Keeping That Nasty Fear At Bay

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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.”

Orthner agreed.

“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?

About the Author

Amy Bushatz
Amy is the editor in chief of Military.com’s spouse and family blog SpouseBuzz.com. A journalist by trade, Amy also covers spouse and family news for Military.com where she is the managing editor of spouse and family content. An Army wife and mother of two, Amy has been featured as a subject matter expert on CNN.com, NPR, Fox News, NBC, CBS, ABC and BBC as well as in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. Follow her on twitter @amybushatz.
  • GaGirl

    I completely agree that feeling unprepared adds to the fear of the death of your spouse. However, I think this is one area where being in the military opens up lines of communcation and is a benefit over the civilian life. I’ve had civilan friends/family members that have lost spouses and struggled to answer the basic questions regarding their burial. What kind of casket? Music? Scripture? Multiple deployments have forced my husband and I to ask and answer those hard questions that a lot of people never think to ask. I know what kind of casket he wants, what music he would like played and what scriptures he wants read. Yes, we do fear the death of a spouse more than most civilians probably do, but I also feel much more prepared for the decisions that must be made if that ever happens.

  • Anne

    This is where a key spouse can be invaluable looking for those who need some guidance in services available. The only catch is there are SO FEW key spouses. I just completed the 4 hour training & I’m looking forward to serving a portion of our squadron, but with 500+ active duty in our squadron, I can’t fulfill all the responsibilities by myself & maintain my family & house. I’m looking forward to helping those I can though.

  • Pat

    Awesome idea to have the joint session for wills and other documents.

  • Maharet

    rigid and i have talked about getting prepared, but so far that’s all we’ve done is talk. my worst fear over the next year is that we’ll put it off until it’s too late. he’ll be out in iraq and i’ll be here all alone trying to figure out what to do on my own. either that or not doing anything until it’s really too late and then wigging out because i have no clue what to do. i imagine myself not being able to handle anything. just…melting.
    can you tell it’s been on my mind a little? you know what my husband says to me when i tell him how i feel? “stop being silly. you’ll be fine.” he says. or my favorite, “there’s no point in worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet.” yeah okay, maybe, but worrying does help remind me that there are things that need to be done before he goes away for a year. now my question is, who do I go to if my husband doesn’t think it’s such a big deal? our national guard family readiness contact?

  • Another Guard Wife

    You mean we should know what type of casket, music, etc they want? I’m excited he finally told me where he would like to be buried, (all his family is 1700 miles away), or even that he wants to be buried, (I was threatening to cremate him & carry his remains around with me in a vagabon life style.), before this deployment. Sheesh! I think I’ll go back to the vagabond lifestlye. ;-)