For families after war, homecomings are joyous events. You are reunited with someone you love dearly. But what is not talked about as much is the mixed feelings and emotions families and veterans have over homecoming. As happy as it is, it can also be a time of trepidation, uncertainty and difficulty. Sadness, grief and feelings of loss can be involved, too.
The public generally doesn’t think about this side of things. But families face it, and it can catch them off guard. What is also not talked about is that the family has to reintegrate just as much as the veteran does. Understandably so, this can be a very sensitive and fragile time for families.
What happens around homecoming and in the period after? Let’s take a look.
The veteran comes home, is reunited with a spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend, children, parents, friends, neighbors. Everyone has changed. Kids have grown and are talking different jargon and into new things. The spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend has changed, grown in spirit, is used to doing things alone and managing the household. Parents and neighbors may have gone through illness, loss, a move, retirement, etc.
Not only have family and friends changed, but the local environment has, too. New businesses, new growth or loss, employers and colleagues – it’s all changed.
The main point being: the veteran, as hard as he or she tried to stay connected, has missed out. This causes feelings of being “out of place” and “not belonging.”
What’s more, the veteran also has to deal with missing people he or she left behind. And missing the daily routine, people and places that have been the fabric of life for months (sometimes years) on end. Veterans do miss these things and that’s hard for people at home to understand. They think: why would anyone miss a war? But vets do. And that longing and separation creates feelings of grief, loneliness and unease.
Added to everything, is the emotional and spiritual impact war has had on the veteran. Much of which cannot be communicated and remains hidden and unexpressed.
So, we have the veteran dealing with all of this. Expected to be happy, content, glad to be back, ready to move on, certain of what to do with the rest of their lives – and often feeling very mixed emotions and disconnected from everyone and everything that has meant something to him or her.
Many vets are single, college-age men and women who do not have significant others or spouses and children. They come home to parents who aren’t quite sure how to parent them now. Parents get alarmed when a grown child seems adrift or is dealing with issues that they don’t have the experience or insight to help with. Loving parents want to know how to help, feel helpless to help a child who is a veteran and don’t know whether to set boundaries or take it easy on their child.
There may be financial issues of support and the veteran’s inability to find a job that all add to a new family dynamic. Mom and Dad have to determine what is the best way to support and help their child and need to figure out how to deal with the adult-to-adult relationship they now have with that child. Parents also may not have anticipated the grown child moving back in and this may affect their marital relationship as well. Single vets are often under pressure to go back to college, to know immediately what they want to do with their lives, to get out there and be ambitious in the workplace. Parents feel this pressure, too, from their friends and colleagues.
(Parents: let me tell you this – listen to your heart and instincts when it comes to your child. At any age. Listen to the child and make decisions based on what your heart – not society – tells you is right.)
The Spouse or Girlfriend/Boyfriend
Then we have the veteran’s spouse or girlfriend/boyfriend who is an incredibly strong individual who has been managing the household, finances, children and work all on his or her own. They’re used to being in authority, used to leading, making decisions for the family, and have learned to be tough and not complain (because there is little sympathy out there for military spouses beyond a close circle of friends and family – and sometimes that doesn’t exist either). The veteran comes home and all of a sudden the responsibility shifts – or is expected to shift and doesn’t. Frustration, unmet expectations, wanting relief and not getting it – all come into play. As do the mixed feelings of having to relinquish independence and control to ease back into the partnership.
While the family leadership dynamics change the romantic relationship has to be renewed. And you find yourself sleeping with someone that has vast areas of experiences and relationships that you have not been part of, even though you’ve been “together” the whole time. There is a distance between you no matter how close you’ve remained through phone calls and social media. The veteran has changed. You have changed.
Children have grown accustomed to the veteran being away and while their world returns to blissful normal when a veteran returns, they soon adjust to “mommy” or “daddy” being home and go on with their everyday lives. This can leave the veteran feeling a bit unneeded. Children often continue to treat the homefront parent as the only one with authority or may “use” the veteran as someone who will give in to their wishes, despite the other parent’s decisions. This causes tension.
Children easily pick up on unexpressed emotions and can sense when “mommy” or “daddy” is going through a tough time. So they will be dealing with their own fears and insecurities about what is going on in the family and what will happen in the future. They may express their fears by acting out or being ‘naughty’ which can add to the already tense emotions flowing around.
The Big Question: Who Are You Supposed to Be Now?
Every person in the family goes through conflicting emotions during and after the homecoming period. Knowing this is normal and talking about what to expect before the homecoming can be very helpful. But if you didn’t get that chance or find yourself dealing with conflicts and mixed feelings even long after the “honeymoon” period has worn off – you’re not alone.
What Can You Do?
1. Recognize that what you are dealing with is bigger than any of you. War is a very, very big thing. It’s not just “what you do” – war is and is supposed to be life-changing. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it’s so familiar now that it should be easier to adjust to. Respect that what you are all going through is something very big, very deep and very powerful. It’s supposed to be. Give yourself the grace of acknowledging that. And remind yourself of it when things get tough.
2. Talk about it. Gather together and acknowledge that reintegration is challenging, that everyone is going to have different feelings, that emotions are not “good” or “bad” but simply expressions, and reaffirm your power as a family to take it one day at a time.
3. Ease off on obligations, social and work activities. Treat this time the same as you would if someone was recovering from a lengthy illness or injury. Give yourself and family a break, and put boundaries on your time.
4. Give the veteran space to just be. So much pressure is on vets to return to work, return to “normal,” get on with life that they often don’t take any time at all to address what they are feeling. They may not know what they’re feeling, but if someone else acknowledges that it’s okay to just be and feel what they do, it is healing.
5. Make sure the spouse has time to be, too. There’s a ton of pressure on spouses/girlfriends/boyfriends to appear as if everything is fine and wonderful. People expect that once a veteran comes home, the story ends and you all go back to living happily ever after. Don’t let this define your expectations. You need time to process and redefine relationships and how everything fits together now.
6. Keep routines for children, but add some new ones that are unique to your family.
7. Get rest. All of this consumes tons of energy – spiritual, emotional, physical- energy. Make sure you and your family are getting rest and have time to relax. It’s okay to just hang out and have fun. You don’t have to be “reintegrating” all the time.
What is important to remember is that it’s not possible to go back to who you were as a family before war entered your lives. You have all changed. So don’t try to fit yourself into a mold that no longer represents you. The way forward is to create a new sense of meaning and identity as a family.
Be patient. Be gentle. Be strong in your commitment to heal wounds and love each other. Seek support from people who focus on healing, wellness and spiritual wholeness. Give yourself breathing room and acknowledge that you are dealing with some very heavy, tough issues that aren’t supposed to be easy to recover from.
Can you recover? Yes. The human spirit is resilient and capable of evolving and healing.
The answer to who are you supposed to be now?
The person you are.