I didn’t know this was a cost to count

by Amy Young on September 14, 2016

I naively went to my pre-field orientation thinking the big pieces of saying goodbye was over. After months of goodbyes and preparing to GO, relief flooded me as the hellos and getting settled could start.

Imagine my surprise when less than a month later I was sobbing harder than I did when I left my own family. Why was saying goodbye to people I hadn’t even known a month ago gutting me?


Now that I am years away from those steps of the Friendship Hotel in Beijing and can look back with a cool, rational mind, of course I was going to become close with these people who shared an intense emotional experience (and hours and hours of listening to this aspect and that aspect of living and serving overseas). Our adventures started in Los Angeles as we figured out how to take a city bus to Rodeo Drive. They continued in Beijing as we melted on the Great Wall of China. The GREAT WALL OF CHINA! We were finally . . . on the field!

This was before the days of all the easy ways to connect; so when we said goodbye, we were under no delusions that we would have much contact until our organization conference. I knew I’d miss my family so the pain didn’t surprise me. It felt right. It felt honoring of the call.

However, this pain of missing new friends bowled me over precisely because they had been strangers. Who aches for people they might be fuzzy over their last name?

But you get it.

I have recently stumbled into another cost I hadn’t counted when I went to the field. I knew part of the cost involved missing milestones and events. Birthdays and weddings. Births and deaths. Holding hands during chemo and watching football with friends. The mundane and the markers. And while I wished I could be a part of everything—my life in Asia and my life in America—I got that I couldn’t.

You get it too.

The longer I stayed on the field, the more my people were tied less to Colorado and Kansas. The more I had ties all over the world, but especially in parts of the US where, were it not for life on the field, I had never heard of or would have only been a vacation destination.

For many years on the field I was anchored in a community, so I loved these ties all over the world. But then the cloud that God had over our community moved and dissipated with most of us moving to new locations.

This spring as I drove to a graduation my companion asked me what I missed about life overseas; I said it was the way life was integrated. My teammates were my friends, my co-workers, my small group. Many of us had our own apartments but all lived in the same building. We studied the word together. We celebrated birthdays together. We worked together. As I waxed poetic, she responded, “It sounds awful.”

Well, it wasn’t rosy 24/7, but it was rich and good.

In April the text read, “Aim, I’m at the doctor. I just found out I have cancer.”

In a flash I was back on the stairs of the Friendship Hotel mourning a loss it had never occurred to me would come. Sucker punched because now I’m with my people and a part of the mundane activities and the markers. Wasn’t the ache of not being a part of things with my people finally over?

The shadow side of this grief is two-fold. In part, internally I rally against the reality that while we are in the same country, we are worlds apart. How can this be? How can I not be there for this part of the journey? How is it I now find out through text messages he’s in the hospital again? These are my people, my teammates. I should be a part of this because they will always be a part of me.

The second part to this grief is again the distance I feel with people who have not lived on the field. They understand that a friend, a teammate, is ill. Very ill. Most likely preparing to leave his wife and children. What I have been unable to express is how it feels like a sibling has cancer.

In trying to quantify our relationship so that it makes sense to others, I say, “We lived in the same building for ten years. I lived on the 3rd floor and the Packs lived on the 4th floor. On occasion I baked the cakes for the kids’ birthdays. Anne stocked my refrigerator so when I’d get home from my trips visiting teachers on the field I would have food. We shared a communal laundry room. We did life together. As an adult I have spent more time with them than with my own blood family.”

I did not know when I went to the field I would now miss out on weddings, births, new jobs, and illness to the degree that I do.

I feel the need to say Jesus is worth it so you don’t think me too navel gazing. And he is. Of course he is! But he also knows this cost of being away from loved ones and he sits with me as another loss and another comes.

When do you wish you could have been with a teammate?

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About Amy Young

When Amy Young first moved to China she knew three Chinese words: hello, thank you and watermelon. She is known to jump in without all the facts and blogs regularly at The Messy Middle. She helped found Velvet Ashes and writes books to help you. Amy is the author of Love, Amy: An Accidental Memoir Told in Newsletters from China and Looming Transitions: Starting and Finishing Well in Cross-Cultural Service. Looming Transitions also has two companion resources: 22 Activities for Families in Transitions and Looming Transitions Workbook. You can listen to it too.
  • Gina

    Yes-so many milestones we miss while overseas, and with it the communal celebration and grief. We knew the Packs in our time in BJ too-such a great family! You took me back with your mention of the Friendship Hotel. sigh!

    • I have a feeling many of us who came to China “back in the day” have Friendship Hotel memories :)! Loving the Packs with you!

  • Tina Sessoms

    Amy, I’m so sorry you are hurting. You are in my prayers..

    Thank you for saying this so well. As a former pastor’s wife of several churches, and four years in Indonesia, and 7 years in college ministry, I’ve said my share of hellos and goodbyes. Leaving a church was especially difficult because it is expected that when a pastor and his wife leave and church, they really leave so the new pastor does not have to “compete”. Moving forward was always an “adventure” but I was soon reminded that someday I would have to “leave” these great friends and move on. This is a killer for a pastor’s wife. So many friendships, births, weddings, sicknesses that I’ve missed of my own personal family left in Florida but also with all of those who are my family in each church and ministry of the past.

    But God is good. I can’t imagine my life without each one of these special people who became my sisters, brothers, moms and dads, and grandparents to my children. Yes, God has been very good. Love is wonderful, but sometimes the pain is unbearable.

    • Elizabeth Trotter

      This story makes me so sad, Tina. The fact that you were forced to not keep in touch with your dear friends, out of “respect” for the next leader, doesn’t sound like it was the right thing for the community to enforce. I am so sorry that was done to you, and I’m so sorry for all the pain that approach has caused you. I’m thankful you could make so many good friends at each place, but so sorry for the compounded pain of all the goodbyes.

    • Tina, I resonate with “I can’t imagine my life without each one.” While my experience was different, the hardest part of leaving my organization after being in leadership was knowing that the nature of my relationship with people had to change. I would no longer be one of the go-to people. For a season, I stepped back very much to let those who came after me have space and establish themselves in people’s hearts.

      For me, this has been the upside of social media — I have been able to maintain relationships with many more than I every anticipated. It is different than being a part of their “daily” lives, yes! And there is grief and loss in that. As I said, I feel like I miss out on so many of life’s markers :)! But the private FB messages let me know I still have some role in people’s lives. Have you found a way to continue with some relationships? Albeit in an altered way?

  • Marilyn Gardner

    I SO get this – this trying to explain to others the connection with non blood relatives who you lived life so completely with that they are closer than family. This weekend we were at the wedding of the son of some friends. The thing is, it’s more than some friends. My parents and the grandfather and grandmother of the groom did life together for over 25 years. Their kids were our best friends. The grandfather helped to save my brother’s life when he was 6 — At one point we were trying to explain this relationship to someone at the wedding and finally stopped, laughed and said “Let’s just say we are eternally linked.” There was no other way to put it. But the hurt that we feel when we can’t be present is undeniably real and costly. Thank you for sharing your heart.

    • “Eternally linked” — YES! I tell people we are teammates for eternity :). So glad that many here at ALOS get it too and we don’t get lost in explanations that make so much sense to us but can sound like non-sense to others 🙂

  • Susan

    This article is spot on. You can’t explain it to others who have not lived this life. We spent 20 years as a military family, I was a missionary too for 12 of those years too. The experience is the same, especially overseas. Oy out make family bonds with people. Then, we moved to being missionaries. Ironically, our mission board didn’t think that are military time “counted” but, it did. I did my primary work of evangelism in the military community, not overseas as an M. When the community in Kabul was dispersed 3 years ago, after two attacks aimed at us, we were prepared. We had prepared ourselves for co workers to die. We had done that before. It was hard, but we understood that the light at the end of the tunnel would come. We understood and watched security from a dual perspective, as my husband had done security training and management for the AF and the mission agency. We knew what might happen and how it would feel to suddenly be homeless, untethered so to speak. We had made 3 convoluted moves in the AF, 2 in which we were in limbo for 6 months, without our stuff. Yep, the feeling was the same. We were able to minister uniquely to our team of newbies during that time. All of life’s experiences are given to you for the glory of God. We are back in the states, supposedly enjoying the good life. We long to return to the more intense purpose driven like minded community overseas. It has great joy. It hurts really bad, at times. But . . It is so worth it to serve the King of Kings.

    • Thanks Susan! I wish more agencies recognized (and utilized!) the tremendous amount of overlap between the military and the missionary life!

  • Daniel Routh

    Yes, overseas you lose milestones and relationships from home. But when you come back you have been a little ruined for the ordinary. Thank you for talking about the real costs of the pilgrim lifestyle

    • Some days a little. some days a lot :).

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