk, Louisiana, with her husband Aaron, who serves in the Army, and their five daughters.
“The one thing that I found hard (during a deployment) was not having the help I needed when it came to having someone watch the kids when I was working or wanted a day to myself,” said Perez. “Not having any family members nearby was hard and at times was depressing.”
5. Recognize their sacrifice
“What meant a lot to me was getting the positive feedback from family and friends, letting me know I was doing a great job while my husband was deployed,” added Perez.
Rumley agrees, adding that a great deal of the spouses her organization works with say they often stay so busy caring for their families that they forget to take care of themselves.
“A great thing to say to a spouse is, ‘We appreciate your sacrifice,’” said Rumley. “Many times, they have to hold down a family and a job while being away from their friends and family members. They often do not realize the sacrifice they are making, nor do others realize it. They absolutely appreciate being recognized for their efforts.”
6. Remember their emotional needs, too
“During my husband’s second deployment, I was effectively a single parent of three in a city where I knew almost no one,” said Wilkerson. “People often said, ‘I don’t know how you do it,’ and I didn’t really know either— but managing home and family is not the hard part. The overwhelming challenge of a deployment comes in the form of fear and isolation”
Wilkerson recalls the value of daily check-in calls from her parents and friends, and the way surprise boxes of goodies sent by her loved ones often lightened the loneliness she felt.
Furr says while there’s not much people can say to make a military spouse feel better when they’re dealing with a deployment, one of the most helpful things people can do is to offer some understanding and not judge.
“Well-meaning friends and family try, but really there is a missing piece — a hole in the family that is empty until the person returns,” she said. “The kids break down and miss their parent. The younger ones act out. So instead of judging the parent, offer sympathy.”
7. Share your family’s holiday cheer
“I felt a tremendous obligation to ensure the holidays were extra special for my kids,” remembered Wilkerson. “But when loneliness and anxiety are ever-present, as they are during a deployment, it can be hard to find the energy to joyfully plan Christmas dinner, get a tree, and string up lights.”
Wilkerson recommends surprising a military spouse with a plate of cookies, a wreath for their door, or a holiday CD.
“Anything that helped put my children in the holiday spirit helped me,” said Wilkerson.
“Many families are alone for the holidays, so offer to invite them for a holiday meal if you know they will be alone,” said Lewis. “Include them in different small traditions like taking them with you to a church service, or baking treats for others, or volunteering in the community.”