Coping with the pain of separation

Sixth-grader Landen Loupe doesn’t hesitate when asked what he wants for Christmas.

“Since I can’t see him, one wish on my Christmas list is a call from Dad. That’s what I want most. We can get him into the holiday spirit,” said Loupe, whose father is an electrician on the Bremerton-based aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson.

Third-grader Garrett Aldrich said he is lucky because his father is returning from a deployment as a submarine mechanic before Christmas.

“He’ll be back at Christmas but he has to go back for two more months,” Aldrich said.

Aldrich and Loupe are not alone in missing parents who have been deployed since the start of Operation Enduring Freedom. Almost immediately after Sept. 11, teachers and counselors at military-impacted Central Kitsap schools noticed children who were affected by their parents’ absence, and by fear.

“Often (kids are) really sad and they cry. They have a real lonely feeling. A lot of kids experience similar (emotions) that people do when they grieve. Some kids act out,” said Rita Eklund, the learning specialist at Cougar Valley Elementary School.

Central Kitsap elementary schools serve many children whose parents are in the military, and local schools have partnered with the Navy to respond to their needs. Deployment lunches have been organized at Clear Creek, Cougar Valley, Jackson Park, Silver Ridge and PineCrest elementaries to help children cope with parental separation.

“The overall goal is to give kids an activity and have them talk about their communication with their family,” said Denise Thomson, program coordinator at the Navy Family Advocacy Treatment Center.

It also gives kids a chance to interact with others in the same situation so they understand they are not alone, Eklund said.

Students meet with a facilitator once a week during lunch for a combination of crafts and discussion. The only requirement to join is a permission slip signed by a parent.

At Jackson Park — where 84 percent of families are miltary dependent — 65 children participate in the lunches, according to Principal Shirley Kenmochi. Between 40 and 45 kids participate at Cougar Valley, Eklund said.

One of the difficulties of having an absent parent is that phone calls are infrequent.

“We don’t get to talk to dad much, maybe one time every three weeks, so we send e-mails. We also sent Christmas stockings for he and his friends,” Loupe said.

To counter the communication lag, most deployment lunch activities involve communicating with the absent parent by writing letters or postcards, Thomson said.

Schools also offer individual counseling to kids who are having separation anxiety.

“I have one guy who is having a hard time and I have him keeping a journal. We e-mail the ship and when his dad e-mails back, I have him come (to my office) and read it,” Eklund said.

She said journals can help children work through their feelings and remember things they want to tell their absent parents.

Kids can come up with their own positive ways of coping, too, Eklund said. One child she knows has filled a jar with chocolate kisses. Each represents one day his dad will be gone, and he eats one kiss per day.

Thomson stressed that although being a military family can be difficult, it breeds important life skills.

“Military families have lots of strengths. We know they deal with some additional stresses like deployment but they are very resilient. They build coping skills civilian families never do,” Thomson said.

These skills were evident in Loupe’s attitude about his separation from his father.

“Dad was in Japan for two years one time and we barely got to see him. I can live with two more months. My mom might go crazy with two kids, though,” Loupe said.

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