A Different Kind of Goodbye

by J. Daniel Sims 

photo credit: Brant Copen

We were promised sufferings. They were part of the program. We were even told, ‘Blessed are they that mourn,’ and I accept it. I’ve got nothing that I hadn’t bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not imagination.
(C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed)

It is a rare peaceful, sunny afternoon on a usually rainy, usually war-torn hilltop in Northern Myanmar when I break down for the first time on my new life path.

These last six months brought me closer to the dead and dying and at a greater frequency than many Americans will ever experience. This exposure shook something loose in me, ultimately transforming the way I view and approach life. But this death, across 10,000 miles of ocean, was different, closer somehow.

My family is all together now, minus two key people. One of them is me.

//

I was the first grandson and for 20 months thrived as the sole treasure of the family. Then Andrew was born. Even before my sister, Andrew was my first playmate. He was a meaningful part of every memory with Mom’s side of the family tree.

Most of our interactions took place at the “farm,” my grandfather’s yawning plot of west Texas clay. My visits to the farm were often separated by large periods of time, gaps which grew in length as the years wore on. Proximity ultimately stifled the full development of our friendship, but I always considered Andrew the closest thing I had to a brother.

Andrew lived near the farm, and every month my family would come to visit. We would always pick up right where we left off: exploring the fields, playing hide n’ go seek in the farmhouse, trying for hours just to get a single ball through the towering, rusty, old basketball net.

As time passed, the monthly trips turned into every few months, but the fun only increased as my sister and his brother joined the ranks: camping in the fields, building a fortress in the barn, throwing apples at the cows, two-on-two at the rusty, old basketball net.

Then we moved north and only made it out to the farm a couple of times a year. But whenever we did, everything was beautifully unchanged. Our club of cousins really was family: 4-wheeling around the fields, fishing by the tank, climbing races to the top of the rusty, old basketball net.

But twice a year turned to once, and once to “when we can,” and the assembly of our childhood army lost its regularity. Nearly two years had passed when I headed back to the farm for Pappaw’s funeral. A fifth cousin, Andrew’s youngest brother, had long been added to the ranks and was now six years old. Somewhere along the way, we had all grown up, Andrew perhaps the most visibly.

During Pappaw’s final days, Andrew had grown into a leader at the farm and in life. He was excelling at university and prepping for law school (a veritable family tradition). At home, he was looking after his brothers and spending a lot of time with a special girl named Ashley.

That summer he had stopped by the old house every day to check in on Mammaw and Pappaw. Whether to bring them the mail, or deliver some groceries, or just to say hi, he was there. The farm became just another place where he could make a difference: plowing the fields, taking care of the cows, thoughtfully repainting the rusty old basketball net.

I was thoroughly impressed by the changes in Andrew’s life, changes I was actively seeking in my own. Though time certainly forced its way between us, the friendship was just as we remembered.

I’ll never forget my last trip to the farm. Andrew and I were worn out from spending an hour or so trying to dunk on a refinished – yet unmistakably old – basketball net. (I never quite got it, but I think he did.)

We headed around the house and met the other three cousins. The five of us just sat there under the flag, tossing a football, and enjoying each other’s company for the rest of the afternoon. I couldn’t stop thinking to myself how lucky I was to have such a family, so separated by time and distance, but still – in many ways – so beautifully close.

As the sun set, we hugged our goodbyes and headed back to school and life on opposite sides of the world. That was the last time I heard from Andrew.

//

There I sat, alone and confused on this hillside in Northern Myanmar, seeking in this strange land the sort of personal transformation which became real for Andrew in his own home town.

My family was all together, minus two key people. One of them was me.

Editor’s Note: This essay was excerpted from Sims’s new book WanderLOST: stories from the winding road to significance, which was released on April 1st. I had the privilege of reading an early copy of the manuscript and gave this endorsement:

“In Wanderlost, Jacob tells a story that is so particular it becomes universal, especially for the traveler or the globally minded Christ-follower. But anyone who has searched for meaning, identity, or community will find in him a fellow seeker. At times hilarious and at times painful, Wanderlost is at all times compelling.” –Elizabeth Trotter

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J. Daniel Sims currently serves as Country Director of International Justice Mission (IJM) Cambodia, where he leads a team of investigators, lawyers, social workers, and programmatic and operational staff in the fight against violent labor exploitation. Concurrently with his role at IJM, he serves as a Non-Resident Fellow at Duke University’s Center for Reconciliation, a leading institute bridging the worlds of research and practice in the global peace-building and justice space. Sims is frequently drawn upon for expert commentary on various human rights and global development challenges. His analysis has featured in The Economist, The Guardian, Forbes, LA Times, Al Jazeera, VICE World News, Sydney Morning Herald, ProPublica, The American Interest, Plough, The Hill, and World News Group.

Are Transient Friendships Worth My Time?

Are Transient Friendships Worth My Time?

In my 15 years on the field, the number of dear friends I have made and then said goodbye to is beyond my ability to recount. Some were genuine heart-level relationships, the kind where I could bare the depths of my soul and still feel entirely loved and unjudged. Others were such a barrel of fun that the laughs started rolling the minute we began chatting, and some friends had such depth of love for Christ that it felt highly contagious in the best way. 

But the one thing all of these friends had in common is that they left. Whether they moved to another field or returned to their home countries, my friendships with them are no longer the same because of the geographical distance between us. 

Of course, I also have left. I left my home country and the friendships I had there so I could move to Afghanistan. I transitioned to a different field in 2014, and with that transition came many goodbyes. It does not feel so drastic when I am the one leaving because there is so much newness and excitement to look forward to on the other side. But when I was the one left behind, the void felt as though I could trace its crater with my fingers. “It’s fine,” I would tell myself. “That is where God wants her, and I love that for her!” 

After saying so many goodbyes, it felt safer to hang back and observe. I would watch carefully and check in with different expat ladies in the community to see how they were doing, only to calculate whether or not they would “make it.” While they were sharing their triumphs and struggles, I was cautiously measuring them up to see if they were worth my time and energy. It’s a sad and ugly confession, but it’s true. (It’s also worth noting that my predictions have rarely been accurate.) 

My watch-and-wait strategy backfired, and I simply wound up not having close friends outside of my husband and a teammate. This lasted a couple of years because I was pretty slow to figure out that my plan had failed. In my attempt to shield myself from the pain of more goodbyes, I had effectively cut myself off from friendships. It was a lonely time. The fear of pending heartache was gnawing at the present reality of loneliness, but I felt too stuck to know which was the better existence. 

When I was finally able to articulate my dilemma, it became clear that God had made me, and indeed all of us, to live in relationship with one another while knowing that loss is inevitable. Our souls yearn for infinite comfort and familiarity, and Jesus is the only one who can meet this longing with his constant presence and unchanging nature. This change in perspective brought me into a new depth of communion with Christ, and his unchangingness became a new point of meditation and gratitude in my prayer life. 

I have since made several meaningful friendships. And, of course, some of them have moved on to other places or back to their passport countries. However, I am grateful for each one because we needed each other in those specific seasons of life. We sharpened each other, we cried together, we shared laughter and joy, sorrow and pain. My life and relationship with Jesus is far deeper and more vibrant as a result of relationship with these friends, even if we were together for only a season. 

God made us relational creatures with an intense need for human connection. In our communion with one another, we commune with Christ as well. Knowing and being known by others allows us glimpses of the Maker who put others together just as he did you and me. This is the kind of goodness that you go out of your way to behold, the sort that makes you stand in awe and gratitude. 

Making friends in adulthood is not easy, and the transience of life overseas tends to add another layer of complexity to the mix. Overseas life can bring burdens too heavy to shoulder alone, and God has given us the gift of each other for the journey.  The short-lived nature of our togetherness can be a reminder that God’s provision may look different from season to season. But the beauty of the vast family of God is that we are tied together by a love so powerful that it transcends time and distance.

When Will This Grief End?

Long-term grief is real. It is eight years ago this month since we had to leave our overseas home. For so long the grief has been painful, like a part of my heart was ripped out. We departed abruptly, adding to the sharp nature of our grief.

But whatever the circumstances of your grief, know that God sees you.

We all face endings and must stretch forth into beginnings. Our lives overseas are often hard-earned and yet are fragile, dependent on factors outside of our control. Grief comes in many ways, whether in the leaving or in the staying as others depart or in a million other things which meet us at every bend in the road.

So how do we ever find healing amid the grief of this journey?

Here are five truths about grief that I’ve gleaned from my ongoing season of grief over leaving an overseas home I loved. They can also be found in Chapter 3 of my book, A Million Skies.

  1. Grief is a unique journey to the person: No one’s grief is the same. Even if you are also grieving a ‘goodbye’ to your overseas home, your journey may be extraordinarily different from mine. We each have varied kinds of closure. We may have remained when others left. The pain we face, which is created by the sense of a shifting home, reminds us that anchors of community, culture, language, and even faith are no longer present. Fight the lie that you must grieve as others do. You have all the grace in the world to walk your own unique journey–to feel what you feel and know what you know.
  2. Grief is messy: This is one of the most succinct truisms I have ever heard and known related to grief. One day we can think of what we miss with soul-deep anguish at the separation. The next day may have us laughing at a funny memory. No matter who we are, the ups and downs and trying to make sense of our grief is so very messy.
  3. Grief is nuanced: Often when we think of those memories of things we loved most in our overseas home, the joy is mixed with such sorrow. We may never be present again with what we have so dearly loved. An English Camp where I worked with my missionary community for six summers had been my ‘happy place’ for nearly ten years. Then, suddenly what had been so joy-filled became, to the same degree, a thing of sorrow. And I know you have your own story, too.
  4. Grieving well means we must remain in its process: As I returned to the States, I was so overwhelmed with grief, I just wanted to binge Netflix and avoid dealing with such sadness. However, I learned that the rock-hard ball of tears wedged deep within me would not go away, and worse, might harden me if I didn’t face my grief. As we navigate the pain, we need to learn to trust God, ourselves, and others again. At the same time, we remain in hard places and what sometimes seems never-ending sorrow.
  5. Grief is never the end of the story: While grief is part and parcel of this life, it does not have final say. God invites us to co-author with him a life that can find true hope in a newness which is overwhelmingly good. If I reflect over these past eight years, I find so many precious relationships I never would have had if I hadn’t had to return to the States. I also have had countless opportunities to serve God as I have found the strength to open up my wounds, wounds intimately related to the life that was lost, and share those wounds with the world. In similar and different ways, you can find hope in the knowledge that your story is not even remotely over.

In the end what I have realized is that, though it was cut short of my hopes and expectations, every moment of my overseas life was gift. Every opportunity to love on students, to meet shop owners, to bond cross-culturally with our church or with the kids’ school communities, was an incredible privilege that few experience. Moreover, not a single moment was wasted. Just as it all was a gift from God, I can lay it at God’s feet as my gift unto his glory.

The trading of sorrow for joy happens little by little as we heal. If joy remains small in the remembering, take heart. You are not alone on the journey. Our Immanuel, God with us, lived a life of grief, of the loss of home. He bore our griefs and sorrows and offers hope as we grasp his healing hand to touch our pain. Ultimately, he promises to bring us home forever.

I leave you with grace. Yes, joy for sorrow. Healing for pain. And most of all, grace to be in the journey as you grieve monumental losses most cannot understand. You are dearly loved by God and given all you need to be right where you are.

Your friend in the journey,

Abigail

photo credit

Tending to the Garden of Expat Emotions

by Lauren Swenson

It was so strange to me, the day when someone asked our names at church as if we were total strangers. We’d played volleyball several times together, had a host of mutual friends, and attended the same service regularly. I asked him, “Do you seriously not remember meeting us before?” His response was, “Oh I’ve lived here long enough that I’ve decided not to make any friends until I know they’ll be staying in Nairobi for a while. How long have you been here?” (Two years, and we met you within the first month or two.) “What do you do?” (We’re building a CrossFit gym.) “Oh, so you own a business! Yes, maybe you’ll be here a while.” He then proceeded to give us his name – again – and he told us he’d try to remember our names this time.

Surprisingly, although this weirdly frank conversation is not the norm, there have been quite a number of people we’ve met who ask prequalifying questions like “How long have you been here?” or “How long do you intend to stay?” or “What organization are you with?” to try to gauge if there’s a possibility of a longer-term relationship or if it’s going to be a short-lived acquaintance.

And I can say truthfully now, I get it. I get why people try to hedge their expectations. It hurts. I find myself grieving over the loss of friendships regularly here. I find myself saddened by the reality that we live in a place where people very regularly move on.

Strictly from a professional standpoint, we have trained with, invested in, and brought on fourteen people who joined us and then left, and we have two more highly integrated individuals who are moving on in the immediate future. The majority of these people are driven by worthy aspirations and have made meaningful life-moves for themselves, so of course I celebrate those realized hopes with them.

But ouch.

It’s not easy being left behind, rebuilding and finding new people to fill spaces that belonged to someone else who uniquely fulfilled their role with us, with our story and aspirations and structure.

I find myself grieving, because I give, invest, pour into people, and then the gaps appear, and the process has to start all over again. It’s disappointing when I have to slow my own progress to go back and train a new teammate.

I grieve because saying goodbye so often makes me feel isolated and alone, and like my story matters little compared to others’ stories.

Maybe someone more mature than me could take the losses in stride. What I do know is that I don’t want to grow heart-calluses that keep people at arms’ length, so I choose to dive in to understand, invest, know, and trust. But is there a way to do this without it hurting?

And in a context where life is not easy and opportunities are sought after like the rare treasures they are, I hurt at the heartbreak and hardships so many face. The never-ending toil of trying to find enough work to put food on the table at the end of each day. The lack of quality public education that puts tremendous burden on families to put children through school. No money for rent, people dodging landlords praying their home won’t be padlocked, possessions seized and tossed into the street. I am not here to work with the poor and disenfranchised, but in the course of my regular life – friends, neighbors, consultants – the realities are humbling, desperate, and overwhelming.

What do I do when this unsettling grief seems to circle around me? It’s not a distant discomfort; it is very present and tangible.

In some ways, it’s a good thing to grieve like this; it is evidence that I am present and alive – feeling, empathizing, caring – in my relationships. As a matter of principle, I want to be all of those things with people, and I believe I am choosing the right priorities.

What troubles me is how I feel when I give myself to training, believing, raising up, trusting, and investing my time, ideas and often finances, and I don’t feel it reciprocated with the loyalty of longevity. Somehow I feel betrayed, like I’ve been used (or am being used) as a steppingstone.

Yet those words war against another reality: I can literally say that one of the joys of my life is being a conduit of grace and hope and being an equipper, someone who can be relied upon and who helps others see a way forward. I desire to be living part of others’ pathway to seeing God’s providence and purpose in their lives, and I feel like I’m operating in my giftings when I do so. I feel my own purpose in being a steppingstone.

It feels like more than a matter of semantics, this steppingstone question. The tension in equipping others and releasing them. The pain of relationship and community. There isn’t a lighthearted quip or pearl of wisdom to nicely qualify and take care of the discomfort that seems like a constant ache in me. I am convinced I can’t make a mental decision, alter a belief, or take a vow that will make the grief disappear.

Instead, I find myself imagining a garden: soil and flowers and crawling things with a stone pathway meandering through it. The hedges don’t guard on the inside of the garden; rather, they keep what isn’t necessary from disturbing the space within. Inside the garden there are park benches awaiting conversations, a table awaiting the opportunity of a shared meal, the bird bath welcoming song, the green grass hoping for small feet to run and tumble through it.

I don’t want to hedge against good grief. I want to be a place where the sadness I feel is because my life is that garden, and my heart has been the steppingstone that welcomed guests in and has seen them leave, better than when they arrived.

Help me, Jesus, to know how to do this well, because sometimes it hurts more than I want it to.

Originally published here.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Feeling compelled to influence a part of the world just beginning to embrace fitness as a lifestyle, Lauren and Bryant Swenson and their three teenagers relocated to Nairobi, Kenya in 2016 to open a CrossFit gym. To keep family and friends connected with their journey overseas, Lauren started a blog, which has become her own soul-nurturing chronicle even as life abroad stretches her faith and understanding. Through her writing, Lauren desires to be an authentic and faithful voice, and to foster the togetherness, teachability, tenacity, and transformation that define their purpose in Africa.

Broken Blenders

by Katherine

See the blade twist to a stop
See the smoke rise after the pop
And I’ve broken another blender

Blenders keep breaking; I can’t bear to get another one. Is it that I keep buying low-quality blenders? Or is it the power surges and dusty, tropical environment? I can’t remember how many blenders I’ve been through in my years living in SE Asia. I don’t have one at the moment; I can’t bring myself to buy another one. I know it’s going to break.

Friends keep leaving; I can’t bear to get to know new people. Every new friend is an embryo of a goodbye. The expat community has such a high turnover. As an Australian living in Asia, I’m in a community with people from many countries. We all live here together as foreigners. Some stay for a few months, some for a few years, and some for a few decades. At any given time, I know of someone who is gearing up to move back to their passport country.

I was finally getting to know them
Maybe enough to be a regular confidant
Then they announce they are leaving
And they give their stuff away
 

I was finally getting to know them
Maybe enough to tell them where we keep the passports
Then they announce they are leaving
And they give their stuff away

I was finally getting to know them
Maybe our children will grow up together
Then they announce they are leaving
And they give their stuff away

We are a mosaic of everyone we’ve ever met, so they say. A mosaic is composed of pieces of different colours and shapes arranged together to form beauty. Well, I say the content of our house is a hodgepodge of many of the people we have farewelled. Our things are a jumbled, messy mixture of exited expats’ former items.

When an expat leaves, they need to get, say, 6 years of belongings down to a 20-kg bag. They sell, they gift, and they throw away.

I have a shelf from a friend who left 15 years ago,
a saucepan from a friend who left 8 years ago,
toys from friends who left 5 years ago,
many books from a friend who left 3 years ago,
a bed from a friend who left 2 years ago,
and a jar of sprinkles from a friend who left a year ago,
just to name a few.

Each piece of the mosaic is part time machine and part airplane. The jar of sprinkles connects us to those years we spent with the former owner. Memories of decorating Christmas cookies at her place pop up when I see the tall glass jar full of coloured balls.

It also connects us to that same friend in the present day. A reminder she is not here, but on the other side of the world. Her children probably don’t remember the sugary mess we made at their place. And they won’t be hosting cookie decorating here again.

I need to grow the mosaic. Although I can’t bear the thought of getting to know more people, I also cannot live without expat friends. I have local friends and friends in my passport country, but there are some things only fellow expats will get.

Locals know nothing other than crazy traffic, so they don’t see it as crazy. Passport country friends don’t know what it is like to fear every trip around town in your first year of a new country — but then to also fear the traffic in your passport country every visit.

So I will continue to welcome new friends. It’s better to have friends and say goodbye than to never have friends. And next time I am saying goodbye, maybe I will take the plunge and ask if my departing friends are looking to re-home their blender.

~~~~~~~~~~~

Katherine’s childhood church in Australia launched her on a trajectory to Asia. After a decade of preparation she landed in Cambodia and married a local Bible teacher.

The Day We Didn’t Go Home

We were supposed to go home on August 6th. We had tickets and plans, we had dreams and ideas. But when we left Cambodia back in March, we did not have an awareness of how COVID-19 would turn the world upside down.

So we’re not flying home on August 6th. As a result of passport issues, visa issues, entry requirements, finances, and a whole host of reasons (everyone has them), we’re staying.

For our family, August 6th is now Stay Day.

Does your story include a Stay Day? Perhaps for you it wasn’t a Stay Day as much as a Leave Day. Do you have a day that marks when life quaked and plans tumbled? Do you memorialize a Stay Day or a Leave Day? Should you?

We hope to remember our eight years in Cambodia on this August 6th, and every August 6th afterwards. It will be a sort of anniversary; a blend of stories and laughter and tears.

Like so many memorials, it will be a funky mix of mirth and merry.

On Stay Day, we’ll remember the day we didn’t go home.

Sure, America is home too. Or at least it was. And it will be again. I’m speaking for myself here, of course, because my children will have their own stories, and they’ll need to tell them. Their relationship with America (and Cambodia) always was and always will be unique. Different than mine.

But some things we shared.

Like the eight years around a thick, Khmer-style round table. Well, more like seven. The first year we had a cheaper wooden rectangular table that got eaten up by termites so big you could hear them feasting: lightning-bug-size table chompers.

We’re shipping the Khmer-style table to America, so every Stay Day we’ll gather around it and remember.

We’ll remember the scent of frangipanis, and we’ll probably try to buy some. We’ll feel the feel of traditional kramas, the checkered scarves Cambodians (and my daughters) use for everything.

We’ll probably order Indian food and remember Mount Everest, the local restaurant in Phnom Penh that taught us to absolutely adore Nepalese and Indian food.

We’ll look at old photos of a younger family riding tuk tuks, playing on the street, trying to figure out cross-cultural living.

We might search YouTube for Khmer dance music, and we will probably laugh about the incessant, LOUD, and DRUNK karaoke that permeated our house during wedding season.

We’ll watch old videos of moto rides through our neighborhood, and we’ll remember the kind old man who laughed at the four white foreigners driving a moto through flooded streets and belly laughing. I wonder if he knew how much it reminded me of riding a jet ski.

Maybe we’ll check Google street view and meander past friends’ houses.

On Stay Day, we will remember. And we will pray.

We’ll pray for Cambodia, for our friends there, and for the Church that’s blossoming into its identity.

And Lord willing, we’ll do this every August 6th: the day we didn’t pack up, weigh all suitcases to 49.9 pounds, quadruple check passports, and jet across the Pacific.

August 7th won’t find us staggering out into the scents and smells of Phnom Penh. We won’t un-mothball our house and turn it back into a home. We won’t schedule reunions with local friends. We won’t visit favorite haunts and coffee shops.

Instead, we’ll mourn what was, and we’ll be grateful for it too.

Mourning is a wetter way of expressing gratitude, after all. 

And we’ll move on, whatever that means.

God remains the God of the past. He will always be the God of the past, and he will always care enough to ask the same question he asked Hagar, “Where have you come from?”

He is the God of Stay Day, August 6th, but he is also the God of August 7th and 8th. And if he’s true, if he’s real, he’s got us, and he holds us in his strong right hand.

And he will hold us on every Stay Day, and every day after that too.

 

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Do you have a day like this? A Stay Day, or something like it?

Do you need one?

Here are some more thoughts about creating shared meaning and the importance of family rituals. As folks who regularly celebrate “shared meaning” through Sacraments, I hope these ideas will resonate and inspire.

May our families be places where we remember our stories, together.

 

A lament for the griefs we don’t have time to grieve

by EC Nance

April and May are usually a grieving season for mission communities. This year it has been particularly rough. Schools closed without warning. People evacuated with a day’s notice. Graduation ceremonies moved online. Children face the prospect of never seeing friends again, without having done the leave-taking. I wrote the following poem as a reflection on this crazy season.

 

I live in a community that lives
in a semi-permanent state of grief
always separate
always strange
always leaving
always being left

but this season
the rhythms of grief
have been interrupted
so the fruit is left on the tree
to swell
sagging with tears

the separations
too rough
the strangeness
too jarring
the leaving
too fast
the being left
—well, what is left
but a splitting
where there should have been
a harvest feast.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

EC Nance lives with her family in SE Asia where her husband works at an MK school.

The Pink Bike

by Rebecca Hopkins

In April of last year, I moved away from Indonesia—my home of 14 years—and sold almost everything. And so, in June, someone gave me a pink bike.

I’m not exactly sure who. My aunt and uncle did the very loving thing of collecting used and new items from their friends to restock a home we didn’t yet have for a life of whose shape we weren’t sure.

I’m pretty sure they mentioned the giver’s name. But the problem was, there were so many names and gifts, and I was disoriented from all the changes that the gifts were still hard to take in. I’d traded one set of overwhelm for another.

On the first truly warm week of summer in Colorado Springs, I pulled the pink bike out of the garage of my parents’ house where we were staying. It took some adjusting to get the seat the right height and to figure out the gears. I had to remind myself that traffic flows on the right side of the road in America. But soon enough, I was moving and the wind was flipping my pony tail and my legs pushed strong.

And then, as I rounded the corner, I realized I hadn’t ridden a bike in 10 years.

The last time I’d ridden was when I was pregnant with my first child, living on a tiny island in Indonesia where my husband worked as a humanitarian pilot for a nonprofit organization. I remember trying to convince myself that the tropical heat, terrible bouts of morning sickness, rough roads, crazy motorbike traffic and neighborhood harasser weren’t adequate reasons to stop riding for a time. But my new motherly instinct won out over my normal risk-taking personality.

I didn’t give up jogging or writing or teaching English to neighborhood kids. But for reasons I can’t remember, I didn’t really ride much once I gave birth. And one day—three kids into motherhood—someone stopped by my house and asked if he could buy my now rusty bike. Without thinking much of it, I said yes.

Life filled with kids and culture and small airplanes and jungle adventures and serving and I didn’t really miss the bike. The next time I touched one, I was holding the back of my son’s bike, holding it steady, urging him to pedal, telling him to be brave.

It broke all our hearts to sell my kids’ childhood bikes that last week in Indonesia. The two small crates we were allotted filled up fast. We had a million choices to make, and the bikes just didn’t make the cut.

They’re just bikes, I told myself, while holding my son, watching someone leave our yard with his bike. It’s just a dollhouse. It’s just their baby clothes. It’s just their school table. It’s just a cat.

It’s just a house we’ve loved and a life we’ve built and friends we adore and the only country my kids have called home.

When I learned my uncle had found bikes for my kids, that knowledge kept me going through all the decisions we had to make. I guarded the news from my kids like a state secret so that we could all watch their excited faces at the unveiling once we got to the States. I hadn’t known, though, about the bikes he’d found for my husband and me. But when I saw all five of them lined up, I could see, for the first time, the building blocks of a new adventure.

Getting back on a bike several weeks after our arrival in Colorado was… like riding a bike…except…when it was harder than that. The angles on the roads felt too sharp, my agility less than I remembered it, the air too dry and thin. And when I needed to stop, I couldn’t seem to both jump off the seat and keep my feet from becoming entangled on various bike parts. I dumped it a couple of times, both times while others were watching.  I brushed the dirt off my hands, put on a smile and waved. “I’m OK. Just fine.”

“You always have a lot of energy to move forward,” my sister recently told me. “You’re good at it.”

She has a way of mirroring back who I am in a kind, affirming way.

I feel like I’ve spent my whole nomadic life honing what is probably also a natural part of my personality.  I can keep my eyes on my next step, look for the good in people and places, find ways to connect and put energy into building…building relationships, building a home, building a life. I’ve developed what may seem like a conflicted relationship with putting down roots and uprooting. I’m a wanderer and nomad at heart who intentionally grows roots wherever I land.

I’ve read much about “third culture kids,” this category of highly mobile people who’ve moved in and out of countries and cultures in their childhood. As an Army kid, I was one. Now I raise them. These past few years, I’ve been listening to what others are teaching about them, what I’ve experienced and what my kids are saying.

For all the beauty that a third culture kid lifestyle brings (understanding of and appreciation of a broader world, ability to adapt, a near-absence of prejudices, foreign language aptitude), these kids (and later, adults) know so well the world of loss. Sometimes the losses feel real and present, like loss of bikes and houses and friends and pets. Sometimes the losses are hidden and ambiguous loss, the unseen, hard-to-put-into-words losses such as dreams, confidence, identity and belonging.

For me, it’s actually easier to keep moving, keep building, keep Pollyanna-ing my way through hard things than to stop and grieve. Both taking the necessary time to mourn and also putting energy into moving forward can feel like a balancing act.

In late summer, I joined my dad on a bike ride on Cottonwood Trail at sunrise.  He’s so much better at biking in mile-high altitude than I am. I followed behind his smooth, quick pedaling with my own pumping heart loud in my ears. Soon, I had to shed my sweatshirt, and I stuck it in my backpack with my water and phone. I was still carrying so much else, too. All that was now missing from my life felt heavy. In so many ways, it felt hard to breathe.

“Watch the corners,” Dad coached. “Sometimes there are pedestrians out here, too. Also, be careful of sand.”

The ride was hard and tiring, but also freeing and empowering. And I soon found my own rhythm between pushing myself and pacing myself.

I found a way, too, to both keep my eyes mostly on the trail and also notice the beauty around me. Everything was pink—sky, mountains, rocks, my cheeks. And my bike.

Maybe I was starting to fit here. Maybe, too, I was finding my way.

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Rebecca Hopkins wants to help people feel heard, seen and welcome. She spent the first half of her life moving around as an Army kid and the past 14 years trying to grow roots on three different Indonesian islands while her husband took to the skies as a pilot. She now works in Colorado for Paraclete Mission Group and writes about issues related to non-profit and cross-cultural work. Trained a journalist and shaped by the rich diversity of Indonesia, she loves dialogue, understanding, and truths that last longer than her latest address. You can find her online at www.rebeccahopkins.org.

After Moving Season

by Ellen Bragdon

It’s September again. I’m back in Southeast Asia, and that means rainy season, so my umbrella better be in my purse at all times. I’ve stubbornly put out my fall decorations, though this place has never seen “fall,” and I’ve just paid $7 for a small head of Australian broccoli.

In June, another expat on Facebook posted, “It’s PCS (permanent change of station) season again. Thanos just snapped his fingers… and they’re gone.”

We’ve been doing this expat thing for only 2 1/2 years, and I can already count up on both hands the number of friends that we’ve made and have moved on. This summer was particularly bad for our family on the lost friends spectrum. A lot of the families that arrived when we did moved on in June. They were the ones that had power of medical attorney for our kids. They were the ones that had our extra house keys. Those relationships formed an important background of support for us. We knew they were there if we needed them.

We spent 6 weeks in the U.S. this summer soaking up the free Dr. Pepper refills, the piles of queso and chips, and the green space and playgrounds. I was ready to return to my own bed and my own space (and to a diet where I would hopefully lose the 5 lb. I gained in the U.S.) But I wasn’t prepared for how I would feel to be back in a place where I’d be reminded that some precious people weren’t going to be a part of my daily life anymore.

I said to myself that I needed to put on my big girl pants, take a deep breath, and dive in again to the endless work of making friends. I’m still saying that to myself. Saying it doesn’t make it any less hard to do, though. Some days, I’d rather curl up in my yoga pants on my couch with a book and decide to make do with friends from 18th century British classics.

“I don’t like making friends with people who are leaving.” A friend said this recently, and it got me thinking. I don’t like it, either. The problem is that if you’re an expat, your friendship pool just got really small if you’re only going to make friends with people that probably won’t leave. And even if you’ve decided to have as many local friends as possible, they can leave, too.

The leaving rate is much, much higher in expat life than it was in my old life in the U.S. Even there, though, it happens regularly. One of the families that we were closest to moved away the year before we came overseas. I’ve been texting with friends with unstable work situations in the U.S., and I’ve realized that some of them might be gone when we return. I’ve learned that the only guarantee that I’m going to get is that friends will come and go.

Here’s what I’ve decided at this point in my expat journey:

If you count the cost, the cost will often be too high. So don’t count it. Be open to love and community anyway.

A few weeks ago, I noticed another expat in our community was selling some books on our group chat, and it looked like she shared my tastes. We met, and now our oldest sons have new friends, and I have a regular coffee date. But I had to text those difficult words, “Would you like to go to coffee?”, not knowing what the answer would be.

She told me today that she strongly felt God telling her to be open to making a new friend. I (probably) only have a year left in this country, and she knows that, but she isn’t counting the cost. I thanked her for that, and I thanked God for reminding me that He will provide the relationships He thinks I need.

Another brave family invited us out for lunch after church. They saw that our family was a part of their regular routine, and they recognized their need for new friends as this year begins. We said yes, and now we have friends to go to lunch with, and they now know about a new Bible study close to them to try out.

There are valuable and beautiful relationships out there to be had, but we have to open ourselves to them. I don’t always feel strong enough to try, but I’m going pray for the strength I need. The alternative doesn’t look so great to me.

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Ellen Bragdon lives with her husband and 3 sons in Manila, Philippines. She spends her days homeschooling, searching for imported Dr. Pepper, sweating, and discovering new varieties of Asian food. You can find her at www.suburbansagagoesglobal.blogspot.com.

When Your Yes Impacts Other People

by Sarah Hilkemann

Last year, I wrestled with the Lord over what He was calling me to do. It involved major changes, shifts to what I thought I would be doing for the long haul. The process was unlike any other move of obedience I’ve experienced. I had to open my heart to say yes to whatever He had for me, which meant letting go of dreams and watching doors close. Slowly He showed me the next step, and little by little, what He had next for me emerged out of the fog.

Saying yes meant a lot of goodbyes. It meant closing out a house, selling furniture, and even the end of some really sweet relationships. It meant that some things were left undone. Promises of my return, of what I hoped to accomplish next were not kept. This was difficult.

My yes to the Lord, my obedience to Him, in some ways meant suffering for others. They didn’t ask for this goodbye. They didn’t ask for the challenge of finding someone to take my place, for the holes that were left and the projects they had to take on themselves. Perhaps these changes were for the good as they had to watch the Father provide someone who was an even better fit, or trust Him for their own next steps as things shifted.

I’ve been in their place too. I’ve watched others in my life obey God with their whole heart, seeking to honor Him and glorify Him. Sometimes this has meant a painful goodbye or a change I wasn’t anticipating.

We take these steps of obedience as we keep up the lines of communication between the Father and ourselves, but we are not alone in this life. Our decisions, our actions, impact those around us. This is the joy of life in community, but it is also the messy, crazy and sometimes painful part.

How can we encourage each other when our yes or someone else’s yes impacts the relationships with those around us?

God is their God, their leader and director too. I can trust that even as I take a step of obedience, He will also show them their next step.

We can be open in our communication about how our decisions might impact someone else. We can listen well and ask questions to invite honesty. Inviting others into our grief or joy over what our obedience means, and sharing in their grief or joy, can be a sweet gift we give to each other.

Allow the Father to take care of the things we cannot. I don’t need to control or micromanage every aspect of change. I can take responsibility for my part and trust God to work in the ways I can’t.

We can remind each other, challenge each other to look through eyes of faith and expect God to move. When doors close and we walk through painful goodbyes it can feel like God is finished with us. We can feel overwhelmed by a sense of abandonment. But God is still at work, even when things feel dark and still. He is at work in the foggy, murky middle of transition, and He is there when we come out on the other side.

Sometimes we need that nudge from a friend when we can’t see His goodness for ourselves. We can be that voice of truth for each other in each step of obedience in this journey.

Originally published here.

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In 2013, Sarah Hilkemann left the cornfields of Nebraska for the rice fields of Cambodia where she made her home in big cities and little villages. In 2018 Sarah sensed the Father’s push back to the US and transitioned to serving as the program coordinator for Velvet Ashes. She is grateful to be close to family again while missing iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk and her home on the other side of the world. You can follow Sarah on her blog and on Instagram.

TCK Lessons: “Everyone Leaves”

by Tanya Crossman

The experience of living overseas as a child is very different to the experience of living overseas as an adult. The impact of childhood experiences last a lifetime. They are formative experiences – they teach us how the world works. We all internalise ‘lessons’ from our childhood experiences.

TCKs grow up between cultures, learning lessons from more than one cultural viewpoint. Often these messages contradict one another, and learning to navigate this conflict is part of what makes a TCK. The lessons they learn about how the world works, therefore, often come less from individual cultures and more from the fact that they juggle more than one cultural viewpoint. The experience of being “in between” greatly affects their understanding of the world.

As I interviewed hundreds of TCKs there were a lot of repeated themes, and even specific phrases, that became familiar. These were the lessons these TCKs had learned through their childhood experiences. In this post I’m introducing one of the most common lessons of a TCK childhood: Everyone leaves.

I heard the exact phrase “everyone leaves” in scores of interviews. Even when a TCK lived in one place a long time (even their whole childhood) most did not live fully immersed lives in their host culture, and were therefore affected by the mobility of other expatriates. That is to say, if TCKs didn’t move on themselves, they watched many of their friends leave. On top of this, most TCKs make trips to visit family in other countries, where they reconnect and then have to say goodbye. Or they attend conferences with their parents’ organisations, where they have friends they make and farewell every year. The end result is that goodbyes form part of the background of a TCK childhood.

It can be hard for adults to really internalise what this feels like for kids – how it shapes them. Perhaps a story will help. When leading sessions on transition with students, I ask how many times a close friend has moved away from them. Not just an acquaintance or classmate, but someone they felt close to. I get a lot of wide eyes and dropped jaws – how can anyone expect me to tally that number?? Some just roll their eyes and refuse to even try. One 10 year old lifted both hands and started opening and closing his fingers, representing an ongoing and endless number. One time, a 5th grade girl got a very determined look on her face – she was intent on counting to an exact number. She kept going while the class moved on to discuss another question. When she lifted her head again, I turned back to her and asked if she had her number. “Yes,” she answered, “it’s 23.” Before even finishing primary school, this girl had said goodbye to 23 people she felt close to.

It’s important to remember that different TCKs respond differently to this challenge. There are several quite rational responses to this experience. Some TCKs try to avoid the sadness of goodbyes, by denying that the goodbyes are real or painful. Others try to create emotional distance to blunt the pain.

“I lived with a mentality that ‘everyone leaves’. I just recently moved off to college and I had a really close friend get mad at me for pushing her away and trying to do anything I could to minimize the hurt I knew was coming. Honestly I still expect us to eventually lose touch anyway because people move on. That’s all I’ve ever known.” – Maddie, as quoted in Misunderstood

“I never feel sad until a half hour before the person I know leaves. It hurts too much, so I numb myself to the pain, block it out, and refuse to think about it until it’s actually happening.” – Faith, as quoted in Misunderstood

Some TCKs decide it’s not worth the pain to invest in relationships, especially if they know a goodbye is imminent – such as when they will be leaving soon, or the other person will. “Soon” being anywhere from six months to two years. Another common reaction is a highly developed ability to connect superficially – to be warm and friendly and welcoming – while holding back their deeper selves. There is great vulnerability in sharing my whole self when I know that the deeper a relationship gets, the more it will hurt when the (inevitable) goodbye comes.

“I didn’t want to devote myself to new friendships because I knew it would just be another goodbye at the end of the six months.” – Eve, as quoted in Misunderstood

“I remember feeling ‘popular’ but looking back, the majority of my friendships were quite shallow and superficial. I did not open myself up to the different possible friendships I could have had. I did not properly invest time or emotions in my ‘friends’. I was prepared to say goodbye to those people from day one.” – Siyin, as quoted in Misunderstood

Other TCKs dive deep into relationships as quickly as possible because they don’t know how long they have. This can create friction outside non-international circles, as they may come across as too eager, or be labelled as too intense.

Whatever method a TCK develops to help deal with the emotional stress of goodbyes, the commonality is that this is an essential survival skill for them. The goodbyes and the losses that go with them can be very overwhelming to a child, especially because it is the only experience they know.

I feel the urge to switch to something hopeful here, so I don’t depress you. But please stick with me a minute longer, as I offer a sobering reflection – to help understand how the “everyone leaves” lessons affects TCKs who don’t yet know there is any other way to experience the world.

Imagine you are 9 years old, and every year of your life you have said goodbye to a close friend, and had to make a new friend. In your world, friends only last a year or two. Is it really worth the effort this time?

Imagine you are 13 years old, and you’ve learned the skill of being warm and friendly and fitting into yet another new circle of friends, but you doubt it’s possible to be truly known by any one person. Am I going to be lonely forever?

Imagine you are 17 years old, your best friend is moving to another country, and this time you’re desperate not to lose them. You think about all the ways to stay in touch and plan around time zones, trying hard to ignore the sinking feeling that it won’t be the same.

How hopeful would you feel, as you look ahead?

Every child’s experience is different, of course, but the weight of having to keep building new friendships, and negotiating long-distance friendships, is something most TCKs experience to some degree.

Losing friends hurts – and that’s okay. The best first step for helping TCKs, especially when they are young, is to validate feelings of loss. Instead of saying “Don’t worry, you’ll make new friends” a far more helpful thing is to say “You’re right, this is really hard. It won’t always feel this way, but right now it’s totally okay to feel sad or angry.”

Instead of telling them things you hope will make them feel better, ask them questions that invite them to share how they feel right now.

Listening to a child’s hurt is HARD – it’s painful to hear. But it is one of the greatest gifts we can offer them. Listening well says, “I see you. I hear you. The way you feel is valid. You’re allowed to be sad, and you’re allowed to tell me about it.”

I plan to write more in future about how to help TCKs with this, but for now I want to stop here, with the truth that losing friends hurts – and that’s okay. We hurt because we’re losing something that matters. It’s a good thing to attach to someone enough that it hurts to lose them.

None of us can “fix” the pain of losing a friend. I can’t change that this friend is moving away, or that our company is moving us away, or any of the circumstances that cause a child the pain of loss. I can’t fix it. But every time I talk to groups of TCKs about this, they share that they don’t actually want someone to fix it. They know it can’t be fixed – and they don’t like adults acting as if it can be. They just want someone (especially their parents) to listen to them, and to say it’s okay to be sad. And that is something we can do.

 

In part 2 of this series, I will consider a common response to “Everyone leaves” – namely, “What about the internet?”

Read more TCK articles by Tanya.

Originally published here.

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Tanya Crossman spent most of her childhood as a local in Australia and most of her adulthood as an expat in China (with stops in the U.S. and Cambodia). Along the way she unexpectedly turned into an expert on millennial TCKs, wrote a book, and starting travelling the world to speak on her favourite topic: why TCKs are awesome and how to serve them well. After completing an MDiv in Australia, she recently got married (to a TCK) and moved back to Beijing. Now she’s enjoying rediscovering everything she loves about China! She can be found online far too often, usually on FacebookInstagramTwitter, and occasionally at her website.

Senders Make Sacrifices Too

Much of the time living in Cambodia, I don’t feel like I am making huge sacrifices for God. In fact, I’ve found many things to love about living here. I am so settled here that I sometimes forget that other people have made sacrifices for me to be here. Reminders come in the form of my children, when they miss the family and friends they’ve left behind. They come in the form of Skype sessions with my parents, when I realize anew how very much they miss us.

So I am sandwiched in the middle of two generations of people who have, in many ways, sacrificed more than I have – much more. My parents. My children. I have caused people I love to suffer — and I did it voluntarily. You might not hear many people talking about this. You are more likely to hear people talk about the sacrifices of the missionaries themselves (whether or not it’s a missionary who is speaking). But I think that does an incredible injustice to the thousands of people throughout the world who are sacrificing right now to send a loved one abroad.

My best friend in America was the kind of girl who dropped everything the day Jonathan’s dad was diagnosed with brain cancer, just to sit with me in my shock and grief. She’s the kind of girl who would drive to my house when my husband was out of town, so that after my babies were asleep, we could talk for hours and hours. She’s the girl I laughed with and cried with for eight wonderful years, and she’s the girl I still laugh with and cry with during furlough visits. She’s also a writer. About a year after we moved overseas, I asked her to write about how she felt saying goodbye to me. This is what she wrote.

A Letter from Home

by Teresa Schantz Williams

Last year, Elizabeth and Jonathan and their foursome said goodbye to their families and friends and flew toward the adventure God chose for them. Those left behind, with none of the distractions of a new culture, slowly adjusted to their absence. The Trotters were missing from the daily landscape of our lives, and knowing this was going to happen didn’t make it less painful.

At first when they left, I kept forgetting. I’d pick up the phone, punch in their number and sheepishly hang up. Or I would think I saw Elizabeth coming out of the library and wave too warmly at a confused stranger.

It was like when you rearrange the contents of your kitchen cabinets and spend the next four weeks trying to relearn where you store the salt. Things weren’t where they were supposed to be.

Their pew at church was too empty. No squirmy bodies next to Elizabeth’s mother, Mary, munching on grandma’s snacks and vying for grandpa’s lap. Those first few months were hard on the families stateside, especially as news of distress and health crises came their way. Powerless to help, family prayed.

A missionary wife once told me she hadn’t understood what the extended family sacrificed when she and her husband left for the mission field. She had since come to see that they relinquished precious time with their children and grandchildren, forfeited shared memories of celebrations and milestones, and suppressed their instinct to rescue when things went wrong.

Some are called to go.  Some are called to let go.

If you have to say goodbye, this is the century to do it in.  My grandmother had a dear friend who was a missionary with her husband in Burma during the 1950’s.  Somehow they held their friendship together with letters and furloughs, and in the long silences between, they prayed.

Facebook, Skype, blogs, email have closed gaps. Within the digital universe, both sides of the ocean can post photos and videos and updates. Elizabeth can share funny stories about the kids, so women back home can “watch” them grow. To celebrate their special days, one can browse their Amazon Wish Lists to find a gift, or select something from iTunes. Even international travel is more feasible than it once was. Visits are possible.

Nothing substitutes for presence. These days, I can’t sit next to the bathtub and hold Faith while Elizabeth brushes the boys’ teeth. I can’t watch the boys wrestle or Hannah belly-surf down the stairs. I can’t go to a girly movie with Elizabeth and rehash our favorite parts on the drive home. I can’t watch her eat the frosting from the top of a cupcake and leave the rest because she only eats the part she wants.  I can’t hug her.

I concentrate on what I can do.  I translate twelve hours ahead and try to anticipate what they might need.  1 p.m. here?  Asleep there.  I pray that the girls aren’t waking them in the night, that their colds will soon be gone. I pray that they will be able to play outside every day this week. That Elizabeth can find hummus at Lucky’s grocery store.  I pray the details.

I can look over Elizabeth’s shoulder and see the frontlines of world missions and watch God’s plans unfold.  I can see what the Holy Spirit has done in her, enabling her to do things I wasn’t at all sure she could do. (Bugs, germs, smells, change in all forms.) And through her blogging, the special qualities I knew were inside her are out where others can see (humor, insight, modesty in all its expressions).

Perhaps it sounds overdramatic, but I’ve concluded that for me, missing my missionary friends is a standing invitation to resubmit to God’s plans. My true and proper worship.

“I thank God for you—the God I serve with a clear conscience, just as my ancestors did. Night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers. I long to see you again, for I remember your tears as we parted. And I will be filled with joy when we are together again.” (2 Timothy 1:3, NLV)

Originally published here.

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Teresa Schantz Williams is a freelance writer living in Kansas City, Missouri. She grew up in a ministry family.