In addition to everything else you may be dealing with as a military spouse, you are bound to hear a few unintentionally thoughtless comments that will leave you wondering how to respond.
Any military spouse can probably recite a list of the tactless comments they’ve heard when their spouse has been deployed, from "compliments" that sting to doom-and-gloom rants from others that fan the flames of worry.
While family and friends may be grasping for the right words to say, when feeling nervous they may chatter on and make a difficult situation worse.
For those of us who are friends or acquaintances of a military spouse, let's start with a few things not to say:
"Oh no!" or "I'm sorry." Two reactions that are not helpful. Instead try this, "I heard that Bob is going back. I want you to know that I am here to help you get the kids back and forth to school and any other extracurricular activities." Or, "Thank you and your family for what you're doing for the country. I'm honored to know you. I'll be checking in on you while he's gone to find out what kind of help you need, but in the meantime, here's my phone number. Please call me if I can help you."
What may seem like a harmless comment is actually thoughtless and insensitive. "I would be a nervous wreck if my husband (or wife) was in the military." There is no doubt that your friend is a "nervous wreck" too, but is handling the situation in the best possible manner.
"I don't know how you do it." While you may mean this as a compliment, a better option would be to ask, "What can I do to help you do during this time that John (or Mary) is away?"
Lastly, hold off on your political rants. Whatever your personal views, the only comments to offer are your support for your friend and the journey the family is on.
Here are a few things you can do to support the military spouse:
Make a consistent effort to check on military family and friends. Don't forget them on the weekends and holidays when "alone time" gets particularly rough.
Do something. Don’t just say, "If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know." When you’re overwhelmed, it’s hard to get organized enough to ask. Many times, people simply don't want to burden others. Take the lead and think of what would really make their lives a little easier: take them a meal, one they can eat right away or save in the freezer. Offer to watch the kids for a couple of hours. Call to set up a time that you can come and help around the house or yard. Identify some way you can help and make a specific offer.
If it's possible to contact the deployed spouse via Facebook or e-mail, ask them what you can do for their family. Maybe you can pick up and deliver a special surprise for a birthday or anniversary on their behalf.
Here are a few responses if you are a military spouse and hear something insensitive (even when good intentions are behind the words):
You will never be able to control the remarks that people come at you with. All you can do is handle them with as much grace as you can muster. A simple reply of, "Thanks for your concern" and changing the subject is an effective way to steer the conversation in a different direction.
What do you say when your news-watching neighbor feels like they need to give you a play-by-play update on the war or when Aunt Joan finds it necessary to remind you how dangerous it is over there? Be polite, but firm, "I am very aware of the danger and follow updates routinely. I would prefer to focus our conversation on something else. Thank you."
Seek support from those going through the same thing. Chances are you have other acquaintances with deployed spouses who can relate to the challenges you're facing in a way that most civilians can't.
Much of this is simple common sense, but sometimes it's nice to be reminded that you are not alone and others are dealing with the same kind of difficult situation. If you’re the spouse of a military member, thank you for all that your family is doing on behalf of our country. As you encounter people who learn of your family's situation, try to remember that many people truly appreciate and support the sacrifices that you and your family are making, even if they forget to engage their brains before opening their mouths.
Diane Gottsman, a nationally recognized etiquette expert, is the owner of The Protocol School of Texas, a company specializing in etiquette training for corporations, universities and individuals, striving to polish their interpersonal skills. You can reach Diane at 877-490-1077 or www.protocolschooloftexas.com. You can also follow her on Twitter @: www.twitter.com/DianeGottsman.