5 Ways to Help with Military Kids Goodbyes
My 4 young children clung to their dad near the edge of the Navy pier. The wind tussled their hair and stung our eyes while we tried to hold back tears.
In a moment, he would walk away from us and board the ship he would live on for the next 7 months. This was his 7th military deployment in the 15 years we had been together, and somehow, it never got easier to watch him leave. Now, adding our military kids goodbye meant more tears.
Our military kids were old enough to know he was leaving for a long time and to understand he would miss many holidays and birthdays. After a few weeks of “last” events—last dinner out together, last family movie night, last trip to the playground with Dad—they knew this was the last moment to see him until next year.
He gave each child a quick hug. “Bye, Dad!” my oldest sobbed.
My husband looked into her little face and said, “It’s not goodbye. It’s just ‘see you later,’ ok?”
Then he took a deep breath and gave me one last kiss. “All right, I’ll see you guys later,” he said.
And then he turned and walked away from us down the long pier.
For Military Kids Goodbye is “See You Later”
In military life, we learn quickly not to say goodbye. Whether it’s the service member leaving for deployment, or our neighbors leaving for a PCS move, we always say “see you later” with the hope of seeing them again soon.
After all, deployments are temporary. Military families always hold on to the conviction they will have their service member back home safely once the deployment ends.
PCS moves can feel like a permanent separation, especially when you or a friend move to the other side of the country or the world. However, if you stick around the military community long enough, we all know there’s the possibility of getting assigned to a previous base again. If you and a friend are in the same branch, you might end up on the same base, or at least the same state.
Nevertheless, these comforting thoughts don’t do enough to soothe our feelings in the middle of an emotional “see you later.” Military separations and milestones are hard enough for adults, but they are even more challenging for our military kids.
Let’s discuss ways to help military kids handle difficult separations during deployment and PCS moves.
Preparing Military Kids for Deployment Farewells
Let them know it’s coming
You may not have a lot of advance notice about deployment, but try to give the kids a few weeks to prepare to say, “see you later.” Depending on their age, it’s helpful to have a visual countdown, like crossing squares off a calendar or taking candies out of a jar. (These are good tools during deployment, too.) Knowing there’s still some time before deployment can help calm younger children.
Make memories, and save them
The time before deployment can be busy and stressful. The service member has many errands to run and packing to do, while the spouse has their own checklist of things they want to take care of before they begin solo-parenting. Be intentional and carve out moments to make shared family memories during this time.
It doesn’t have to be a big fancy vacation. Go out to dinner together, have a picnic in the yard, or build a blanket fort in the living room. Have the service member read books to the kids and give piggy-back rides. Then grab your phone and take quick videos and photos to capture the moments. Military kids goodbye moments go better when they can scroll through the photos and videos on your phone and see their loved one.
Helping Military Kids Through PCS Departures
Let the kids help pack
PCSing is stressful, especially for kids who don’t remember the last time they moved. Help soothe their fear of saying goodbye to all their toys and things by letting them have a role in the packing process. Let kids decorate their own special box with crayons or markers. Then they will know which one has their toys as soon as it comes off the truck! They can throw things like stuffed animals, bedding, and clothes into boxes and say “see you later” until the next house.
Schedule time for PCS goodbyes
Whether you’re the ones leaving or it’s your kids’ friends who have to move, make sure the kids have moments to get together and say “see you later!” It can be a farewell dinner, a quick get-together at the park, a trip to the ice cream shop, or anything that helps mark this major moment in their friendship. Moving is hectic, so make sure to schedule these moments intentionally.
Bring mementos with you
Kids often need physical reminders of their friends and the time they have spent together. A photo album is something they can turn to again and again, whenever they get lonely. But other meaningful military kids goodbye mementos could be:
- A drawing from their friend
- A gift card from the gang
- A picture frame with a group photo
- A poster with everyone’s handprint or signature
- A jar with tickets or items from places they went together
However you choose to help your kids say “see you later,” know that you can’t protect them from the painful moments of military life. But you can teach them how to deal with difficult emotions and to face challenging moments with bravery.
It never really gets easier to say “see you later” before a deployment or a PCS move, but after children have been through it a few times, they will start to develop their own rituals and coping strategies to make these moments bittersweet.