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Building Family Rituals During Deployment

family launches a canoe
Creating family rituals while you are deployed:

Family life changes during a deployment. Following treasured rituals and creating new ones can help your family feel close to you throughout your separation. Rituals ground families and give members a sense of security and belonging. They remind families that they are still a family, even when they are apart.

The importance of rituals
Family rituals are customs and traditions that your family takes part in together regularly. They can be special, such as celebrating a birthday each year with a chocolate frosted layer cake, or more routine, such as sharing the evening meal. Rituals are important because they:

  • Strengthen family connections.
  • Give children a sense of security that comes from knowing what to expect, and when.
  • Give a family its own "personality" and sense of being unique and special.
  • Reinforce a family's values.
  • Help family members cope during challenging times, such as a deployment.

If your family has important rituals, ask them to continue these while you are gone, if possible. But also come up with some new ones to follow during your deployment. Doing so will help bridge the miles that separate you. Look at the following ideas, and pick a few you think would be meaningful to you and your family. Be sure to stick with them throughout your deployment so they will take on the meaning and importance of family rituals.

Before deployment

  • Give your family a scrapbook to hold the letters, drawings, maps, and other souvenirs you send home.
  • Hide small gifts or notes throughout your home. Jot down the location of each item and bring the list with you. Every few weeks during your deployment, send home a treasure map or a clue to lead your family to one of the gifts or notes.
  • If you have small children, make tapes of yourself reading their favorite storybooks. Ask your partner to play these for your children before bedtime each evening when you are away.
  • Have your children help you pack, if there is time . Being involved this way will help them think and talk about your deployment and ask any questions they may be wondering about.
  • Mark on a map or globe where you will be as well as the locations of your family and relatives who live in other states or parts of the world. This will help your children understand that you really won't be that far away. Just remember not to mark your location if it is classified.
  • Ask your children for a special keepsake , such as a drawing or photograph, to bring with you on your deployment. Give your children a photograph of you in a special frame to keep near their beds.
  • Agree on a phrase you will each say before going to sleep. It could be as simple as, "Sweet dreams, goodnight," or a phrase from a favorite storybook ("I love you all the way to the moon and back again"). Think of your children and spouse while you say it, and ask them to think of you when they say it. Younger children may need to be reminded of what to say at first, but soon it should become routine.
  • Put your name on the prayer list at your place of worship, if this is your custom. This will give your family and the entire community the opportunity to pray for you each weekend.

During deployment
Depending on the circumstances of your deployment, you may not have the time or ability to focus on your family relationships. But even if you can't connect with your family as much as you'd like, small gestures are enough to keep those family bonds strong.
  • Send home recipes for your family to cook and enjoy eating together. Every few weeks, send home "Mom's (or Dad's) Dish of the Month." You don't even have to be a cook to do this. The recipe can be as simple as a list of ingredients (chocolate ice cream, chocolate fudge, whipped cream. Assemble in a bowl and enjoy!); or it can be more involved, such as a full meal. Encourage your family to send pictures of each other preparing and enjoying your dish and to write you a letter describing the experience.
  • Ask your family members to read your letters aloud at the dinner table. Eating together as a family is an important way to maintain connections. There's no reason why this should end if you are away. Instead, try to be there "virtually." Even when there is no letter, ask family members to bring you into their dinnertime conversation.
  • Photograph or videotape your typical day to send home. This will give your family a feel for what your days are like, helping them to feel closer to you. Ask them to do the same for you.
  • Write a running letter. Start it in the morning and carry it with you throughout the day, adding sentences describing what you're doing. Finish it in bed that night and mail it the next morning. Try to do this regularly and ask your family members to do the same.
  • Share a letter . Write the first paragraph of a letter or story, then send it to your family to add another paragraph. Continue adding to the letter throughout your deployment.
  • Think of each other at a regular time each day. Set up a time each day, adjusting for the time difference, when you will stop what you're doing for a moment and think about each other. You may want to set your watch alarm so the moment doesn't slip past.
  • Share what you know. Have a regular "show-and-tell," where you teach your children something new in an e-mail, letter, or on the telephone. Your show-and-tell can be about something new you learned at work, or it could be about something you've known for a long time (how to tie a square knot, for example.) Ask your children to do the same. They can tell you about something new they learned in school, figured out on their own, or discovered from a book or a friend.
  • Surprise your children with lunchbox notes . Write and send home a batch of short "I love you" notes. Ask your spouse to periodically tuck one into your children's lunchboxes or under their pillows at night. Also send individual e-mails to your children. For a young child, you can create a Word document with big letters that can be printed.
  • Have an ongoing trivia contest . Through e-mail or letters, ask your spouse or children trivia questions and have them do the same for you. Make it especially meaningful by asking questions about your family ("Where was Grandpa born?" "What was your first word?"). Reveal the correct answer in your next letter or e-mail.

When you're home again
Returning home from a long deployment comes with its own set of challenges as you and family members become reacquainted. The rituals you created and followed during your separation should make this process easier because it helped keep the connection between you and your family strong.
  • Return to your old family rituals. If you cooked pancakes on Sunday mornings and tucked your children into bed at night before you were deployed, start up these traditions again. However, if you find that your children have outgrown some of your rituals, find something to replace them. For example, instead of reading to your children at bedtime, play a game of cards or checkers instead.
  • Continue some of your deployment rituals . There's no reason you can't adapt these to fit your new circumstances. Lunchbox notes, treasure hunts, and show-and-tells will be just as fun -- if not more -- with you home.
  • Look through your family's scrapbook together . Take out the scrapbook you gave to your family before your deployment and flip through the pages together. Tell your children and spouse the stories behind the objects and the photographs. Ask your family members to share their memories of receiving your souvenirs and photographs and putting them in the scrapbook.

This article was written with the help of Mary Craig, Marine Corps Family Team Building Program Section Head; Air Force Chaplain Robert Roffman, Lackland AFB, Permanent Party Branch; and Navy Chaplain Steven P. Unger, LCDR, CHC, Religious Ministries Branch, Marine Corps Combat Development Command.

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