The Home Front, Part 3
Children cope with a parent’s deployment

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(Host) Because of the war in Iraq, hundreds of Vermont children will be celebrating the holidays without their mother or father. Many of these kids are struggling with loneliness, fear, confusion and anger.

In this week’s series on “The Home Front,” VPR’s Nina Keck reports on what parents can do to help kids cope.

(Keck) A typical day is winding down in Matt Conway and Jennie Johannessen’s kitchen. Three of the couple’s four daughters clear the dinner dishes and put away the leftovers. A year ago, however, things in this Mendon home were anything but normal. Matt was in Iraq as part of a team of surgeons in the Army Medical Reserve.

(Johannessen) “I sort of switched into a completely different universe, so to speak.”

(Keck) Jennie says that while Matt was away, she worked hard to maintain as normal a routine as possible for her daughters, who range in age from 3 to 10. Friends, family and neighbors were wonderful she says. But the situation took its toll on the kids.

(Johannessen) “They got a lot quieter. Annika got very depressed and was very quiet and Mia cried a lot. Hannah, it’s harder to tell, but people noticed that she was a little different too.”

(Keck) Tjersty, who was two at the time, was the least affected, she says. Six-year-old Mia skips around the dining room table as I talk with the family. Her white blond hair bounces and she giggles a lot when she talks about her dad.

(Mia) “I missed his hugs and kisses.”

(Keck) I ask her if she ever got scared while her dad was away. She stops giggling and her voice gets too low for my microphone to pick up. “When we heard about soldiers getting shot,” the six year old says softly, “I got scared then.” Eight-year-old Hannah says she didn’t like that her dad was away during special holidays.

(Hannah) “He missed Christmas, he missed my birthday, he missed Halloween, he missed a lot of things.”

(Keck) And when her father did try to reach out and talk to the girls by phone. She says that was hard too.

(Hannah) “I really, really, really missed him then because I at least got to here his voice once, but then I missed him more because he was gone and whenever I heard it I always cried.”

(Keck) The children had different ways of staying close to their father. They kept his picture under their pillow, they wore his T-shirts to bed. Ten-year-old Annika found comfort in a letter her father had written her.

(Annika) “I carried a letter in my pocket all the time and I forgot sometimes that it was in there and it went through the wash several times and now I can’t read it.”

(Keck) Grief counselors say carrying a special object or creating even a simple ritual can do a lot to help people feel closer to one another. Virginia Fry is a grief counselor in Montpelier who’s worked with a number of families in the National Guard.

(Fry) “Before they left I asked the families to do what we call the kissing hand. Where the mom or dad who is leaving kisses the child’s hand and that child puts the hand up to their face closes their eyes, takes a deep breath and breathes that kiss right inside of them.”

(Keck) Fry says whenever that child misses their mom or dad, all they have to do is put their hand up to their face and take a deep breath.

(Fry) “It’s a medium between this harsh reality and that harsh reality and we need these gentle links.”

(Keck) Rituals also work when words can’t. Fry says adults need to remember that kids – especially young ones – are often unable to talk about what they’re feeling. And she says it’s not just young kids who need this sort of help.

The first time she tried the kissing hand ritual was with a 27-year old marine who was worried his seriously ill father would die before he got back from the war. Fry says the two were unable to talk about the situation, so she suggested the kissing hand technique.

(Fry) “And the father thought it was a great idea and said but I’m going to adapt it for a marine. So he surprised his son and said sit down Josh, stick out your hand and he gave him a big kiss on the hand and he said put it up to your face, close your eyes and take a deep breath. You will always have my kiss with you, you will always have my kiss with you. And I think the simplicity of it and the directness of it surprised him and got through the emotional barriers we put up around. It’s going to be okay, it’s going to be okay, we don’t have to talk about this.”

(Keck) The war in Iraq will force many children to deal with extreme separation anxiety, loneliness and anger at a very early age. But Fry says if handled right, ironically the situation can bring a family closer together.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck.

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