Like so many other stressors that come with the military, the fear that your spouse will be hurt or killed while deployed is completely reasonable, experts in military families say. Many people die in war and many more are physically, mentally or emotionally injured. Why should are warfighter be the exception?
In contrast with other stressors, like fidelity worries or communication challenges, there is no magic way to make these feelings go away, counseling experts say. With fidelity problems you can build trust. Communication is helped with better tools.
But these fears are different. They are reasonable, founded on the reality of war and telling someone to not experience them or asking the military to make them go away is simply out of the question.
They can, however, be mitigated. The first step in doing so is preparedness, and is one place that the military steps in with support — or where experts say they should.
“One of the things we found is … spouses really do fear the consequences of the death or injury of the spouse and being unprepared for it,” said Dennis Orthner, a professor at the University of North Carolina’s School of Social Work who has conducted a variety of research on military family support for the Pentagon. Preparing for the worst well before the soldier leaves, he said, can help spouses avoid the stress of fear during deployment.
But we know how it goes. That preparation in itself is stressful — so stressful that spouses put off dealing with it at all and instead ignore it. Who wants talk about what happens if your spouse dies when you are supposed to be enjoying your last few weeks together? And thus starts the vicious stress cycle of unknowns and worry, sparked by unpreparedness.
“Frankly, when you get predeployment briefings like a fire hose you’re just overwhelmed,” Orthner said. “We just need to talk about these things much more carefully.”
Part of the problem, Orthner said, is that the military gives service members fill-in-the-blank legal documents and 11th hour planning sessions to prepare for the worst. Instead, he recommends they establish a more streamlined process for setting service members and their spouses up with such “just in case” information three to six months before the deployment — not several weeks before.
Additionally, only the service member, not the spouse, is required to attend the events where those documents are dispersed. Giving an attractive, non-threatening venue for learning about and filling them out together would go a long way, he said.
“We’re trying to get units … to actually get the couples where they create joint wills, joint powers of attorney, durable power of attorney. It gets them talking about these things and thinking about them together,” he said. “If it’s done individually, it’s not a shared process, it’s not dealing with the whole issue of planning their futures together.”
But preparedness only goes so far. Even if you didn’t get lost in the shuffle or avoid the conversations, fear still can creep in and take over your life. What is being done to help with that problem?
The military’s primary answer to this is a myriad of free counseling services, such as Military One Source and Family Life Consultant program. While experts agree these have a very important place in encouraging mental health and aiding marriages, they may not be the best answer for helping spouses sort out anticipatory grief and fear issues.
What is, said psychotherapist Shannon Fox, is the support of other spouses. There’s something incredibly valuable and comforting about hearing that someone else is going through or has gone through the same thing you are. Knowing you are not alone can be half the battle.
“I can’t stress enough how much it helps to have support,” she said. “Even it it’s just other women who have been though it or other women who know and can share their experiences with them.”
“Spouses need an opportunity to express those fears, ideally with other spouses who are also feeling those fears, he said. “The stronger the cohesion, the less isolated the spouse is, the more likely that fear can be managed.”
Of course this support is good for helping with other stressors, too, like loneliness. But how do you reach out to the spouse who is suffering through these problems, yet doesn’t know where to go for support, is crippled by her emotions and doesn’t make the effort to try? Is the military doing all it can to give her the network and tools she needs?