The Heartache of Moving and the pieces of us we leave behind

[Note: These thoughts were written prior to COVID-19 which makes the heartbreak of a move even worse. Many of us have been robbed of the chance to say proper goodbyes, to thank our teachers and coaches, to hug our friends and visit our favorite haunts. We are cutting the strings without having the chance to tie them in tidy bows before we depart. Moving without that kind of closure is a psychological and emotional challenge for adults and kids alike. My family is already reeling from the disappointment. Surely it will become part of our story as we reflect on 2020 and the ways COVID-19 disassembled our lives. Godspeed to all of us as we navigate this upcoming PCS season.]

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“I’ve put down a lot of little roots these two years,” Anne told the moon, “and when I’m pulled up they’re going to hurt a great deal.” – Anne of Green Gables/Avonlea

My husband and I have PCS-ed many times with the Navy. That’s military- speak for packing our Earthly belongings and moving to a new base. A Permanent Change of Station contrasts with Temporary Duty- TDY- a shorter separation from where you reside. Yet any military family can see the irony in the names. 🙂 We understand the need to differentiate the two statuses but truthfully we know we will never have a permanent station until we actually end our military service. And therein lies the challenge.

If I have learned anything in these moves, it is that we need to approach each PCS with expectation and not be afraid to pursue a new life. Our QUALITY of life depends on it, even if we know that ultimately our situation is not permanent.

When we drive into a new town, we try to jump into community as quick as possible for the sake of our kids and our family. We survey the ground, find our special spot, dig down deep and plant our roots. Military spouses like to say “Bloom where you are planted!” but the first step is CHOOSING to plant ourselves. Flowers cannot bloom without their roots attached… and people cannot thrive without community. So we take the plunge.

Like a plant finding life-giving minerals in the ground, we wrap ourselves around that which sustains us- people and places and experiences. We spread our thirsty vines across the city and create a new normal, knowing in the back of our minds that it will not last forever. Someday this tour will also end, but we need water immediately and extend our roots just a little further.

We introduce ourselves and meet new friends.

We find a church and community that feeds our soul.

We land jobs that we love.

We bond with our kids’ schools and community and sports teams. (We cheer for joy when we find cool kids with cool parents!)

We watch our children learn to walk in our “new” old house. We nurse them when they are sick and celebrate birthdays within those sturdy walls.

We learn the aisles of the grocery stores and the backroads around our neighborhood.

We spend hours strolling in the woods near our house.

If we are lucky, we have two years, maybe three years of the new normal. If we are unlucky it is less. But just when our lives seem full and settled, the government greets us with news shaped like an hourglass. What?? Already?? It’s time? Another PCS looms ahead, another impermanent change of station has been added to the calendar and in one sentence our world shifts…again.

Immediately half of our thoughts belong to another town. Do I know anyone who has lived there? Are the schools good? What about the rental market? Hand me my phone, I need to look at Zillow.

The sand begins to fall, the countdown begins and we act differently. Don’t fill the freezer with anything else! Don’t buy any candles, alcohol, Costco toilet paper or condiments! (For goodness’ sake, don’t buy any Worcestershire sauce because it takes two years to use that stuff.) We don’t subscribe to any new magazines. We ditch the summer camp flyers and school announcements for next year’s programs; none of that matters anymore. How on Earth do I transfer my kid’s school credits?? Hand me my phone again.

We clear away the superficial but eventually, the shift becomes more personal… and more difficult. We take a deep breath, stare down at the roots we so lovingly planted and nourished, and start to pull them up.

We pull ourselves out of the running for long-term projects. Maybe we could have earned a promotion at work but now we are leaving.

We pull ourselves back from new friends. We don’t have the time or emotional energy to invest in new people. It’s too late.

We pull ourselves back from our homes which we never finished decorating.

We pull ourselves away from the world, sometimes burrowing within our houses to cover our emotions and avoid the onslought of approaching goodbyes. Our hearts begin to ache.

The problem is that our hearts are now entangled in this new life and if you have ever tried to pull a plant out of the ground, you know there’s a certain ripping that occurs. We can handle the roots delicately and sweep away the surrounding, unattached dirt, but the tearing still happens when we aim to fully remove roots from their home.

We watch our kids hug their friends goodbye and shed their own tears and we think Are we ruining their lives??  We start saying goodbye to our own friends and silently think Will we ever see them again??  It hurts.

We sit in our empty house, listening to the echoes of footsteps. Is this really the end?  We close the door, hand the keys over to our landlord and start weeping in the driveway because Will we ever return to this house again??  Oh man, it hurts.

During the long walk to goodbye, we shed tears and feel broken-hearted because WE ARE. We are tearing away parts of our heart and leaving them with that person or place forever. It’s a painful process.

NOW STOP. Before we cry ourselves to sleep or eat a gallon of ice cream at the mere thought of relocating, let me tell you this: I’ve learned to see blessings in it all. Stepping back and seeing the bigger picture gives us a beautiful vantage point.

Even though the uprooting hurts, the pain is a blessing because it tells us that our heart and roots bonded with something or someone. Ripping ourselves away never feels good, but that doesn’t mean it is NOT good. We are meant for connection and the heartache is evidence of our success.

The heartache is also a blessing as it explodes into fragments our simple definition of “home”. If “home is where the heart is” then this nomadic lifestyle (and subsequent heartbreak) allows us to experience this idea in special ways.

The town that sheltered my broken soul as I recovered from a miscarriage and the death of a loved one, warranted giant tears when I departed. In a short time I had planted myself deeply. To this day, glancing over a map, my eyes will rest on that town because part of my heart never left. Although I will shall never reside there again, it will always feel like “home”.

Or the house on another continent that became our safehouse, our place of comfort and the scene of tremendous growth in our children. So much of my heart was left within those walls that I felt physically “homesick” for months after our PCS was complete. (I still do!) It will forever remain special.

Or the friends that we meet during a tour- the ones who become our confidants and kindred spirits… those goodbyes are painful, but as we share bits of our heart with those people we will be rewarded with great joy when our roads converge again. Even people can feel like “home”.

Whether we desire it or not, this nomadic lifestyle changes and moves us. We experience new things, new friendships and new cultures that cannot be unlearned. Even if we hate where we live, we are still changed! Our hearts are the parts that change the most- growing, expanding and reshaping after we leave bits of them behind. So while the molding and shaping can be painful sometimes, I’ve concluded that it is ultimately VERY GOOD.

At the end of the day I believe the pain is worth it. The friendships and experiences under my belt are priceless to me, even with the accompanying heartache. How lucky am I to feel homesick for so many people and so many places?

If you are moving soon and wondering if you have the energy to create another new normal, I say: don’t wait until you are withered and dry. Dig in and plant those roots as soon as possible, even if you must pull them up later. Give your heart to new friends, even if you know there will be a goodbye in your future. Feel free to spend a little time mourning over your last duty station, but don’t let the tears blind you to the riches of your new town. These miles of new soil will bring different opportunities and different experiences so go ahead and survey the ground until you find your special spot. Then plant yourself.

“[Anne] was leaving the home that was so dear to her, and something told her she was leaving it forever… things would never be the same again. And oh, how dear and beloved everything was… all the thousand and one spots where memories bided. Could she ever really be happy anywhere else?” – Anne of the Island

Yes… she could. And she was. And so will you and I. ❤️

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