The simplest definition of respite is that it is an interval of rest or relief. For the partners and family members of veterans returning from war zones or areas of conflict with PTSD or post-combat shock, respite is much more than rest. It is the space to reclaim personal identity and as such, it is a necessary ritual.
I grew up with a wounded warrior who was angry and defeated when he returned to his family. I learned from this what it means to have your identity stolen by someone else’s uncontained emotions. I also learned how to find myself again. Now I want to take what I have learned and make it easier for other military families to create rituals of respite, and the sooner the better. (Tweet this quote.)
Partners of wounded warriors need regular rituals of respite. If the partner is also a parent, this is underscored. The wounds of combat, whether visible or invisible, seep into the civilian environment. The truth is that soldiers are not given adequate transition resources before they re-enter family life. (Tweet this quote.) Being realistically prepared for this is to everyone’s advantage. One big step in that preparation is scheduling respite.
A 2007 longitudinal study of the transition of 88,000 soldiers who served in Iraq (Milliken et al.) revealed that partners of veterans who understand the dynamics of their situation and who can apply meaning to it create real mediation at home. This proactive, protective and self-affirming stance can be a strong preventative in terms of allaying family dysfunction that might otherwise be inevitable. Partners can more easily find their ground if they program respite into their lives in advance; even before the soldier returns home.
How to Take Respite?
Respite is created when you take space for yourself. This means completely removing yourself from the caregiving or even the partnership role. This could be taking time to be alone and it can also involve being with others who are supportive such as friends, counselors, spiritual mentors or therapists. Examples of respite include:
- Opportunities for personal expression through any medium, such as writing, art, or movement;
- Communing with nature, either alone or with others;
- Physical exercise;
- Participating in a support group;
- Meeting with a spiritual mentor or being part of a spiritual group such as a prayer or meditation group;
- Receiving massage or healing treatment that is relaxing;
- Meeting with friends and sharing your experiences;
- Reaching out to organizations that offer respite services;
- Enjoying a healthy meal, a concert, theater or film alone or with others;
- Reading a wonderful book; or
- Doing anything that gives you a sense of yourself, a sense of worth and health and that validates your unique gifts and your right to live a good and fulfilling life, regardless of other circumstances.
Respite also means asking others to step in and participate in the tasks of transition that can become overwhelming. Asking for help is a step out of isolation. It therefore supports the entire family. Partners, or other family members, can and indeed should reach out for help with things like child care, researching healthcare services, identifying community resources, cooking, cleaning, and helping the returning soldier with re-entry so that the burden does not fall on one person alone. Respite means knowing that options for recovery and support are endless.
When my father returned from war there was enormous shame in his disability, his outbursts, and his difficulties in earning a living. To the outside world my father appeared functional; he even acted supportive to other veterans, particularly those he identified as his buddies. The violence at home was kept a secret just as my father’s wounds were kept secret. This silence increased the burden on the family, and particularly on me as the eldest child. Hiding pain is never beneficial. For children unspoken pain is confusing because they can feel it and they take responsibility for that suffering, either by trying to be more helpful than their years should allow or by identifying themselves as the cause of the pain.
It was the job of another adult in my family structure to find sufficient respite and sort this out; to create supportive structures for my family. For a variety of reasons this did not happen in my home. I developed internal avenues of respite for myself, from which I have learned a great deal that I will share in this and future writing. A more optimal design, however, is what I am advocating for in this educational outreach to the partners of wounded warriors, made in the interest primarily of the children of veterans. Children should never be exposed to violence and turmoil without explanation or support. Future blogs and my forthcoming book They Were Families: How War Comes Home will provide specific resources for the children of veterans with PTSD and combat shock.
Internal and External Respite: Reaching In and Reaching Out
Both internal and external resources for respite require research to be identified. Respite time is necessary to focus on this research and to make it a priority. The overwhelm that ensues when a soldier returns home and unresolved trauma presents itself, which takes some time to develop, is confusing and disorienting. This is precisely why respite is a mandatory preventative strategy. If it is already programmed into the partner’s awareness, then the respite time will be there when you need it.
Partners have to separate from the environment of distress to sort through their reactions and find healthy responses and reclaim a sense of self. From that more centered position it is possible to cultivate resources for themselves and other family members.
Return to this site for future blogs on specific internal and external respite options and other resources for the families and children of veterans.