Glancing in the Rearview Mirror

by Jessi Bullis

I was in my first car crash in May 2023. I had just gotten off a flight and was too hungry to complete my 90-minute drive home before eating (there always seems to be those awkward lengths of time between meals on flying days). It was pouring rain, and I pulled off at an unknown town in search of a late dinner. Traffic was coming up on a stop light, and while we all seemed to slow down quicker than anticipated, I came to a stop with room to spare. Glancing in my rearview mirror, I noted that the car behind me had enough space to fully stop. 
   
Less than a second afterwards, I felt the impact. I later found out I was actually the third car to get hit from behind in a four-car pile-up. 
   
Before that moment I had never really thought about getting hit from behind. It wasn’t a concern. For some reason I just had a lot of trust in other cars around me. Maybe it’s because I grew up in countries with incredible drivers who could fit four cars to a road, squeeze through any narrow street, and make lane switching in traffic jams look effortless. Or maybe it’s simply because I hadn’t yet experienced it.

 

Focusing on the Rearview Mirror

For many years, the way I “processed” the heavy (and even exciting) emotions that came with my Third Culture Kid (TCK) experience was to simply disregard them. 

The announcement would come that we were moving to another country, that yet another friend was leaving, or that the thing I was looking forward to was cancelled because of some complication with living abroad. And I would just shut down. Try to put on a blank face. Spew out some platitude about God’s goodness.

I would tell myself, “Emotions make you look weak and only get in the way of moving forward.” So I just kept pushing on, driving forward while never looking back. 

Years later, once my body very suddenly and drastically had its fill of painful circumstances going unprocessed and I developed an autoimmune disease, I was forced to look back as though I’d been hit from behind. In response, I began doing the heavy lifting of truly honouring my experiences and allowing myself to finally feel the waves of emotions that came with long-ago moves and crises.

As I realized just how much my refusal to process had stunted my emotional growth, I completely pendulum-swung from my “shoving down” mentality. I felt like I couldn’t move forward unless I had completely processed every single block on my Grief Tower

I was trying to gain control of something, anything, because I felt so very out of control. Suddenly I was trying to drive while only looking through the rearview mirror. 

As you can imagine, it was terribly painful. I became burnt out on grief processing and eventually learned that there needs to be a balance of intentionally looking back and intentionally looking forward, while also acknowledging and enjoying where I’m currently at. 
   

Taking in All Angles

In my grief-processing journey, I’ve learned something surprising. No matter how good you are at the balancing act of processing past grief while still looking forward, sometimes you get unexpectedly rear-ended by past grief that you thought you’d dealt with. No matter how much I check my mirrors, no matter how good of a driver I am, and no matter how safe an area I seem to be in, I’m not immune to being hit from behind.

We can feel like we are managing life well, just driving along. But then something from our past sneaks up behind us and taps us on our bumper – or maybe even causes a full collision. 

My car has been my safe space. It’s where I’ve done all my most profound processing. As an introvert, I have found I have the clearest thoughts in my car because it’s one of the few places I can find absolute solitude. It is in this space that I feel completely free to perform my “scream-singing” as I blast music to release any intense frustration, agony, and joy I may be feeling (my go-to song for emotional release is “Life is a Highway” by Rascal Flatts, which seems all too fitting here). 

But after this accident I was nervous about even getting into my car. Suddenly my safe space felt dangerous. And when I did drive, I spent a lot of time nervously surveillancing my rearview mirror in fear that I would be hit from behind again. When our past comes knocking, it can feel disorienting. 

This is where I anticipate you saying, “Great, so you’re saying I can never fully relax? My past will never be fully processed?” What a terrible thought. And no, that’s not what I’m saying.  Rather, remember that life has ups and downs that are outside your control, and it’s not your fault

I often felt that when my past came back to haunt me, it was my fault — that clearly I hadn’t processed well enough. I felt ashamed that my “ghost of Christmas past” was returning for a visit. 

Control is something we TCKs tend to struggle with. After years of losing friends and community and stability over and over, seeking out “control” can feel desperate and hopeless. 

Yes, we can’t be in control of everything, but we can choose to give ourselves grace as we remember that the waves of life are not our fault. When we choose to remember that sometimes collisions just happen, the emotional weight of “fault” gets lifted. 

There’s only so much contingency preparation I can do, and there are only so many hours in the day for therapy and processing and – oh yeah – everyday life also. 

There’s a need to intentionally glance backwards. We cannot fully accept ourselves and move forward if we do not gently and graciously love our past selves. We need to take into account the circumstances we faced growing up because they are impacting the person we are today – how we make decisions, invest in relationships, and care for ourselves. 

It’s important to intentionally create space to process, whether it’s taking a Saturday afternoon to journal or do an art project while considering processing questions, talking with a friend, or sitting down with a counselor. (Check out this emotional processing activity guide for processing suggestions you can implement.) 

There’s also a need to steer forward. The rearview mirror should not be our focal point. There’s a reason you got in the car: you have a goal or endpoint in mind! We need to remember those goals as we move moving forward in hope. 

And there’s a need to be aware of who you are and where you are. Sometimes we just need to live life, not pull out another piece of our past to process, not plan the turn we’re going to make in five miles, but rather allow ourselves to be present and enjoy the moment.

For some months after the accident I had to be gentle with myself, evaluating my emotional stability and prioritizing self-compassion. It took time, but eventually my car became my safe space again, because I had allowed myself to authentically show up how I needed each day. 

Collisions will happen. Our past will come knocking throughout life. That doesn’t mean we’ve failed, and that doesn’t always mean we haven’t done enough processing. Yes, processing the past is important, but we can’t get stuck driving through our rearview mirror. We need to balance looking back and looking forward while remembering that sometimes life hits us from behind. And we can give ourselves grace for that too. 

Photo by Olga Nayda on Unsplash

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Jessi is an Adult MK who grew up in Singapore, England, Turkey, and Germany. She has a heart for TCKs and the unique struggles they face. She uses her undergraduate in psychology and a seminary degree in counseling to create resources and serve TCK and their families as the Director of Adult TCK services at TCK Training. Jessi loves getting to walk through the repatriation journey with Adult TCKs, as this season can be especially difficult to navigate. Her deepest passion is for TCKs to know and feel the love and goodness of God in how they are cared for.

When Christmas Loses Its Magic

Christmas was magical until my grandpa died when I was 14. Up until that point Christmas had been the highlight of every year. But something seemed to die when he died. Several years later, another tragic death hit us. After that, Christmases were never the same. It was more a season of ache than joy.

Throughout my twenties, the Christmas season sometimes seemed to mock me with all its giddiness when I felt so broken. Unfulfilled desires, chronic illness, separation from loved ones, and homesickness were unwanted guests that exposed brokenness, especially at Christmas.

Enter Advent – the four-week period in the church calendar right before Christmas that both remembers Christ’s birth and anticipates His second coming. I grew up as an evangelical in a Roman Catholic country. We didn’t practice anything that hinted at Roman Catholicism. Observing the church calendar or its liturgies was not a thing I was aware of.

But since I started observing Advent in the last seven years or so, it has been a game changer for me. It has taught me to live in paradox. It has freed me up to treasure the joy of Christ’s first coming while also mourning that He hasn’t come back yet.

Advent enables me not to resent that the Christmas season is polluted with grief. It heightens the reality that I am a woman in waiting – waiting for consummation and for the return of my bridegroom. The small story of my life is simply joining the history of the world. I am doing what history has always been doing: groaning as it waits for one of the two comings of Jesus.

Paradox at Christmastime is just as it should be. Christ’s first coming was filled with paradox. When Simeon saw Christ in the temple, he both rejoiced and prophesied sorrow. Even as he praised God when he saw the long awaited salvation of God’s people, he also told Mary that this baby whom she had just delivered, and who would deliver her, would do so at a great cost to her. “A sword will pierce through your own soul.” The same baby would bring judgment to some and exaltation to others (Luke 2:34-35).

His second coming will also be filled with paradox. What will mean glory for all those who have longed for his appearing will mean wailing for those who pierced him. While His children sing, His enemies will bow in terror (Revelation 1:7).

For me, the difference between simply celebrating Christmas and practicing Advent has a lot to do with how I face December. I am not only looking forward to Christmas Day (or Noche Buena in Hispanic countries). I am not only just going to (or hosting) parties. I no longer expect myself to just be happy.

Instead, I allow time every day to both remember Christ’s birth and anticipate his second coming. I give space to sit in my grief, in my current unfulfilled longings and fears. I bring them honestly to my Father. I don’t try to mask them or stuff them down “because Christmas!” I am ok with the tension. Yes, Praise God, Christ was born! And life is not what it should be.

The point is not exactly how you observe Advent. I don’t always do the same thing every year. Some years I read through a devotional during Advent. Several years ago, I read through Isaiah using Tony Reinke’s #isaiahchristmas plan. We light candles at dinner with the kids, keeping it very dark at the beginning of December and then making it brighter the closer it gets to Christmas Day.

We have used Ann Voskamp’s Unwrapping the Greatest Gift, adding ornaments to a Jesse Tree every day. Other years we have focused on a name of Christ a day as a way of counting down to Christmas. Another year I went on a journey through the Scriptures in Handel’s Messiah every day.

I think the point has far more to do with the paradigm you have for this season, rather than how exactly you practice it. Are you ok with living in paradox? Are you aware that you are a person in waiting? Do you believe your unfulfilled longings, brokenness, and grief fit perfectly with this time?

Living into Advent has helped me to fix my gaze – and my hope – past Christmas to the Resurrection and the return of my King and Brother.

Christmas is a joy not because it is filled with undiluted joy. It is a joy because it testifies that just as the Incarnation truly happened, He is certainly coming back again. Because of Christmas, I am hastening the coming of Resurrection in clouds of great glory. Then, at last, everything sad will be untrue.

O Lord Jesus, come! We miss you so.

Dear Sending Church: We Need to Get the Parents of Missionaries on Board

My mom sits at her mom’s breakfast table, wailing and pleading. My grandmother sits opposite her, wailing and angry. 

It is one of my earliest memories.

I’d never heard so much emotion out of either of them, and the sunny little room encircled by cabinets of glassware suddenly felt tense, alarming, to my five-year-old soul.

My Gram struggled to accept that we were moving to Africa, so that day at her table was one of many tense conversations. In her anger that my mom was taking away her grandchildren, Gram even consulted a lawyer to see if she could sue for custody. 

During our first two-year term in Liberia, we faithfully sent her letters and pictures. My mom tape-recorded my brother’s and my voices and mailed the cassettes off too. Gram didn’t call once during the entire two years. She didn’t send a single letter. Her anger and grief consumed her. 

My grandmother never understood my parents’ love for Jesus, so their motivation to become missionaries didn’t make sense to her either. But unfortunately, her response wasn’t all that different from many parents who do share their children’s faith. 

In Mobilizing Gen Z, Jolene Erlacher and Katy White quote the Future of Missions study from Barna: “Only 35 percent of engaged Christian parents of young adults say they would definitely encourage their child to serve in missions, while 25 percent are not open to the idea at all.”

They continue, “Career success and physical safety are the top concerns. Nearly half said, ‘I’d rather my child get a well-paying job than be a career missionary.’”

Reading this didn’t come as a surprise to me. I coach new missionaries as they are preparing to move overseas, so I hear their stories of conflict and heartache with parents who don’t approve. Keep in mind that this disapproval often comes from engaged Christian parents – people who have surrendered their lives to Christ, who are hearing the Word of God preached every Sunday. So what is happening here?

Maybe we’ve all just become a lot more fearful in the last few years. Maybe churches have let their missions programs fade away. Maybe Christians have latched on to the idea that two-week stints are all that’s needed for transformative ministry.

I hear many people protest that our own country has its own share of problems, so shouldn’t we narrow our focus here? And that’s true – but we also have churches on every corner. Have we forgotten that almost half of the world’s population has little or no access to the gospel of Jesus Christ? Will we remember that Christ’s final command to His followers was to disciple the nations? 

When every book tells us to live our best life now, when every advertisement whispers that we need more, deserve more, it’s easy to believe that this life is about our personal fulfillment. We forget that there has always been a cost to the gospel, and that cost might include our most significant treasures. Our comfort. Our dreams. Our children. Or perhaps even more gut-wrenching – our grandchildren. 

My own children are nearing adulthood, and I am beginning to comprehend the depth of the grief I would feel if one of them lived across an ocean. I don’t want to minimize the engulfing sorrow I would experience if I had to watch my grandchildren grow up over Zoom calls.

The sacrifice of missions is real, it’s deep, it’s enduring. Those who leave feel it acutely, but sometimes we forget that those who are left behind feel it just as much. 

The sacrifices only make sense in the light of eternity. Do we have the faith to believe that Christ is worth it? 

Churches are often good at inspiring young people with a fresh vision for the Great Commission, sparking in them a passion for bringing the gospel to the ends of the earth. We send our students to Urbana and Cross Con; we sponsor them on short-term trips. 

Yet I can’t help but wonder: How many young people have felt convicted to pursue career missions but can’t find the courage to devastate their God-fearing parents? 

So while we exhort our young people to serve God wherever He calls them in the world, let’s also rally their parents to be their biggest cheerleaders, to open their hands and release their fears and their dreams to the One who sacrificed His own Son so that we might be redeemed.    

And when we celebrate and send out new missionaries, let us also remember the pain of their parents. They need our special attention, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on. They need the church to be their surrogate family when their own is ten thousand miles away. They need us to give them the vision of how their sacrifice is an equal part of the Great Commission. Our Savior is worth it. 

Resources for parents of missionaries:
A book: Missionary Mama’s Survival Guide: Compassionate Help for the Mothers of Cross-Cultural Workers by Tori Havercamp 
A website: Parents of Goers
An article: Senders Make Sacrifices Too
A ministry: Parents of Missionaries Ministry

Photo from Dobrila Vignjevic

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.

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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.

I Coped Well in Transition…Until I Didn’t

I remember all the dogs at the Dar es Salaam airport. Usually people don’t travel internationally with their pets, but in the spring of 2020, nothing was normal. The dogs were restless in their cages, but the rest of us stood unusually still, tense, our faces strained from lack of sleep, frantic packing, a thousand unknowns.

I remember the recorded British voice that politely reminded everyone every five minutes: It is not permissible to bring plastic bags into Tanzania. In a dark humor, I thought, How about infectious diseases? 

Just a few days earlier, we got a call in the middle of the night telling us to book a flight as soon as possible. Many in our community were making the same decision, but it was even more significant for us. We had planned a year earlier to relocate to the States in the summer of 2020. So this early, frenzied departure meant leaving a life of sixteen years with no closure, no dignity, no RAFT. 

The memories of these moments in March 2020 are sharp and vivid, as if they happened three days ago, not three years.

In the five days before our departure, I can picture myself lining up my kids’ baby shoes, carefully saved for so many years, and taking pictures of them before handing them off to a friend. I remember making broccoli beef for my last meal in the crock pot I’d owned for 12 years. I remember how our feet echoed on the empty marble floors of the Ramada hotel restaurant on the night before we left. 

I could list thousands of tiny, minuscule details of those five days. My focus was razor-sharp. My emotions were not.

Other than a couple of bursts of despair or panic, I went numb during those five days. And then during the long, unpredictable journey to California. And then during the next three months when we lived like vagabonds, trying to hold together our jobs in Tanzania while applying for new ones in the States.

If you had asked me how I was doing, I would have told you I was okay. I wasn’t happy, and sometimes I was decidedly unhappy, but I didn’t fall into a depression. I got out of bed every morning. I wasn’t crying all of the time. I wasn’t having panic attacks. I wasn’t having nightmares. Well, not many.

I am task-oriented. I did what I needed to do. And big feelings were not on the agenda.

But I was not okay, and that fragility manifested in unexpected ways. Suddenly, I had an aversion to anyone outside my immediate family. I didn’t want to see anyone. I didn’t want to talk to anyone, even people I normally would have been thrilled to be with. (Pandemic restrictions made this easy.)

Another A Life Overseas writer asked me to be on a podcast of people who were evacuated because of the pandemic. A little voice in my head said, “You like things like this.” But a bigger, louder voice said, “No. No. NO. Not even an option.” The big voice didn’t give me a reason. It just bullied me into saying no. 

I stopped writing. I went months where my mind was mostly devoid of anything to write about, even though it was usually the best way to process my feelings. It was like my emotions froze, and I became a robot. 

I was trying to adapt to a new life, and I was restless and impatient. I wanted to feel productive and meaningful again. But I had no energy, no creativity, no mental space. I could only focus on what was directly in front of me. I was frustrated that I couldn’t do more, and I didn’t understand why I couldn’t. I thought I was fine. I knew I was sad, but I thought I was handling our transition well. 

I wasn’t. Not really.

About a year and a half after our arrival, my brain and body decided to shut down, and I stopped sleeping for ten days. I finally got help. I told the urgent care doctor, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I know what anxiety feels like, but this is different. It’s like I’m on overload and can’t get my pulse to slow down.” That admission was the beginning of feeling better.

I’ve been back three years, and it’s taken me that long to figure out what was happening inside me during that first year and a half. I only see it now in hindsight. 

There are times in life you know you’re a mess; the pain or the fear is big and consuming. Every moment of every day feels like a fight. (I’ve had seasons like that, and this wasn’t one of them.)

But other times, you don’t realize you’re in a fog. You are coping quite well. You are doing what you need to do. You don’t realize your soul is actually withering. Then one day, the sun breaks through the clouds and triggers a distant memory: Oh yes! This is what warmth feels like. 

This is what it feels like to be creative, my mind brimming with ideas.
This is what it’s like to live without a constant sense of being overwhelmed.
This is what it feels like to be happy.

I didn’t recognize that I wasn’t doing well until I started to feel better, and to remember what it feels like to be fully alive. 

Today, I love being with friends and meeting new ones. I’m doing seminars for small and large groups. I was a guest on a podcast. My brain comes up with way more things to write about than I have time to get them out. 

I don’t think I anticipated the jarring effect the transition would have on my body, mind, and soul. Or that it would last as long as it did. Seeing this in myself has given me empathy for others around me who are in transition: the new parents, new empty-nesters, the immigrant. How can I show them grace? How can I help to bring light into their fog? How can I walk alongside them for as long as it takes, knowing it will probably take longer than anyone anticipated? 

But also, I want to remember to give myself grace the next time. To be more patient with myself. To remember that some of the hardest parts of life must simply be faced a day at a time until they get better. 

This morning at church, a song unearthed a sweet memory of Tanzania, and I cried. For what I left. For what I’ve missed. For what I’ve gained. For how far I’ve come. 

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

Where is God in My Grief Tower?

by Lauren Wells

A wise man who looks a lot like Indiana Jones (and also happens to be my father) once said that in moments of deep grief you’re faced with a decision: either cling to God and let him be your source of comfort, or run from him and wade through the grief on your own. 

You can’t make it through the expatriate life without experiencing the touch of grief. Grief is temporarily or permanently losing something that you loved. Living a life of high mobility, constant goodbyes, and exposure to big and little traumas causes griefs to steadily stack up along the way. I’ve written a couple of books on this metaphor, which I call the Grief Tower. 

For many expatriates and their children (Third Culture Kids), grief comes in consistent stones of varying weight stacking one on top of the other. On their own, each stone might not feel very significant, but together they create a tall, wobbly tower that will eventually crash if this grief goes unprocessed. 

When my company (TCK Training) debriefs families, we go through the process of writing out the family’s Grief Tower Timeline – putting paper and pen to the big and small hard things that have happened in the family’s life. Sometimes these butcher’s paper timelines are the length of the kitchen table. Sometimes they roll through the kitchen, down the living room, and out the front door. 

As we excavate years’ worth of grief, a quiet question often fills the room. Where was God in my Grief Tower? This life I was called to has created this tower of grief – not just for me but for my children, too!

Even when we trust God’s sovereignty and believe he works all things for the good, the waves of grief still hit us hard. And when this happens, we respond both to our grief and the grief of others with whatever internal narration we’ve come to adopt. Our personal storylines tend to subconsciously ripple into an assumption that God responds the same way to our grief that we as humans do. 

When people say, “Look at the bright side,” we think the right thing to do is to stay positive. We forget that God invites lament. When people say, “He works all things out for the good,” we forget that when it doesn’t feel good in the moment, God is still there to empathize, comfort, and acknowledge that this feels so hard. When people say, “You’re so strong for how you’re handling this,” we don’t remember that God doesn’t expect us to be strong. We forget that He is strong so we don’t have to be. 

At TCK Training, we believe that TCKs should feel and know the love and goodness of God in how they’re cared for. In these raw spaces of grief we have to remember that God’s response is not to “stay positive,” “toughen up,” or “look forward” — and neither should ours be (whether to ourselves or to others). 

Instead, He invites us to lament and ask, “Why?” 

He allows us to mourn deeply and to take time to focus on the grief. 

He reminds us that we don’t need to be the strong one because he is strong for us

When we work with TCKs who turn away from God in their grief, it is most often because they have come to believe deeply that God’s responses to grief are a pep talk, a “get over it,” or an “it could be worse.” I think, perhaps, their belief comes from how they’ve been responded to, and that perhaps how they’ve been responded to comes from the subconscious beliefs held by those responding to them. 

I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions: 

How do I respond inwardly to my own grief?
Does this influence how I believe God responds to my grief?
Does that belief influence how I respond to the grief of those around me? 

May we grow in our response to grief and learn to offer the compassionate heart of God both to ourselves and those around us.

Photo by Piotr Musioł on Unsplash

~~~~~~~~~

Lauren Wells is the founder and CEO of TCK Training and the Unstacking Company and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids, The Grief Tower, and Unstacking Your Grief Tower. She is an Adult TCK who spent her teenage years in Tanzania, East Africa. She sits on the board of the TCK Care Accreditation as Vice Chair and is part of the TCK Training research team focusing on preventive care research in the TCK population.

It’s the Week Before You Move Overseas. What Are You Feeling?

It’s the week before you move overseas. What are you feeling?

Everything. You are feeling everything. 

Excitement: This is finally happening!

Fear: What was I thinking? I can’t do this!

Guilt: Every time my mom looks at me, she starts crying. How can I do this to her?

Focused: If I put more books in my carry-on, I can squeeze in an extra five pounds of chocolate chips. Let’s do this.

Worried: What if I oversleep and am late to the airport? What if I lose my passport? What if my bags are too heavy at the airport and they make me rearrange everything? What if I throw up? I really might throw up.

Stressed: Fourteen friends stopped by today to say goodbye, but all I can think about is that I need to buy my daughter one more pair of sandals in the next size. Oh, and this suitcase is hovering at 52 pounds. Something’s got to come out, and it might send me over the edge. 

Peaceful: I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. I’m fulfilling my calling!

Sad: Every time I look at my mom, I start crying. How can I say goodbye for two years?

Grumpy: My children keep asking for lunch. Don’t they know I have to find room for these chocolate chips? 

Exhausted: I woke up at 5 this morning with a racing heart. After I fell asleep at midnight with a racing heart. 

Overwhelmed: That’s an understatement.

When that country was but a dream in your head, when you went through the application process, raised support, even applied for a visa – it all was hypothetical. But when it gets down to those final weeks and days, this is when it really gets real.

You sell your house and move in with your parents. You put your life’s memories out on the lawn, and you watch strangers carry away your furniture and your wedding presents. You hand over your house key, your work key, your car key, until all you have left is an empty, lonely key ring. You read the church bulletin and realize that you won’t be participating in that upcoming women’s retreat, that prayer meeting, that picnic. Life will go on without you, and suddenly, you feel as empty and lonely as your key ring. 

Pieces of your life crumble away around you as you squish the remnants into four 50-pound suitcases. It feels as if your life has become very small, and the foundation is gone, and you might as well be flying into outer space. 

The reality of leaving the people you love becomes tangible. Whether your family is supportive or not, you’re absorbing their grief. If you have young kids, they may be throwing fits or bedwetting or stuttering or acting more whiny than usual. But your mind isn’t stuffed full of just emotions, but also details. You can’t sit and process your feelings because you’ve got to think about visas, packing, tickets, covid tests. If the intensity feels extreme, it’s because it is. 

Don’t be surprised if you fall apart, finding yourself weeping under the covers. Don’t be surprised if you just go numb, completely overwhelmed to the point of being unable to feel anything. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself overly angry, overly anxious, overly nauseous. 

Having been there many times myself, this is what I want you to remember:

Don’t be surprised. The intensity of the emotions you are experiencing is normal, and will likely continue to intensify until you get on that plane. But it will have an end. Hang in there. It will have an end. 

Breathe. Make lists. Ask for help. 

Ask someone else to occupy your kids, preferably away from the house. The last thing your kids need is to be in the middle of the packing chaos and emotionally charged air. Get someone to take them to Chuck E. Cheese. Everyone will be much happier. 

Prioritize who you spend time with. Rank your friends. (See #6 of Jerry Jones’ tips. Actually, all of his tips are great.)

Give yourself grace. Give your kids grace. Give your mom grace. There’s no easy way through this; you just have to plow forward. It doesn’t get easier the second time, either, or any time after that. The only thing that gets easier is that you will know what to expect, and you will know it’s temporary. 

Breathe. God led you this far; He’s going to see you through. 

*Feelings chart by Rebekah Ballagh.

Long Distance Funerals

My uncle passed away in January. I was able to day-trip (a 3.5 hour drive each way) for the small family funeral and wake. Some of his favourite music was played, one of his favourite poems was recited, we poured over old photos of him through his life, and we scoured the books lining the walls of his library looking for those we’d read before. I was very glad to be there to support my aunt and to remember my uncle well, in all his aspects, and to share him with others who knew him well.

Soon after I realised it was the first family funeral I had attended in 15 years. This speaks largely to good fortune: in the 15 years I lived outside Australia, only three of my relatives passed away. But being far from family when death occurs is a common experience among the globally mobile.

Back in 2013 I was invited to speak to a group of high school students at an international boarding school on the subject of death. For one week, their health teacher had allowed all her classes to choose between several optional units, including first aid, bullying/violence, and basic psychology. This class, with students from China, South Korea, Thailand, and Eastern Europe, chose a unit on death and grief, and I was invited in as a guest speaker.

I am in no way an expert on death, but I have a lot of experience walking with Third Culture Kids through grief experiences. Loss is a constant and ongoing part of international life.

We went over the Five Stages of Grief: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. We talked about what these stages might look like, and some words/phrases/attitudes often linked with each stage. We talked about how grief is different when we are far away from the people we are grieving. We talked about the many other losses we grieve, especially those connected with international living – moving away, friends moving away from us, physical or emotional distance between us and our relatives, etc.

I shared several personal stories with them. I talked about the deaths of my two paternal grandparents and the big differences in those grief experiences. When my Grandma died, I was still living in Australia, and I spent several days in her home with my family for the funeral. When my Grandpa died, I was living alone in China, and I didn’t go home for the funeral.

My grandparents were wonderful people who lived very full lives and were well-loved. While I was obviously sad to lose them, to no longer have them as part of my life, and to lose the opportunity to know them better as an adult, neither loss was particularly traumatic. The importance of telling the stories was, rather, the difference in the grief experience and grieving process in each case. This was something that resonated strongly with the students, most of whom were living far away from their families.

The students also shared their own stories. Some talked about the deaths of dearly loved grandparents they hadn’t been able to properly grieve — and perhaps didn’t know how to properly grieve — due to the distance separating them. Others talked about deaths that hit closer to home: friends, nearer relatives, even people who shadowed their lives after memories had faded. Many talked about the difficulty of having no one to share these experiences with, having no outlet for their emotions and memories. It was a poignant conversation and a powerful experience.

More than anything, it instilled in me the difference that presence makes during times of grief, and especially when losing loved ones through death.

*****

During the pandemic over the past two years, lack of presence surrounding death has sadly become a much more common experience. Due to hospital regulations, many people have been unable to be with loved ones in person as they pass. Others have been unable to travel to see their loved ones during illness or for funeral gatherings, due to border closures and travel restrictions. What has always been difficult for the globally mobile suddenly became impossible for many, even those in the same country or city!

I lost my Nana at the start of the pandemic after a long illness (not related to Covid-19). I knew it was coming, and that I probably would not be able to afford the time and money to return to Australia for her funeral. But when the time came, I did not even have the option. New border regulations meant that if I did go, I’d be isolated until after the funeral anyway.

When we think about funerals, how can we be sensitive to the needs of the globally mobile (and anyone who has difficulty attending), especially during pandemic conditions when this is so common? I have five suggestions for planning funerals that help support those who are grieving, whether in person, from a distance, or both.

1) Remember who the funeral is for

While we strive to honour the departed loved one during their funeral, the function of funeral services, memorial services, and wakes is largely to provide comfort and an outlet for the grief of those they left behind.

After my uncle’s funeral, my aunt told me about a conversation they’d had years earlier in which he passionately declared that he never wanted a funeral held for him. She planned one anyway, because it wasn’t for him. It was for her, and for everyone else who cared about him, to gather and say their goodbyes. Creating space for those goodbyes and for the sharing of memories is incredibly important for the grieving process each person is going through.

2) Give as much warning as possible

Give people time to make arrangements, whether to get time off work or to arrange childcare and/or travel. The further away people are, the more important this is. Sometimes a funeral can be delayed several weeks to make this more manageable for people far away. If the actual funeral must be held quickly (there are many reasons for this), consider having a memorial service later, to provide an opportunity for shared grieving.

On the other hand, I have also been in situations in international communities where it was important to hold a memorial service quite quickly. For example, when schools begin their summer breaks, these communities tend to scatter around the world. The bottom line for any funeral or memorial should therefore be knowledge of what is best for the communities grieving the person who died. This might mean holding more than one memorial, spanning different times and places.

3) Include children

Small children are often kept away from funeral and memorials. A two- or three-year-old child, however, can of course be very attached to a person and in need of participating in shared grief. While this may look different for children, it is good and right to include them in the community as we grieve together for the person we have lost. This is no less true for children who live far away from their relatives.

When I was about three, my great-grandmother (whose engagement ring I later wore as my own) passed away. I was not included at her funeral, and I was extremely upset when told I could not go! I said to my parents (quite indignantly, I’m told) that I knew and loved her too. They thought this was a good point, and from then on children were always invited to our family funerals. When my Nana died last year, her three great-grandchildren (ages 2, 3, and 5) all travelled with their parents to be at her funeral. There are now pictures of them dancing and playing in the grassy field outside the wake, which are precious to everyone. Attending the funeral helped the five-year-old in particular understand that her great-grandmother had died, even though she rarely visited, because she was there as part of the community event marking her Nana’s life.

4) Make sure the real person is represented

Every funeral should look different, because every individual is different. My sister and I agreed that the eulogy given by my uncle’s eldest son was powerful to us because we recognised our uncle in every line. The man he described was the man we remembered. The music and poetry he loved (things we all knew about him) had a prominent place in the service.

Those who are physically distant already feel far away from the event of a funeral, and the space it holds for shared grief. If eulogies and other elements of a funeral or memorial are generic and/or do not represent the real person their friends and family know, this can be alienating. This makes those who are physically far away feel alone in their grief.

5) Create space to share memories of the departed loved one

This can be formal or informal. The important thing is that everyone has a chance to stop and remember who this person has been to them, and how this person has impacted their life. I really appreciated that my uncle’s service included a time of silent remembering after the eulogies, where we were given space to remember him individually while listening to music he loved. This time allowed memories triggered by what I’d heard to bloom into full consciousness, giving me stories I wanted to share. Later at the wake, it was a delight to share those stories with those who knew him, and to hear their stories in return. Spending time looking through photo albums my aunt had prepared (complete with dates and captions) was also very powerful. So was going through his beloved library of books, remembering him that way.

These moments are often what is missing for those who are far away when funerals happen. A livestream of an event, when available, is rarely interactive; it doesn’t allow those who are far away to engage in sharing memories and actively reflecting. But there are other virtual options to help provide this space for those who can’t be physically present. Group video calls, shared online documents, word clouds, virtual post in note boards, virtual memorial tools, and so much more can be creatively utilised to allow those who are geographically separated to collaborate in honouring and sharing memories of a loved one who has died.

One other thing to keep in mind: if only one person is missing and unable to be at a funeral, keep them in the loop. Most people in this situation feel the distance keenly, feeling isolated and left out. Most want to hear about what’s happening, want to share in the process, and especially to share in the storytelling and group remembering that accompany funerals, memorials, and wakes. So call them, talk to them, share stories with them. Being the only one away can be very lonely, as I and the international students I mentioned earlier can attest to.

*****

This is an edited version of blog posts that first appeared on tanyacrossman.com here and here.

A Childhood Erased

MCS School South

In June, the boarding school in Pakistan where I spent my childhood closed her doors. No longer will children respond to the gong of a bell that goes off for meal times. No longer will high schoolers gather outside the hostel, shyly sitting with The Boy that one has liked for so long, hands brushing against each other through the conversation and laughter of their classmates. No longer will staff and students alike have to shout over the roar of monsoon rains on tin roofs. The pine trees will no longer hear the whispered joys, sorrows, and prayers of students. Steel bunkbeds will no longer capture early morning tears of homesickness. There will be no more chapel, no more tea time, no more study halls, and no more graduations. Never again will the school song, so long ago penned by my father, be sung in that setting.

An era will be over, and with it – part of my life will seem erased.

Last night I watched memories of Murree, put together by my dear friend, Paul. With my husband and younger daughter by my side I was able to experience again the thick fog of Jhika Gali and the hairpin turns of roads. I heard one last gong of the bell and laughed as a monkey, captured perfectly on film, ran toward me and then away.

I have known about this closing for some time. The school was founded in 1956, a wonderful and admittedly rare happening where missionaries of every denomination got together and worked to build a school for the children of missionaries and nationals who were serving in Pakistan and neighboring countries. This year, after 65 years of service, the doors to the school will close. The last class has now graduated. Murree Christian School will no longer be a concrete place with walls and windows, students and administrators. Instead it will be relegated to memories in people around the world and, surprisingly, a wikipedia page of its own.

My friend Robynn and I occassionally text back and forth about our school closing. Ten years apart, we had similar experiences at MCS. Times of sorrow and sadness to be sure – but that is not the only story. Our stories are stories of much laughter and learning, of grace and growth, of the pure joy of youth. About two months ago I texted to Robynn “Our childhood is slowly being erased.”

A closing ceremony that brought hundreds of us together on ZOOM was planned for July. As it grew closer to the time of the ceremony, the more I felt an urgent sadness that needed to be voiced. MCS holds so many stories. I somehow never thought that the day it closed would really come. As my dear friend Robynn says so well:

Deep relationships were formed. Faith was nurtured. It’s difficult to capture in words what this hidden place has meant to many now literally scattered the world over.

Robynn Bliss

To be sure, we live in a different era. The school had dropped in size to a miniscule number. Staff are hard to come by and finances more so. Schools cannot stay open simply to be receptacles for childhood memories. In fact, the beauty of the times I visited back after graduation lay in the fact that it was still a living, vibrant place. New students and staff that (shockingly) did not know me had their own memories and events, their own life stories. A terrorist attack shortly after 9/11 changed the school in unimaginable ways, taking away the freedom that we students from the seventies had. Dwindling class sizes made it the more difficult to justify the cost of keeping up the buildings and grounds. Less people were comfortable sending their children to boarding school. There are many reasons to close and the decision to close was more difficult than I can imagine.

What does an adult do when they feel their childhood is slowly being erased? The tendency would be to grasp at whatever I can to keep the picture of what I had.

Instead, I open my hands and I give the pencil back to God. From the beginning it is he that wrote the story of MCS. It is God who gave the vision, God who sustained the decades of life, God who loves the people who entered and left the large, stone building to forge their way in a world beyond.

As I have thought more about MCS closing, I have released the idea of my childhood erased. That is giving the closing of a man-made, though wonderful, institution too much power. Instead I’ve thought about the stones of remembrance that I take with me from my childhood and this place that shaped me.

The idea of stones of remembrance comes from the Old Testament book of Joshua. The Lord tells Joshua to choose 12 men, one from each tribe. They are to go and pick up a stone from the middle of the Jordan River, at the spot where the priests were carrying the Ark of the Covenant. They were to carry the stones to the place where the people would spend the night. There they would put them down to serve as a sign. These were stones of remembrance. They served as a sign to the people present and to future generations that God was there, that he was faithful, that he did not leave his people.

What are the stones of remembrance in my life that connect to MCS? What rocks can I point to, stones of surety that declare “God was here.” What can I list that point to a life of faith, built on a stone foundation?

My stones of remembrance are imperfect people who taught me how to forgive and fellow students and dear friends who taught me what it was to press on. My stones of remembrance are the laughter that drowns out the memories of homesickness and the growth that leans into discomfort. My stones of remembrance are brothers who share blood and friends who share memories. My stones of remembrance are rocks of trust and knowing that somehow, all would be well.

I am gathering the stones, I am putting them down in writing, so that I too can tell future generations “This is what shaped me, this is why I am here.” Because it’s good to remember.


At every graduation and important event, we sang our school hymn, voices raised to the rafters of the old church building turned school. Some of us sang with immense talent, others just sang. Though all were lost in those moments in their own thoughts, never knowing that most would look back on these times and the song itself with deep longing. I leave you the final verse here – a reminder that no closing of anything is powerful enough to erase childhood.

Lord with thanks and praise we honor Murree Christian School
May her life and fame and service for thee ever rule

Built upon a firm foundation, in God's hands a tool,
Shaping lives of dedication, Murree Christian School

In all our lives we go through times where places and people we love change, where we recognize that life will never be quite the same. What are your stones of remembrance for those times? Where can you point to rocks of trust and a foundation that holds even when the building changes?

Note: This post was originally published at Communicating Across Boundaries.

When the Backpack is too Heavy

Sheila Walsh tells a poignant story of her son wanting to leave home at the tender age of six. Evidently he set out with his backpack and jacket, heading toward a pond near home. She, wanting to allow freedom but aware of his young age, kept a watchful eye from a window where she could ensure safety as well as give him his independence. After a short time he was back at the door, offering no explanation other than a six-year-old going on sixteen response of “It’s good to be home!”

Later that night as she was tucking him in, she brought up the adventure and asked him about it. His response was matter of fact “I would have gone farther but my backpack was too heavy.”

As I listened to her, I was overwhelmed by the truth in a child’s simple comment.

I would have gone farther, but my backpack was too heavy.

Sheila Walsh

These days, I feel like this child. My backpack feels so heavy, the things I carry too weighty. My adult kids and their lives; friends I know who are aching from pain, some that can be spoken and other that can’t; patients and family members struggling beyond believability; worries and fear about the future and regret about the past – a backpack so heavy I can scarcely move.

It’s all mixed together with the good stuff so I’m not always sure what the good stuff is. Sort of like my kids backpacks used to be at the end of a semester, where a mashed up moldy sandwich, an apple, and crushed chips are crumbled up together in what used to be a brown lunch bag, but mixed in with this is a perfectly good juice carton and packaged granola bar. Instead of sorting through, I throw all of it away.

I’ve always thought that the primary lesson to this story was the obvious one – a heavy backpack preventing a child from the joy and distance of the journey. If I just lighten my load I would go farther, make more of an impact, be freer to serve. And to be sure, this is critically important. But dig deeper and the symbolism goes farther.

This little six-year-old knew exactly where to go to remember who he was. and where to drop off his backpack. He knew the way Home. He knew that Home was light, and love and Mom. He knew that there would be no condemnation, just warm chocolate chip cookies, cold milk and a listening heart. He knew that at home he could rest and move forward, his burden gone. He knew home was a place to be reminded of who he was.

As I think about the times I turn around because the backpack is too heavy, I hope I have the sense of a six-year-old who goes back home, and drops off his back pack. I hope I can go back to Jesus, the source and author of love, where condemnation is erased and the load is lifted, replaced with his yoke, his burden. Back to the Church, where I can be reminded of who I am, back to the Author of all that is good and holy and right.

I don’t know where in the world you are today and what things in your backpack make it too heavy. It may be transition and displacement. It may be loss of place. It may be the burden of betrayal or feeling like you’re wasting your life. It may be a struggling marriage or longing for a life partner. It may be the sorrows of your children and their needs that keep you up at night. It may be chronic illness, depression or anxiety. It may be the death of one you love.

I do know that whatever it is, home and rest are waiting. Not home the place, but Home – the person and presence of Jesus.

A Global Pandemic and Ambiguous Loss

In 1999, researcher Pauline Boss, introduced the concept of ambiguous loss with these words: “In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief, confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict.

While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.

She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment… in the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*

Ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed and expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.

Ambiguous loss is unclear, traumatic, externally caused by illness/work/leaving (not by individual pathology), confusing and incomprehensible.

Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place. 

Pauline Boss

I can’t think of a better description of the losses people are feeling during this worldwide pandemic. Quick pack-ups and overnight border closures, family separations and job losses, death with no or limited funerals, grieving alone – all of it has contributed to lack of closure and a prolonged and ambiguous grief process.

There are two types of ambiguous loss:

  • Type One: Occurs when there is physical absence with psychological presence. This includes situations when a loved one is physically missing or bodily gone. While there are catastrophic examples of physical ambiguous loss (including kidnapping, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and natural disasters such as earthquake, flood, and tsunami) the more common examples of physical ambiguous loss are divorce, adoption, and loss of physical contact with family and friends because of immigration. This would be the most common type with third culture kids and expats. There is a physical absence, but you know the place you left, the friends you left, are still psychologically present. You see pictures of your adopted home, but you are no longer there. Your children see their school friends through social media, but physically, though the place remains, you are gone. You may never get to visit again.
  • Type Two: Occurs when there is psychological absence with physical presence. In this second type of ambiguous loss, a loved one is psychologically absent—that is, emotionally or cognitively gone or missing. Such ambiguous loss occurs from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias; traumatic brain injury; addiction, depression, or other chronic mental or physical illnesses that take away a loved one’s mind or memory. Psychological ambiguous losses can also result from obsessions or preoccupations with losses that never make sense, e.g., some suicides or infant deaths.*

Identifying ambiguous loss is a huge step. I remember first reading about it several years ago, how just reading about it did something powerful in and for me. Realizing I wasn’t alone, that there was a name for my experiences, was a pivotal point in better understanding what I needed to do.

There were several steps to my process, and I write them here cautiously, knowing that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to facing ambiguous loss.

Naming it as ambiguous loss was an important first step. Finding a name for what I was experiencing was huge. You can’t cope with something unless you know what it is. At six years old, I waved goodbye to my parents as they stood on the platform of a train station in Southern Pakistan. I strained my head to wave, crying the crocodile tears of a child that knows that they are leaving their primary source of security, but not having words to express it. I strained to watch my parents through the window until the platform was out of sight, finally succumbing to the comfort of kind adult chaperones. I knew that my parents weren’t dead, but their physical absence brought profound loss. It would be the same for all but two years of my childhood until I turned 18 and left home. Finding out about the concept of ambiguous loss was deeply comforting to me. I thought back to many childhood events like this one, realizing I had never grieved the losses because I didn’t think there were any. Naming is an edenic act, and when we name something we open up a door to understanding that is otherwise impossible. In this Pandemic year, it is important to name the ambiguous loss. If you had to pack up with little notice and no goodbyes, if you did not have time to build the RAFT to float yourself and your family, it is probably true that what you are experiencing is ambiguous loss. The place you left still exists; the work and your place within the work may still be there, but you aren’t. Soon, someone else will take your place because though people are not replaceable, positions must be replaced. Naming this is critical to moving forward. If you do nothing else but name it, you are still on a step toward healing.

Use both/and thinking. It’s not one or the other – it’s both. We have both the anxiety of no closure and the opportunity of unexpected change and relationships going forward. Absolute thinking is not helpful with ambiguous loss or the pandemic in general. F. Scott Fitzgerald said this, and it is perfect for thinking about both/and thinking:

The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

F.Scott Fitzgerald

This both/and thinking is important for us and for our children. We acknowledge the losses even as we begin to write our names in the land where we find ourselves.

Find meaning in the present. Not acknowledging ambiguous loss can cripple us to finding meaning in our present reality. What is the meaning in your present reality? Where have you found meaning that is unexpected? Perhaps you have found meaning in the act of waiting. Perhaps you have had unexpected time with aging parents. Perhaps you used to long for more time with your kids, feeling like their childhoods were on fast forward in the movie of life. Suddenly, all of life has slowed down and it feels impossible to dream, to look forward to anything. Maybe there is meaning in the impossible.

Reconstructing identity is a third step in facing ambiguous loss. Moving, death, job loss, changing friendships – all of this affects our identity and our perception of our identity. Who are we without what we had? Who are we when we are not in our adopted countries using hard-earned language skills? Who are we without the brother, mother, son, or daughter that we have lost to a country or place far away? Who are we apart from our friendships? Who are we when ministry is gone? All of these questions are a part of reconstructing our identities. Ultimately, in my faith journey I’ve recognized that identity is not about where I am, for that is too fickle and can change through pandemics, military takeovers, natural disasters, and job loss – indeed everyone of those things have affected my life at different points. Instead, my core identity has to be about being beloved by God and recognizing I am part of a bigger picture in His world.

Building resilience, not seeking closure. The goal is not closure, and we make a mistake if we think that is possible. That’s the thing with ambiguous loss – the goal changes from closure to building strength and acceptance of ambiguity. We may never get to say proper goodbyes, we may always wonder “What would have happened if we stayed?” We may always long for something that we can’t even voice. I’ve been learning a lot about being grateful for those things, for they are indeed gifts. We live in a world of displaced people and refugees; indeed that is the story of our time. It is a gift that we know what it is to grieve loss of place and people. Understanding ambiguous loss is in itself a gift. It allows us to enter relationships with hope but without the guarantees that we so long for. This is far more what our world needs than a security and belief that what we have will be there forever. This is true for individuals, and it’s true for a family. As a family adapts to change, stress, and ambiguous loss, it builds resilience and this becomes a part of the larger family story. The larger family story will have a pandemic chapter, but it’s not the only chapter. It’s one of many.

Discovering new hope. As we move forward, we discover new hope. Hope in a future that will continue to hold the hard and unknown, yet entering it with a greater reality of the presence of God. Hope in the words from the book of Hebrews that He who called us is faithful. We may never know the whys, but can it be enough to know Him? I speak truth when I say that some days it is enough and some days it isn’t. I cling to the days where it is enough, where He is enough. And I’m getting better at facing the days when He is not enough, where I pray the Jesus prayer all day long and into the night.

Lastly, God is far more concerned about who we are than about what we do and where we live. If we lose everything, He still loves us. Before He called us, He loved us. I’m sitting with that hard truth, praying that I will know it in my soul. I pray that wherever you are today, and whatever your losses, you may know this hard but glorious truth. He looks at you and He loves you – and though all around you may be loss and grief, that truth is a reality.

*https://www.ambiguousloss.com/about/faq/