Moving away from your tribe is arguably the hardest part of a military permanent change of station (PCS). You spend between two and five years (give or take a year or two) building relationships, finding those people who are your kind of weird, investing in baby showers and barbecues, and genuinely falling in love with some amazing friends.
And then you get those orders.
I’ve been a military girlfriend/fiancée/wife for almost 15 years. We’ve had four duty stations spanning the whole continental United States. And from the moment I became a part of this unique community, I heard the sage advice from spouses before me:
“Write names in pen and addresses in pencil.”
and the oft used
“It’s NOT goodbye, it’s see you later.”
What a beautiful sentiment.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it was true?
For starters, we don’t really keep address books anymore. At least I don’t. It’s more like, keep in touch with old friends and acquaintances through social media. Maybe don’t delete that contact when they’re no longer a part of your daily life. This may keep your “friends” number higher than you think is manageable, but it’s nice to be able to check back in and see pictures of their vacations and kids, wish them a happy birthday, reconnect if you get the chance to be in the same city.
Being in the same city … I call it the great hope of PCS season. Sure, you’re moving away from people and places you’ve grown to love, but maybe, just maybe, you’ll get stationed with old friends. Maybe you’ll be close to family. Perhaps you’ll have a human connection that you don’t have to fight for. Maybe, this time, you won’t burst into tears in the front office of your child’s school because, no, you don’t have an “emergency contact” besides your spouse.
But maybe, is sometimes just a fancy word for ‘not gonna happen.’
Sometimes it isn’t, ‘see you later.’ Sometimes, it is just ‘goodbye’.
I know that truth-bomb stings. Here’s one that’s gonna feel worse.
Sometimes, that’s OK.
We’ve all heard about “friends for a season.” There are people who may come into your life, enrich it, change you for the better, be there for you, and then you may not see them again. And occasionally that’s OK.
There was a family two duty stations ago, the Lights. What a gorgeous family! We went to church together, and every time I saw them, I would surge with joy. Their last name was kind of a lovely descriptor of them; a beautiful light to all they came across. This was during a season of my life where my husband was gone for a long time. He went to Afghanistan for seven months, was home for six months, and then had a one year remote tour to Korea while I was raising our first son by myself. The Lights had me over for dinner and loved on me with encouraging words whenever I saw them.
But then they PCS’d to Alaska, and I haven’t seen or spoken to them since. They are not on social media, so there isn’t even online peeks into their life. It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t feel bittersweet. I feel grateful I had them in my life for a short time, and I am at peace with where our friendship rested.
In reality it is just too hard to keep up with every friend/acquaintance you make when you move as much as our military lives demand. Having more kids, valuing family time, having a strong relationship with extended family, investing in our current duty station and current relationships sometimes eclipses properly caring for established friends who are far away.
How to deal with leaving friends every few years? I haven’t always done this well, but through my 15 years, I’m getting better. Here are a few of my best pieces of advice.
- Keep in touch with your friend-family. No matter how far you go, make an effort to keep in touch with your ‘best’ from a duty station. In the beginning, I was terrible at this. After our first PCS, it just hurt too much to be far away from those I loved the most, so instead I hurt them. I disconnected. I couldn’t stand being far away, so I tried not to care.Word to the wise: this. never. works. It made those relationships strained and in the end, lessened them.But I’ve learned from this. Make sure your No. 1 person who would drop anything for you — the person you spent the most time with, your kid’s emergency contact — know that she is valuable to you. Call, write, remember birthdays.
- For tier two friends and acquaintances, keep in touch on social media. Stay invested as much as you can. But forgive yourself if you’re a bit absentee at times. Give them room and grace for the same. Know that there’s a solid relationship just waiting to be deepened if you get the chance to be near them again. And if that day doesn’t come, be grateful for the memories you made.
- Be guilt-free about anyone in lower tiers of acquaintance-ship. You know who they are in your life, they know, too. It’s OK. Life is full of passing connections. Just slow fade and move on.
- Don’t let the concept of having a friend for a season scare you away from being receptive to new friendship. That season might just be verrry important. When we were at our first duty station, there was the Gosses. The mom mothered me in all the ways I needed as a foolish 21-year-old who struggled with her own relationship with her mom. She cooked for me and loved me. When my husband was gone and I was wont to be depressed, she would roll me out of bed and make me be a part of the world. She was everything I needed in that season. I have not had the chance to live near her again. But when we moved to our current duty station, her oldest son who was 16 when we moved away was living here and was in his early twenties I was able to cook for him, love on him, and be there for him when he acted foolishly. The circle reconnected in a way that is so poetic I could cry. I matured beyond the faux adult I was back then, and for a moment I got to be that mom that she was to me.
- Make friends, make good friends. They are what makes this incredibly difficult lifestyle bearable. But know that sometimes it will be goodbye and sometimes that goodbye will be final. No matter which way the pendulum swings on a friendship, having that relationship — even if just for a season — molded you into an even better person.