Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Deployment, Children, and Ways to Cope

Right now I'm just getting the hang of this whole deployment thing. Although Jason has spent over 6 years in the Army, he's never been deployed before. In many ways, I'm a newbie. When Jason spent all of 2009 on TDY, it helped prepare us for the challenges that lay ahead.

While I would never claim to be knowledgeable about deployments, I do think I've learned a little about helping my children cope with Daddy's absence. Whether he's gone for a year in Iraq or a few weeks of TDY, it's tough for all involved. I want to share a little about what I've learned so far.
For starters, Jason and I talked with the kids about what it would be like when he left and how long he would be gone. This conversation was different for the boys (Matthew had just turned 6 and Joshua was 4.5 when he left last year) than for the little kids. We didn't bring it up too far in advance because we didn't want them to wonder each day if Daddy was leaving or whether he'd be coming home after work that night. I think that Matthew had a good understanding about what was happening and I believe that Joshua probably only knew that Daddy would gone for a long time. The girls (at age 2.5) had no idea what was going on and didn't really know what we were saying.

When the time drew near for Jason to leave, we talked more often. We counted the days and tried to do as many fun things as possible before he left. Even with all of the preparation, it was still incredibly difficult to say good-bye. I remember watching Jason pack his bag and put it by the front door. I was trying so hard to maintain my composure. The kids still didn't really "get it." It was devastating to see Leila fling herself at the door and cry when Daddy drove away. To some extent she must have understood that he was not coming back soon. She repeated this behavior several times a day for the first 6-8 weeks he was gone.

I desperately wanted to help the kids process everything and feel more comfortable with the situation. After reading online, I came across a website that sold "Daddy Dolls." Unfortunately, the dolls were too expensive and we didn't qualify to receive a donation because Jason was not yet deployed-only on a year-long TDY assignment. I decided to create my own version of a doll instead.
Before Jason left I took a full-length photo of him in his uniform. I uploaded this photo to snapfish and had it printed onto a pillowcase. I was able to fit 4 images on one pillowcase with a total cost of $12. When the pillowcase arrived I cut the figures out and backed them with pink or teal cammo fabric. Then I stuffed them and stitched them closed. For less than $20 I had 4 dolls, one for each of the younger kids. It's been over a year now and they still carry these dolls around with them!Because Matthew and Joshua didn't want a doll, we had to figure out something different for them. I found a website that sold dog tags (I think I paid around $30 for 2 of them) that could be personalized with a photo and printing. I ordered 2 dog tags using the same full-length photo of Jason and had a message from him printed on the back. To this day Matthew still wears the dog tag or carries it around like a key chain.
Another neat reminder of Daddy came in the form of miniature ACUs. I found two matching sets of child-sized ACUs at the last twins club consignment sale. I snatched them up (although surely there weren't too many other people wanting two of the same size Army uniforms for their kids) and was so excited. I knew the boys would love them... and they did! When Jason left for Iraq the boys wore their uniforms for days. They even slept in them. I had to pry Matthew's off of him so that I could wash it and he wore it for a week straight.

One of the best ways to explain deployment to my young children has been reading them stories. There are a lot of books that are wonderful for kids and really help them see that everything is going to be ok. I read reviews at Amazon and picked a few books for our family.
The first book I bought was "Night Catch" by Brenda Ehrmantraut. I will admit that I have yet to ever read through the entire book without choking up. However, the kids love this book! It's a story of a father who teaches his son a game of catch using a star in the night sky. He blows a star to his son each night and then his son blows it back to him. My kids (the girls especially) love this idea! Each night Leila and Sarah go to the window and blow a star to Daddy. And of course, each night there is a star waiting for them that Daddy obviously blew straight over from the other side of the globe. Isn't that sweet?

Another book that we love is "While You Are Away" by Eileen Spinelli. This book is unique because it shares the stories of service members from each different branch of the military, including a military mom. The pictures in this book are beautiful and depict each child wondering about their parent and show what that parent is doing during their deployment (flying a plane, driving a Jeep, etc.) The illustrations that appeal to preschool and elementary-age children and the writing is easy enough for even Matthew to read.
I think our favorite children's book about deployment is "Daddy's In Iraq But I Want Him Back" by Carmen Hoyt. This book is not just a tear-jerker like the others. This one makes me bawl. Joshua even told me that I shouldn't read it too much because it makes me miss Daddy. The story is about a 3-year old boy whose father deploys to Iraq. Some of the details in the story are so accurate that you know it must be written (and it was) by someone who has experienced deployment firsthand. The little boy talks to his Daddy on the phone and doesn't know what to say so he just keeps saying "Hi Daddy! I miss you." This part makes me tear up because that's what my kids do too. And then the little boy tries to hold up the phone to show something to his father. Leila and Sarah do this too! They still don't quite understand that Daddy can't see them through the phone. At the end of the book there is a wonderful reunion and I love to tell the kids that we will be having that same experience later this year. I just love this book!Another awesome resource that we have found is the Sesame Street DVD, "Talk, Listen, Connect." If you're a military family you can get a copy here. This DVD features Elmo and his family as they face a separation. There are different chapters that cover deployment and the homecoming. We've watched the entire DVD because I found the homecoming chapter to be especially helpful when Jason came to visit us. The kids gained a much better understanding of Jason's deployment and what it will be like when he does return home. Thank you to the folks at Sesame Street for creating this fantastic DVD!
With all of my focus being on the children, sometimes I don't take the time to think about my feelings. And I miss Jason so much that sometimes it's difficult to get out of bed in the morning, knowing that he's not safe beside me. Being the thoughtful, romantic (apparently this is a new development) husband that he is, Jason sent me a Valentine's Day gift from Iraq. He ordered a heat-shaped key chain that splits into two halves. Each half is engraved and I kept the half that says "Jason" and mailed him the half that says "Heather." Now I have a constant reminder of him. (Not that I needed a reminder!)
And who needs a reminder when you can have Daddy right thereat the breakfast table with you?

He's larger than life!
We were incredibly blessed to receive a donation from I'm Already Home in the form of a Flat Daddy. Flat Daddies are the brilliant idea of Elaine Dumler (who also wrote several great books about dealing with deployment) and she generously donates them to military families. We sent a picture of Jason to her printing company and they created a huge, fabric poster. The poster has an adhesive back so I mounted ours on foam board.Now Daddy can, and does, enjoy being right there with us. And we enjoy having him here. I think it's especially important for Nathan and Ryan to see Flat Daddy because Daddy has only been home for a few short months of their entire lives. They hardly know him.

Now that we have Flat Daddy in the house, Nathan loves to take him for walks. I'm not as worried that my babies won't know their Daddy after 2 years apart. I think they'll recognize him from the poster. Poor Flat Daddy... sometimes the kids tackle him all at once. Just like real life!

Finally, one of my favorite ways of dealing with this deployment (besides copious amounts of chocolate and caffeine) has been staring at the beautiful photos we had taken just before Jason left. There is an amazingly generous charity called Operation Love ReUnited and they connect military families with local photographers who offer a free photo session and book of images. If you have time, go check out their website and look at some of the awesome military families in the galleries.

We've been blessed to have so many ways to remember Jason while he's gone. Even though we can't talk right now, I still feel a strong connection to him through the reminders around the house and the photos on the walls. It's made it easier for the kids and I to cope with the separation. And sometimes I look at these pictures and I can't help but smile...
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