On Loneliness, Grit, and the Hard Work of Building Community

By Sarah Sandifer

I shouldn’t have been surprised, really, when we got all of our boxes unpacked, and instead of putting them out on the curb with a “free” sign on them as we had said we were going to do, Lane hauled them up to our attic with a mischievous grin on his face.

“I just thought this would give us the option to do it again if we wanted to.”

In the previous three weeks we had seemingly agreed on how hard DITYs are and how he owes me a trip to a beach somewhere as I was not excited to be New Girl again. So when he mentioned the option of even considering another DITY move, I threw a roll of tape at him.

We didn’t know a soul in our new city and we moved into our new neighborhood mostly without any fanfare besides some kind souls who waved as they passed our driveway. Not a family to be discouraged too easily, we explored and created adventures of our own as we finished out Lane’s PCS leave.

When I stilled myself and let myself acknowledge it though, the loneliness and accompanying sadness of beginning again were so palpable I ached.

Our move was especially tender because as soon as Lane signed into his new unit he practically simultaneously boarded a plane to meet up with his unit overseas.

“Daddy, I love you and I don’t want you to go.” She was wearing pink glasses and was five and this phrase just about broke me.

We said goodbye and the girls and I went to get ice cream; we got through Day 1.

On Day 2, I realized there was not a single person in this city whose number I had saved in my phone and felt more vulnerable than I wanted to admit. What if I needed help in the middle of the night? What if I needed to send an SOS and take a kid to urgent care? I knew no one and battled the urge to become a self-reliant fortress: I can’t crumble, there’s no one around to help pick up my pieces.

I sat for a few days in this vulnerability and loneliness, then a thought streaked through my heart: “It doesn’t have to be this way.” I decided that I actually do need people in my life, and if it wasn’t happening on its own, I needed to create it.

I repeated a phrase that became a bit like my battle cry: Stronger together, Sarah–remember, you are stronger together.

I decided that if I needed community then there were other girls who needed community too, so I organized a weekly Bible study for our unit wives. There were some moments of insecurity and doubt. Can the new girl really be the one to rally others together? They don’t know me, will anyone show up? 

I did it anyway.

On the day we were to have the first Bible study, each of our phones rang with the same terrible news: One of our soldiers was killed. Our collective breath was taken out of our very lungs.

Should I still have the Bible study, I wondered? Would the girls still want to get together?

I decided to still meet, with the same mindset I had in starting it in the first place. If I needed to have others in my life, no matter the circumstances, surely others did too. So on Night 1, the night we lost one of our own, I was shocked as the room was packed. It was true after all–we needed to be together, we are stronger together.

We talked about how we were doing and how good guacamole is and we cried a little, too, about how we were sad and how we needed to feel normal in a life that is decidedly not normal.

What am I trying to say with all this?

We needed to make space for each other and in doing so, we made space for love too. We needed a space that would push out the fear and the loneliness and the big doubts and would allow for love to fill in those gaps.

And it happened.

Each week we got together, we left a little less alone, a little more hopeful, with a little more grit and a little more love.

As for me, I continued to refuse to go it alone and started inviting girls from the unit over for Sunday night dinners. One night, they walked into laundry all over my dining room table and another night I ruined the spaghetti, a seemingly un-ruinable meal.

Deep down though, we all knew they didn’t come for the spaghetti. They came to be together, to not have to worry about one night’s dinner while their husband was deployed.

They came because there’s that low-grade simmer of fear that walks with us everywhere we go, every time the phone rings. And when we’re packed into a living room laughing about the chaplain’s wife’s mushy pasta, we kind of forget about that for a little bit.

Honestly? I’m glad there’s never a point where it just becomes easy. It keeps me awake to the pain and I think that’s a good thing.

It’s a continual reminder for me that I can’t do this alone and I mean that both in how I need God and how I need others.

I’ve been making it a practice to notice the goodness of God no matter what difficult circumstance is going on, and I can’t deny it: I see it in the people we do actual life with, the ones who say the same goodbyes we do, because the goodness of God is alive to me in the context of others–those who walk through the same suffering that I do and keep loving, keep giving, keep going.

In this military life, I find that loneliness, fear, bitterness and exhaustion will take up as much space as I let them. But if we make space for others, we’re also making space for love. And every single time, we’re getting more resilient as well because it’s just true:

We’re stronger together, we’re stronger together, don’t ever forget it, we’re always stronger together.