Debriefing: Do I need it?

My husband and I didn’t know if we needed debriefing, we just knew we needed help. By the end of our first term we were worn out, angry all the time, and felt like our emotional buffers were paper thin. It didn’t take much to send us from seemingly content to all guns blazing.

I’d already started skyping regularly with a counselor and made some progress. Talking with her was like having someone open your eyes to the reality that you are not just having a series of bad days/weeks/months/years, you’re actually in a pot of boiling water and unless you can turn down the heat, you’ll croak.

But how to turn down the heat? Wasn’t this just life here? Wasn’t this what I signed up for? Well, yes and no. She recommended debriefing.

It just so happened teammates were also looking for ways to turn down the heat and had booked into a weeklong debriefing retreat. We were intrigued and booked in too. We weren’t sure what debriefing was or how it would help us, but felt good about going with friends.

On Day 1 of the retreat we anonymously wrote our expectations on a board displayed in the meeting room. I wrote, “To learn how to live well and parent well in a violent and stressful environment.”

Each day following we were assigned homework, a “tool” to work on, and scheduled time to meet with our individual debriefers. Over the week we would create event timelines for the period we wanted to debrief, identify losses, discuss grief, open the scriptures, and address needs.

A particularly poignant time for me was the discussion of primary and secondary losses. It goes like this:

Event: A man attempted to rob me.
Primary loss: Nothing. I managed to keep hold of my bag.

So I’m fine, right?

Maybe. Maybe if this was an isolated incident or maybe if I had a different personality, I might be able to just move on. But it wasn’t and I don’t. This attempted robbery joined a long string of stressful/scary events. This is where secondary losses come into play.

Secondary losses usually go deeper and are harder to identify. While I kept my bag, my sense of security in my surroundings was once again shaken and my trust in the people of my host country took another blow.

As I talked with my debriefer and worked through identifying all the events and losses of the last three years, I felt a lot of sadness and disappointment.

Why had God allowed all these bad things to happen?
Where was God in all of this?
Why won’t He act?
Does He even really care?
Is He trustworthy?

My debriefer leaned forward, “So, in light of all this you need to ask yourself –  If this is who God is, why keep Him?”

That moment. In that moment right there all the weight of events and sadness of the last 3 years came to a screeching halt. All my questions and doubts replaced with a new question:

“God, would you show me who you are and who I am to you?”

At the beginning of the week we read the story of the Walk to Emmaus in Luke 24. Jesus had just been crucified and buried. His followers hoped Jesus would be the one to restore everything, but now he was dead. Their hopes were crushed.

As the disciples walked along the road discussing all that happened, Jesus, unrecognized, came and walked with them. He chided their wrong thinking and opened the scriptures to them. As the story unfolds the disciples eventually realize Jesus is walking with them. There was still hope, unimaginable hope!

I went into debriefing looking for a plan of action. I wanted someone to tell me what to do to live well. I didn’t get that. Instead, throughout the week as I looked back and talked over all the events of the last three years, I hadn’t realized that Jesus would be there – walking with me, chiding me, pointing out truth, revealing who He is.

Although we still have many challenges, we now also have tools to help us walk through hard times, feel freedom to set better boundaries, and are working on a self care plan for this next term. Mostly, we have hope.

If you’re considering debriefing, I hope you find this post helpful. I’d love to tell you debriefing will fix everything. It won’t. But if you are having a hard time seeing clearly and need some help to do it, debriefing may be a good first step. A great list of missionary care and burnout resources can be found here:

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Anisha Hopkinson

Anisha was born to Chilean and Texan parents, first tasted missions in Mexico, fell in love with an Englishman in Africa, and now lives in Indonesia. She journals about cross-cultural life, helping people, and loving Jesus on

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