Ship day is the date an Active-Duty soldier’s contract begins. This is a day that family members will never forget. This is the day my 19-year-old son left to join the world’s greatest Air Force and left behind a hole in my heart the size of Texas.
Ship day heartbreak is a real thing.
Preparing my son for Active-Duty felt like running through a fun house, getting lost in the maze of mirrors. My emotions were all over the place. I was excited, scared, anxious but most of all I wanted him to be well prepared. I wondered if all his affairs were in order since he had been living on his own for 1 year prior to joining the military.
What bills does he have and will they be taken care of while he is gone? Can I access his bank accounts? He needs a will, wow, does he have a will? Thinking of your child having a will leads to high levels of anxiety. I felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest. And, it gets done, even though it left me weeping on the bathroom floor. I forced myself to look forward to other things when the tears flowed. I steered my thoughts to getting a new Christmas tree, about vacationing in Florida, and scrolled endlessly through social media to pass the time during these episodes.
Ship day heartbreak was in full force.
I was not prepared for those closest to me to join in my celebration and my tears. The support they extended to me was one of the largest blessings God could have given. These are the people I’ve held on to. They are the true MVPs in this emotional rollercoaster of ship day heartbreak. They stood in the gap when those around me commented, ‘he is only in the military, not gone forever,’ or ‘he will be home to visit,’ or the worst was, ‘at least he isn’t dead’. Thinking of death is exactly what a Military Mom wants to do. NOT!
The last night with my son, living in the same zip code as me was devastating. He crept into our bed and cried with us. We cried because of the unknown. We cried because of the new season we were all going into together. But most of all we cried because the 3 of us knew that nothing would ever be the same. This change would be a positive one, that we were certain, but change can hurt. It is hard not knowing when we’d hug him again.
Ship day came and went in a blur. Emotions were rampant in all directions. I wish I could report that I was strong, held it together, was one of those ‘power through’ moms. I was not. Not even close. I watched him walk away as my heart tore from my chest. I was not equipped or prepared to navigate through the grief that joined me that day. When he stepped onto the shuttle bound for the airport, I ran to him for one last hug. Why do our mama hearts betray us in these moments? After the shuttle drove off, it took every ounce of energy to walk to the truck with my husband. Grief became a part of me that day.
I wanted to scream, throw things, and beg him not to go. I thought of Abraham in the bible, bargaining with God for the city of Sodom in Genesis, and I wondered.
Ship day was heartbreaking.
Surprisingly, the next day arrived and I forced myself to tidy up my son’s room, then wash his laundry and bed sheets. I allowed myself a good cry while smelling his sweatshirt. Then I got busy locating support groups online for military moms and related books (Be Safe, Love Mom). These groups and books saved my sanity. Talking with parents that also had children join the military soothed my soul and allowed me to keep moving forward.
Time does not heal all. I am a firm believer that work and prayer heal all. Grief counseling got me through the times when tears would creep up and spill over when I saw a car that looked like the one my son drove or when I walked by his empty bedroom.
For those that find themselves walking through grief of any kind – the loss of a marriage, the loss of a business or a family member (does not have to be a death), or having a child leave for the military. The Five Stages of Grief taught by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and David Kessler helped me understand the different emotions I was walking through: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
Identifying these stages and working through them allowed me to experience the joy of my son’s accomplishments during training. The tears still creep up but now I welcome them, figure out where they are stemming from, pray about it and keep moving forward.
Do not be afraid of the grief that heartbreak can bring. Act! Then enjoy this journey along with your soldier. You have so much to be thankful for.