Deployment Lesson for COVID #12: Reunions and Reintegration

our reunion in 2008, Jonathan’s second deployment

Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last 20 years, you’ve seen those tear-jerking military “Welcome Home” videos. You know the ones: The Solider jumps out from behind a curtain at an elementary school play; the Sailor arrives to the football game where his family least expects it; the Marine walks through an airport to spontaneous applause. They are emotional and lovely, and they go viral because they are FULL of warm-fuzzies that make us feel like everything will be okay

Reunions are the BEST PART of military life.

And yet… those moments of hugs and happy tears and celebration are not the end of the story. Yes, reunions are almost always joyful, but the day-to-day and week-to-week reintegration… is often rather different, and just-as-often kept quiet. 

The fact is, reintegration is haaaaaaard work, even with someone you love fiercely. Someone recently shared this excellent article on the “difficult truths of military homecomings” in a military spouse group I’m in, and it resonated with my own experience and what I’ve seen with others. When the cheers die down, the adrenaline wears off, and you’re figuring out how to do life together again, nothing just goes back to “the way it was before” — because YOU aren’t the way you were before.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately as people are starting to reintegrate from COVID. We aren’t there yet – we SHOULDN’T be reintegrating yet! – but as more and more people get vaccinated, we’ll soon be finding ourselves negotiating how our 2021-selves and our 2019-lives fit together.

I’ve seen a lot of posts on social media about looking forward to “awkwardly long hugs” and sitting at restaurant tables with chips and salsa for hours on end and the celebrations planned when worship is back in-person for the first time in many months… and as someone who hasn’t been indoors or within 6 feet of friends in nearly a year, believe me when I say: I.CANNOT.WAIT. I’m right there with you. 

But then I wonder: What does reintegration look like as a society, AFTER the joyful reunion?

After the post-COVID attendance bump wears off, how will our congregational committee and volunteer structures do their work? When our calendars once again fill up, how will our Game Nights with friends fit in? After we’ve been working from home for so long, how will our office culture shift long-term? 

Each and every one of us has changed in the past year; changes that previously would have been experienced together, we have made from our own living room couches. Maybe we’ve gotten into habits or had clarity about our values in the past year that will impact how we spend our time or who we spend time with. This “new normal” isn’t a destination; it’s a journey that we can’t fully prepare for and will take lots of hard work. After the collective trauma of this past year, it could be easy to imagine reintegration will be the easiest thing we’ve ever done, since we’ll all be so happy and excited to see each other again. But if we expect to fall into the same routines with friends and colleagues and church that we did before, I’m afraid we’re setting ourselves up for disappointment.

We are not the same. 

Which means, our relationships and systems won’t be the same.

Military families tend to be fairly prepared for what to do at the beginning of a deployment; we know how to fill our time and we have plans in place, there are support systems and extra doses of grace for the difficulties. But too often, we don’t talk about or consider what happens during reintegration; we assume it will be perfect – we’ve seen those homecoming videos after all! – and are often caught off-guard by the work that needs to be done, renegotiating roles and activities that used to be second nature. 

The same thing is true now, as a wider society. We’ve figured out how to deal with quarantine and stay-at-home orders. We’ve done Zoom cocktail hours and figured out virtual worship. But reintegration will take just as much intentional work — if not more — to listen and share and be flexible around our next “new normal.” Whether reintegration is with an office, a congregation, a friend group, or extended family, nothing will go back to the way it was before… and that’s okay. 

We’ll all need to be willing have those hard conversations, and be prepared that things will likely not be as easy as the reunion itself. Be curious, and explore how your relationships will shift — not JUST during the moment of reunion, but during the months of reintegration. Consider what matters to you and what doesn’t, and communicate that with those in your life. And, most importantly, stay gracious and patient as we discover these things… together

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