“How is it possible that this hurts worse than the day he left?”
It’s the question I asked myself when my deployed husband called to let me know that his upcoming return-date had been cancelled (#thankscoronavirus).
In that moment, the reality of his extension hit me like a bag of rocks. I had spent the last months using all of my energy to stay positive and motivated as we moved closer to being reunited. I had carefully crafted the days and weeks of my life to keep myself healthy and happy through this deployment- and I could quite literally feel my willpower to keep it up leave me as he shared the news.
It’s like getting to the end of a marathon and having someone move the finish line.
I cried. Big, ugly tears.
The toxic combination of disappointment and exhaustion at the thought of doing this even longer was paralyzing. The painful truth that our choices and our plans are not truly our own right now cut deep, and everything felt out of control.
A few weeks later, while the sadness is still very real, I’m settling into life on a new timeline. I can see past the extension, and am beginning to adjust my plans and expectations about what the months ahead will look like. But here’s the thing to know: I didn’t get there overnight. It took time, and some intentional steps to heal. Here’s what works for me (in this EXACT order):
You. Get. To. Cry. About. This…. Period.
Give yourself as long as you need to privately process this pain. A delayed homecoming is especially painful because it mixes dashed dreams with a heavy dose of added stress. Not only are you managing the disappointment of a missed reunion, but are now also facing a longer period of waiting. It’s a double whammy, and your brain needs some time to accept that.
Take a day (or more) to “be in your feels”, whatever that means for you. You may choose to journal, listen to songs you love, read, or simply cry it out. Give your brain some quiet space without asking too much else from it. This is not the day to tackle your to-do list or finish that assignment from work. If you have tasks to do for others, let them know you need an extension- they’ll understand. This might mean that you need to cut yourself some extra slack today.
Maybe you let the kiddos watch way more T.V. than usual so you have some space. Maybe you skip all the cleaning and order in pizza. Maybe you take the day off from work if you’re able. Take it as far as you need- this day is a recovery day, and you get to decide how you use it.
2. REACH OUT FOR SUPPORT… SELECTIVELY
Key word here being SELECTIVELY.
Eventually, you’re going to start sharing the news that this deployment has been extended. Whether you’re sharing intentionally with family who needs to be updated, or casually with friends who ask “Isn’t our spouse supposed to be home soon?”, this extension is something you’ll end up talking about.
But for now, as you’re still processing, you get to choose who knows- and I can’t stress enough the importance of choosing wisely. If you’re struggling to process the news, take a minute to decide which friends are going to respond with the type of support your still-hurting-heart needs right now.
In the first few days after a homecoming is cancelled, the last thing I want to hear is “look at the brightside” or “it could be worse”. I seriously appreciate having friends who are positive and help me find things to be grateful for- but when I’m still coming to terms with big feelings I’m usually not ready for that level of optimism.
I’m still sad- and that can be uncomfortable for friends to hear. What I want to avoid when I reach out for support is feeling like I need to justify my emotions. So, in the very beginning, I choose to reach out to those friends who are great listeners. People who will be empathetic, and steer clear of encouraging me to “stay positive”.
Telling a friend that homecoming has been delayed can be a really important step in helping yourself accept and come to terms with the news- so choose a friend who is going to be comfortable sitting with you in the suck. Let them know before you start sharing that you’re not looking for advice or optimism, but that you really need them to listen. Giving your friend this “heads up” will help release them from the need to fix this situation for you, and frees them to be the the listener you need in that moment.
3. CHANGE YOUR MILESTONES
You probably had some milestones or goals that you were using to help guide your deployment countdown.
Now is the time to reset your expectations and begin looking forward. If you had a goal that you were working toward- make it bigger so you can continue to pursue it longer. If you were using a holiday as a mile marker to look forward to (ex. “After the July 4th Party my spouse will be home”) choose a new one to set your sights on at a later date.
This is the time to create what I call a “calendar of joy”. Take a hard look at the weeks ahead of you, and write down every day you’re looking forward to. Dig deep to identify even the little things coming up in the days ahead that will bring you joy. Your moments of joy could include major moments like birthdays and holidays, or activities that you’re looking forward to like planting a garden, or having a call with a friend.
The important thing here is to get as many of those moments on the calendar and in front of you as a visual reminder that happiness is not delayed just becoming homecoming was. As I write this, in the age of coronavirus and social distancing, I’m more aware than ever of just how critical it is during a deployment that we learn to create our own joy. Getting great at managing deployment countdowns means getting great at being creative about finding things (besides homecoming) to look forward to.
If you’re having trouble thinking of things to look forward to, this is a great opportunity to call your (carefully selected) support system and ask them to help you brainstorm!
4. DAMAGE CONTROL
Once I’ve processed, selected my support system, and changed my milestones, I finally begin to feel like I’m ready to come up for air. Deployment extensions often require some logistical legwork on the homefront. If you’ve planned around a cancelled homecoming it may be time to begin making necessary changes.
When you’re ready, set aside a time to connect with your spouse and check in on a few important things that may need updating:
POA’s: If you have a time-sensitive Power Of Attorney this is the time to make the adjustment. Your spouse will typically have the ability to do this from their location, but if they’re not sure, they should contact their chain-of-command to discuss options.
Childcare: If you’ve made childcare arrangements to make the deployment more manageable at home, check with your childcare providers to confirm that you’ll need to extend your arrangement.
Vacation Time: You may have taken time off of work to spend with your spouse at homecoming. If you’d rather hold on to your PTO to use at the REAL homecoming, connect with your supervisor to see about changing it- they’ll likely be understanding and happy to accommodate!
Trips/ Plans: If you’ve scheduled a trip or event after homecoming consider whether you’d like to cancel, or invite a friend to join you instead. At the time of writing, most trips and events in the immediate few weeks are being postponed as it is due to COVID-19, but if you’ve had a homecoming cancelled in the distant future you may decide to reschedule or invite a friend.
Inform Others: If there are close friends or family who have also been looking forward to your spouse’s return, you may decide to share the news of this delay with them as well. Connect with your partner to decide who needs to know, and which of you will give the update.