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How You Can Support Military Families: Holiday Edition

Over the last almost 10 years, I’ve been working in senior-living communities. Most of my days are spent connecting with those who have lived 80 years or longer. Ever since my first holiday season working with seniors, I’ve observed that there are two sides of their holiday coin.

On one hand, you have tremendous joy and gratitude—it’s a season of giving!

On the other, you have grief and longing.

In most of their long lives, they’ve had tremendous joy alongside tremendous hardship. I only began to understand these two sides as I experienced my own hardship while my service-member husband, James, was away on his first deployment.

The holiday season has always held a special place of joy in my heart. All of the buzz and excitement—how can one not be enthralled with it all! What I’ve now learned is that the holidays can be the most difficult season of all when you’re apart from the ones you love most.  

For those in my life, I found that they struggled to relate, and at certain times, weren’t aware of my need for support, let alone how to offer it if they were aware.

We’ve reached a new season in our country—a season where many people are not directly affected by the absence of a loved one due to war.

Looking back on the lives of the seniors I work with, they were all—each one—affected by this absence. They knew the difficulty of separation as they all were going through it in one way or another. These generations knew the grief of separation and death, and there was a communal sense of being “in it” together. In fact, our older generations gave me some of the strongest support while James was away.  

While I struggled through with the support of these seniors, I achieved a greater sense of how to ask for the support I needed from my loved ones. This year, I want to offer some ideas of how loved ones can help military families whose service members are deployed—particularly during our upcoming winter holidays. I want to invite you to share this with those who come to mind as you’re reading.  

1. Yes, bring it up in conversation.

When a resident at my community would lose a spouse, I’d hesitate to bring it up. When one of my oldest friends struggled with infertility, I didn’t bring it up. When James was deployed for 13 months, the same thing happened to me—people didn’t bring it up.

For years I believed it was a better choice to avoid a hard topic rather than face it. I thought, “Perhaps it will upset them if I bring it up.” Wow, was I wrong. I should have asked about those hard things! They’re already thinking about it.

Bring up the fact that their service member is gone, and ask if they want to talk about it. If they do, they’ll appreciate you bringing it up. If they don’t, they’ll decline the conversation. Creating a space for families to talk about the deployment and absence might offer them a significant sense of relief. And above all, they’ll know you care. They’ll know you haven’t forgotten about what they’re coping with on a daily basis—missing the one they love. The invitation to these conversations can be more meaningful than you may realize.

2. Ask about their holiday traditions.

Traditions can be difficult to maintain when a family member is away. Your help could be something like decorating the outside of their house. Maybe it’s something more, like hosting a family outing. Either way, the desire for the tradition doesn’t change, but the challenge of missing a family member can make it hard to execute.

One way you can support military families is by asking them about their traditions and helping them keep them up despite the deployment.

The Captain America ornament was “James,” while the other ornament was me, waiting for him at home.

Ask if there’s a way you can do it with them. Or, invite them to join you in one of yours.

Here’s a great example. I love decorating Christmas trees! Each year, it’s my favorite tradition. While James was away, I couldn’t bring myself to put up a tree.

I lived alone and couldn’t bear it; plus, the added stress of maintaining and cleaning it all. Family friends invited me over to join them in decorating their tree. They even went as far as to buy ornaments for both James and me that hung on their tree since we didn’t have one. This loving invitation and gift brought me incredible joy.  

3. Offer to help.

Although the service member is gone, the needs of the home and family have not changed. For families, particularly with children or pets, all the chores are still there to do. Sometimes, they don’t need you to invite them to hang out as much as they need a helping hand with dishes on a given week. Or, maybe they need an evening away from home. Whatever it may be, your offer to help could make all the difference. There’s so much a family could use help with over the holidays, and it’s likely they don’t know how to ask for it.

4. Text or call them. Invite them…for no reason at all.

One of the most meaningful, supportive acts I received was from a friend who I’ve known since college. I hadn’t been great about getting together, but she texted me just about every week. Her texts would be something like “thinking of you,” or other times, it was some way she thought about James and me that week.

See brownie point gift above and the marbles I didn’t know I needed.

There were plenty of times when I failed to text back or didn’t make time to see her while James was away, but she kept texting me. For her, this was an easy way to reach out, but for me, it was steady, consistent encouragement. During the holidays, this was extra special. She would text me thinking of how I might be missing James and how hard she knew that was.

These text messages are a great example of something small you can do. Knowing she cared to text me was all I needed. A text message, a phone call, an invitation, these are all things that let military families know they aren’t alone over the holidays.

(For extra brownie points, one of James’s old friends sent me a Christmas gift as a surprise saying, “James isn’t the only one needing a care package.” It included a bag of marbles for “when you’ve lost all your marbles.”)

5. Give them grace.

Each family and each family member is going to process things differently. Some people may not want to talk about the deployment at all, while others may want to focus entirely on the subject. Some people may fill their days to the brim with to-dos while others may binge-watch television (me…). They may bail on you or seemingly isolate themselves. Families may be stressed or they may be handling it in stride.

In any regard, they need grace from you. For you, loved ones of military families, the greatest support you can give them is the grace that allows them to figure out just how to get through this deployment. What they aren’t telling you, is that they’re going through things they don’t exactly know how to handle or process. Receiving grace will allow them space to ask for help without guilt. Your grace in their lives with you will allow them to focus on how to best support their soldier and their home front.

6. And finally, to our military families: Give yourself permission to _________.

Give yourself permission to have joy or be mad. Give yourself permission to decorate early for the holidays or not at all. Give yourself permission to eat a whole bunch of junk food or watch Friends on repeat again. Give yourself the permission you need to rest assured that you don’t have to handle the deployment perfectly.

When everything around us is set to buzz for joy, gratitude, and stellar holiday parties, remember that no matter how it goes, how you feel, or how the world around us tells us we should feel, it’s one day closer to the service member we love returning home to us. Whatever you need to get through each day is enough—even if that means skipping the things you normally do over the holidays. Give yourself permission to enjoy what you can, and do the best you can with all else.


With life comes the two sides of the holiday coin. Deployment is one of life’s many challenges. The more support we get from our loved ones, the more we can have the best of it all.  

Looking for more stories about deployment during the holidays? Check out Deployment During the Holidays: Part 1 (be sure to follow the link in the article for part 2!) and Finding Joy in the Midst of a Holiday Deployment.



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