“Harke: n. a painful memory that you look back upon with unexpected fondness, even though you remember having dreaded it at the time; a tough experience that has since been overridden by the pride of having endured it, the camaraderie of those you shared it with, or the satisfaction of having a good story to tell.” (from hark back, a command spoken to hunting dogs to retrace their course so they can pick up a lost scent.”
As I read I was reminded that we are capable of such depth as humans. I was also reminded that we all experience and carry so much loss.
It got me wondering about the obscure sorrows that are unique to us. Here are three for you to read and see if you recognize yourself in them.
n. the distressing feeling when you turn to share the most perfect word for a situation and remember that those around you don’t speak that language. Sure you can say the word and they may smile at you out of kindness, but they won’t really get it.
(From miss and vocbulary and ia because I like the sound of it)
n. the sad realization that life goes on without you; it can be experienced from both side of being on and off the field; on the field and your friends start getting married, buying a house, having babies, driving minivans and your life has less and less connecting points; off the field your local friends and teammates and neighborhoods and country of love continue on.
(From creeping for slowly and fill for the hole you think cannot possibly ever be filled, but you are wrong)
n. the strong desire for people you love to know what something tastes like and it is simply impossible to recreate it because the oil is different, a spice doesn’t exist, or you have to make something you normally buy at the store. This can be experienced with local friends when you try to share a part of your “home” cooking and with friends and family when you try to share part of your “other home” cooking.
(From gastro meaning stomach and longings)
It was only after I started working on this post that I realized you’ll read this during Lent, a season of sorrows. Sorrow over our sin, not of misvocabia, creeping-fill, and gastrolongings. It is right and good to be broken over our sin and it is right and good to pause and name some of our obscure sorrows as cross-cultural workers. If you’re wanting to lament in an interactive and creative way, Global Trellis’ workshop this month will guide you in 3 creative ways to lament.
Do you recognize yourself in misvocabia, creeping-fill, and gastrolongings? What would you add to our dictionary of missionary obscure sorrows?
Yesterday I unexpectedly found myself by a lone bench on an empty ocean front. A boat was just off the shore, solitary but securely anchored in the sea. I ached with the unexpected beauty, the symbolic solitude of the boat. I felt like this boat. Alone, aching, but securely anchored. As I stood there, I thought about the last two months and how a crisis can set off a whole new cycle of grief and loss.
Though seemingly unrelated, grief is grief, and loss is loss, and every time we experience another loss, buried past losses and griefs can end up resurrected. Like a dot to dot child’s book, grief and loss connect together creating a picture that represents something much bigger than just one dot.
In my first year of nursing school we played a game one day. It was a dramatic game of life. Tables were spread around the classroom with cards at each table. We all began at the same station with very little. We had a birth card and that was it. As we went through the game, we gained more, but it was far from fair. Some people gained a family card while others remained without. Some people got career cards, others got cards that said they were jobless and had to apply for benefits from the government. Still others kept on getting more and more money. About half way through the game, the rules and cards began to shift. We all began to lose things – both physical and material things. We began to lose friends and cars; jobs and eyesight. We protested loudly, as only eighteen year olds who understand all the things can. It was unfair. It was unjust. We hated it. Ultimately, all of us ended much where we had begun – with a single card. Then one by one, we lost even that card and they went into the graveyard of a garbage can.
I hated the game. It was rude and unfair, but I understand why our professors had us play it. How else can you help 18 year old students learn empathy for the patients they were caring for, for the losses they were undergoing as they faced illness? How can you give them a concrete way to experience loss? If the game was unfair, how much more so is life itself?
This I know – though I did not know it at 18: Whether we stay rooted to one place throughout our lives or we traverse the globe, the two things we can count on are loss and change. We might think we can control these only to have them surprise us with their insistent persistence.
While many write poetically about God being a God of grace and generosity, indulge me as I think about the God of loss, for loss and change are the two constants that humanity shares across the globe.
Is God the author of loss? The creator? The healer? If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss?Some days I am not sure. If he is a God of grace and generosity, can he still be a God of loss?
In the paradox and mystery of faith a resounding yes to all these questions arises in my soul. A God of grace, generosity, loss, and ultimate love is woven into the whole, a mystical tapestry. Tapestries are made more beautiful by the stories that are woven into them and what would a story of gain be without loss beside it? What would a story of love be if we didn’t know what it was to not be loved? What would a story of grief be if we never knew joy? They are empty without their opposites. Without the resurrection, the cross is but a horrific, miserable death. With the resurrection, all of life changes, including loss and grief. My questions don’t have answers. Instead they are met with a person. Like Orual in Till We Have Faces, I cry out: “I know now, Lord, why you utter no answer. You are yourself the answer. Before your face questions die away. What other answer would suffice?”*
Though I seemingly quote this bravely, my honest desire would be to learn more of God without having to go through loss. I wish life didn’t have and hold so many unchosen crosses. But as I wish, I know that even as a little girl I began to know this God of loss and love. I first felt loss and his corresponding love in the cold steel of a bunkbed, a thin mattress separating me from the hard wires of the base. I felt deeply the loss of a mom and dad, the loss of a home, the loss of security. Even then, I knew this God of loss; a God who cares about loss and grief, who wraps us up in his love even as we shout out the grief of broken dreams and broken hearts. A God of loss who stretches out a strong arm to the lost. In my story, his strong arm led me from childhood to adulthood, a long journey of grace.
The grief and loss dots are connecting again during this period of my life and I feel his arm stretch out to me now, even as I run away, wanting to ignore it. Like the runaway bunny, whose mother will never give up, no matter where I run to, the God of loss always finds me. Though I may want to ignore him or accuse him of apathy and mistreatment, his light and his love push the shadows of loss away every, single time.
In the book Prayer in the Night, author Tish Harrison Warren writes this: “Here is what I am slowly stretching to believe: there is no shadow side of God; no hidden deception or darkness behind the God revealed in Jesus. The God we pray to is the God who loves us — endlessly, relentlessly, patiently, and powerfully.”
By his grace I continue to press into this, believing that:
“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the [loss] that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”
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.
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.”
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.
In October of 2001, my wife and I boarded a flight and moved our family from the US to our new home in Asia. Nearly ten years later, in June of 2011, we moved back to our old home in Joplin, Missouri. Those dates may not jump out at you, but the first was one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The second was one month after an F5 tornado destroyed about a quarter of Joplin, killing 161.
When you relocate to a different culture, your world is turned upside down. How much more so when the earth itself seems to be tilted off its axis.
Some of you are making a cross-cultural transition right now, in the midst of a global pandemic, a global recession, and far-reaching upheavals confronting racism. So much emotional multitasking. So many unknowns. You’re not only tackling culture stress or reverse culture stress, but you’re trying to get used to a new normal when the old normal is challenging enough already.
There’s another term for new normal. It’s abnormal (at least for a while).
Speaking of culture, you have your own “cancel culture”: cancelled flights. cancelled church services, cancelled good-bye gatherings, cancelled welcome parties, cancelled support, cancelled camps, cancelled vacations, cancelled retreats, cancelled trainings, cancelled conferences, cancelled debriefings, cancelled classes, cancelled job opportunities, cancelled leases, cancelled assumptions, cancelled plans.
And when you get to make your trip, your first experience after you land is to self-quarantine for two weeks.
Please don’t just shrug all this off. Don’t dismiss the added stress that these increased challenges bring. Don’t simply put on a bigger smile as you push yourself harder. Rather, acknowledge the difficult circumstances and give yourself grace. And, as always, but especially now, understand the need for help in navigating your transitions.
“Every time there’s transition,” TCK-expert Ruth Van Reken tells Columbia News Service, “there is loss.” She’s talking about Third Culture Kids and Adult Third Culture Kids, but her words can apply to anyone moving between cultures. She goes on to say,
So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, ‘What did you lose?’ Because where there’s loss, there’s grief. And when there’s no language for it, it comes out at your boss or in your marriage.
How wonderful it is to have someone to understand, to ask you the right questions. But sometimes you arrive into situations where everyone else is also going through some kind of transition, dealing with loss, and experiencing grief. Sometimes when you want to share your story, it’s as if those around you are saying, “Get in line.” Sometimes their stories seem more important than yours and you decide to hold yours in.
I’m a big proponent of intentional preparation and debriefing surrounding cross-cultural transitions. Skilled leaders know what to ask, how to listen, and what to say. They can start a conversation in chapter two, skipping the preface, because they’re already on the same page with you. And they give good, empathy-filled, heartfelt hugs.
But you may find that hard to come by right now. Groups can’t meet together. Ministries are postponing sessions. And hugs are extremely hard to come by. If that’s the case for you, I’d encourage you not just to skip everything until schedules are back on track. Instead take advantage of what’s available now—video sessions online, phone calls, or email conversations. I know from experience that it’s easy to put off things like this. Whether we’ve landed in our host or passport country, it’s common to want to hit the ground running and not spend the time needed for soul searching and soul care. So we wait for the day when getting together with someone will better fit into our schedules. But waiting can easily last forever as we become busy (overwhelmed?) with other aspects of life, as funds are spent elsewhere, and as we get in the rut of making excuses . . . until we decide it’s simply too late.
Even if you take part in something “virtual” now, you may still find it isn’t quite enough for you or your family members. If something seems to be lacking, don’t think of that as a deficiency on your part. If you’re suffering from Zoom fatigue, you’re not alone. Understand that while alternatives to face-to-face may be the best options available right now, they aren’t necessarily ideal for you. If you need more, something “with skin on,” I’d encourage you to commit to adding some kind of in-person version later, when that becomes possible. It won’t be easy, but if there’s a cost involved, set aside money for it or let your church know how important it is to you so they can help you afford it even if by that time your support has waned or funds have been diverted. Tell others how much you need it so they can help hold you accountable if your plans fade away.
And in between deliberate member-care events, recognize the opportunities to commune with fellow “travelers.”
When we transitioned back to storm-wrecked Joplin, we returned to a place full of transition, with people navigating their way down roads where the landmarks and street signs had violently disappeared. Some had lost family members, some their homes, some their jobs. Schools and a hospital were destroyed. Their losses were so much bigger than ours, but we joined the ranks of those affected by the storm. Across the road from our short-term housing, our church had erected a couple tents for distributing food and household items. I spent some time volunteering there, with instructions to help visitors “shop” but mostly to listen to them share about their tornado-caused wounds—physical and emotional—and to offer prayers. It was good for me to listen to their stories—and even nine years later, there are still stories to be heard.
Listening is a wonderful gift to give to others, and some people are able and desirous to return that gift. When you show that you care about the details of their lives, they want to return the blessing. They understand the shared emotions, even if the circumstances aren’t exactly the same. Praying for others is a wonderful gift, too. And some people will ask you how they can pray for you. They understand that prayer is a bridge to God and also a connection for those who pray together.
During turbulent times, the outside turmoil can disrupt your best-laid plans for inner calm. This is my prayer for you—that you’re able to engage in the grieving and the talking and the listening and the sharing and the praying and the giving and the receiving that you need to create that calm, no matter how long it takes.
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?”
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 Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and occasionally at her website.
My first article for A Life Overseas was only the second article I’d ever written. Seriously.
But God retains his sense of humor, and I retain my sense of gratitude. I’m grateful for the leaders of the site who gave me the bandwidth, and I’m grateful for you, the readers, who continue to give me the brainwidth. Thank you.
There are about 9,000 more readers now than there were three years ago. So I thought I’d go retrospective with this post, collating former articles and re-presenting them to you. I’ve divided them into some rough categories:
Rest & Laughter
Grief & Loss
Feel free to browse around and see if there’s anything you missed that you want to unmiss. And if you feel like these articles could serve as a resource for someone else, we provide handy sharing links at the bottom. Merry Christmas.
REGARDING REST & LAUGHTER Please Stop Running
God doesn’t give extra credit to workaholics. Jesus doesn’t call us to work in his fishers-of-men-factory until we drop dead from exhaustion. He is not like that.
When Grief Bleeds
Grief is a powerful thing, echoing on and on through the chambers of a heart.
The feeling rises and crests like an impending wave barreling towards the surface of my heart. And with each wave of worthlessness comes an intense weariness of soul, a near drowning.
To the ones who think they’ve failed
So, you failed to save the world. You failed to complete the task of global evangelism. You failed to see massive geopolitical change in your region. You failed. Or at least you feel like it.
When you just want to go home
He’s longing for home too. So, in my drownings and darkness, perhaps I am brushing up against the heart of God. Perhaps I am tasting his tears too.
Facebook lies and other truths
Our supporters and friends probably won’t lose money by showing a picture of a vacation. We might. On the other hand, our friends won’t make money by showing a picture of a destitute child or a baptism. We might.
REGARDING THE ENDING “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” ~ J.R.R. Tolkien
And so it happened that I stepped out the door, aware that God might start sweeping me to places unknown. And he certainly did. But it was there that I met all of you, and you’ve turned out, after all, to be not so dangerous. Thank you for journeying with me. Let’s keep going…
“If we honestly face the sadness of life in a fallen world, then only our hope in Christ can preserve us from insanity or suicide.” – Larry Crabb
That’s an intense statement, and I sort of choked when I read it for the first time. But the more I chew on it, and the more I ponder my own life with its episodes of emotional and intellectual crisis, the more I think it’s correct.
I spent three years working as an ER/Trauma nurse in an urban hospital in the States, and that bloody, chaotic trauma room forced me to “honestly face the sadness.” Those were dark days indeed; I was ill-prepared, psychologically and theologically, to deal with the darkness and the depth of the pain I witnessed. I was far outside of the Christian bubble, and reality bit hard.
For many people, moving across cultures, often to developing places, serves as their wake-up call. Missions becomes their trauma room, where they see suffering and poverty and grief up close and personal. People often move to Cambodia bright-eyed and in love, and then after a few months, or perhaps a year, the accumulation of the poverty and the corruption and the darkness forces them to “honestly face the sadness.”
Have you seen that happen?
Of course, the sadness was present in their affluent passport countries too, but money and familiarity have a way of disguising and hiding pain, like gold lacquer on cardboard.
But when the suffering is really seen, honestly, it does what Martin Luther wrote about nearly 500 years ago; it “threatens to undo us.” Of course, it doesn’t have to undo us, but it certainly threatens.
The Gift of Grief “[W]hen we are able to maintain the fiction that life is tolerable at worst, and quite satisfying at best, we sacrifice an appreciation for the two center points of our faith: the Cross of Christ and His coming. The Cross becomes the means by which God delivers us from something not really too terrible, and the Coming is reduced to an opportunity for a merely improved quality of life.” – Crabb
In other words, when we blind ourselves to grief and the real sadness of the world, we risk turning the glorious reality of Eternity into a nice upgrade instead of the radical salvation of the universe and the epic righting of all wrongs that it certainly is.
Now, I hate grief. I really do. I don’t like being sad and I don’t particularly like listening to peoples’ sad stories. But for whatever reason, God has brought me to a place where I now regularly get e-mails from people that say, “Hey, I was told that you were the guy to talk to about my recent traumatic loss.” Awesome.
I think it’s because I don’t flee the feelings. And I don’t flee the feelings because I know that God can do amazing, restorative, centering, maturing, focusing, healing work through them. Not after the feelings, not around the feelings, but through them.
I am absolutely convinced that grief is a gift that the Church needs to learn to deal with. Grief has the potential to refocus us on the Eternal, if we’ll let it. Grief and loss guard us against the temptation to degrade Heaven into a distant and entirely non-applicable theory, instead of the life-altering reality that it is.
“When hints of sadness creep into our soul, we must not flee into happy or distracting thoughts. Pondering sadness until it becomes overwhelming can lead us to a deep change in the direction of our being from self-preservation to grateful worship.” – Crabb
Worshipful grief is potent and eyes-open.
It’s also evangelistic.
Worshipful grief communicates to those outside the Church that we’re not morons whose faith completely disconnects from reality. We are, in fact, in tune with the way things are precisely because of our faith. And because of our faith, we can grieve with hope, something that secular philosophy and humanism simply cannot provide.
What Happened in Portland
Portland is a beautiful city in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. It’s also where my sister lives, so last year I left a very hot and dirty and brown Phnom Penh and landed in a cool and beautiful and green Portland.
I bought blueberries by the gallon and ate them by the handful.
And I was angry.
Why do these people get to live here? In this place that’s so safe and gorgeous? Why do they get berries and public services and English? And why are they all in shape and appear to have just disembarked from a travel magazine?! (To be clear, I realize that not all of Portland fits this, but my sister lives in a suburb, and yeah, it pretty much all fits.)
There’s a public park close to her house, and they’ve got a fully shaded state-of-the-art playground with grass and towering pine trees. The whole place smells like a pine forest because the whole place is a pine forest. And did I mention it was also just a small city park?
Anyways, there was a trail around the lake and I of course took it. I passed picnics and happy people on stand up paddle boards. I passed ducks and geese, and I swear they’d all read the book “How to Pose for a Postcard.” I heard laughing kids.
And I was angry.
And then I got to a waterfall, clear and sharp, loudly mocking me with its falling waters. It was astoundingly beautiful and embarrassingly infuriating. And so I cried.
I cried to myself and I cried to God.
I mourned the loss. I grieved the fact that I lived in a concrete box with bars on the windows and karaoke and neighborhood cats that liked to work out their differences very loudly and very after-hours.
I did what I counsel people to do.
I named the losses, I felt the losses, and I talked with God.
And in one of those rare occurrences when I sense God speaking back to me, I felt God say, “Yes, you have lost something. Yes, you have given up some stuff. But what I have asked you to sacrifice I have not asked you to sacrifice forever. I have asked you to postpone.”
Now I was listening.
“I will bring you back here, on the New Earth, in Eternity, and all that is good and lovely and beautiful about this you will experience again.”
His words, had they been preached to me by a hard-nosed theologian, would have grated and rubbed raw. But on that day, in a city park somewhere north of Portland, his words were like falling water, cooling and calming and stirring in me deep peace.
And his words still resonate.
His words reminded me of Truth my heart desperately needed – all is not lost. There will be a resurrection and the restoration of all things.
Why it’s a Gift
This oxygenating reminder, this reminder of Eternity, did not happen in spite of my grief. It happened because of it. It didn’t come through an attempt to erase grief or diminish loss. It came through mourning and boldly naming the loss.
And although I do not like it and I wish it weren’t so, grief is often the mechanism for drawing our hearts and souls back to God and the eternal intimacy he’s promised.
An Unforced Gift
Don’t miss out on the focusing ability of grief. It is a gift. But remember, like most gifts, this gift is best received without force. These are not truths to preach at someone in pain.
There are times for non-preaching, when grief bleeds and souls mourn. For these times, I still just recommend a gentle hug, quiet presence, and the often ungiven gift of silence.
Preach heaven to the Church. Preach Hope to the Church. But watch your timing. Preaching to someone in pain is an awfully cheap and cowardly substitute for simple incarnation.
The Gift of Music
Music can give voice to the soul, especially in the areas of grief and Eternity. In fact, mourners and poets often instinctively connect feelings of grief with longings for Heaven. One researcher, in his essay entitled “Recovering the Theology of the Negro Spirituals” showed the connection: “The eschatology of the spirituals emphasized heaven. Roughly forty percent of the compiled spirituals dealt with heaven as a primary theme.”
Likewise, for me, music is often a balm and lifeline. Here are a few songs about heaven that have ministered to me in my grief.
“We are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives. And we are eagerly waiting for him to return as our Savior.” Philippians 3:20
“I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, ‘Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.’ And the one sitting on the throne said, ‘Look, I am making everything new!’ And then he said to me, ‘Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.'” Revelation 21:3-5
“My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” John 14:2-3
Your kids aren’t going to remember what you get them for Christmas. They’re just not.
At least I don’t.
My mother died when I was a teen, my dad when I was in my early twenties. And when I think of the holiday seasons with them, I remember them. I don’t remember their gifts.
I remember my mom stomping down snow and scattering bird seeds to feed the menagerie of winged color that knew where to find a good meal.
I remember slow evenings around rock and wood and fire.
I remember egg nog, sipped slowly, and luminaries of sand and wax.
I remember Christmas Eve walks with family, sometimes comfortable and sometimes minus twenty.
I remember their love, not their presents.
Remember, the one with the most toys does not win.
Your kids don’t need more stuff. They need you.
To put it bluntly, there will come a Christmas without you. Hopefully, it’ll come much later, but it might come sooner. That’s not a morbid thought, it’s a centering thought. Your kids will always have stuff. They will not always have you.
So hug them. Read to them.
For Christ’s sake, be silly with them and show them that joy exists outside of presents.
Dance with your children and make memories. Watch Elf together and belly laugh. Schedule some down time. Block it out on your calendar because it’s important. Say no to something so you can say yes to something better.
Pause long enough this holiday season to cuddle with your little one. Or listen to your big kid. Don’t spend so much time watching football with your kids that you never play football with them.
Remember: it’s not about stuff. It never was, and it never will be.
Please, don’t give your children something so cheap as things. Stuff never connects people in meaningful ways. In fact, it seems to have the opposite effect, isolating the user: “I play with my stuff and you play with yours.”
Stuff fills our hands, making it harder to touch another person’s soul.
Stuff fills our ears, blocking out the heart-cries of the near ones.
Stuff fills our eyes all the way to the periphery, keeping us from seeing the tremendous value in the people right here.
Remember, the best memories are not made of money. The best memories are made of people and places. If you have money, spend it on memories. If you don’t have money, that’s ok too, because money’s certainly not a prerequisite for memories.
Remember, for this Christmas and the ones to come, the gifts won’t be remembered. Your presence will. Or your absence. Both of my parents are absent now; I can’t change that and neither can they. But while they still could, they gave me memories. And I do remember.
I remember my mother’s last Christmas. She was sick and we all knew it. That last Christmas morning, she sat on the couch and held a large stuffed bear and watched her children. And she smiled.
And that smile remains one of the best Christmas presents I’ve ever received.
I swim in the abyss of memories. People and places I cannot return to, and few know.
It is a morass I voluntarily enter, knowing it will hurt, but needing it still. Someone should remember these things.
Birthdays used to be happy occasions, full of cake and memories of years gone by. Now, birthdays are just full of memories of years gone. And places gone. And people gone.
Home, once lost, can never be regained. Another home can be built, to be sure, but what has been cannot be again. It is gone.
There is hope. But hope for the future does not remove loss from the past.
When does one grow up and forget their childhood? Thirty-five? Eighty-five? I think never. Something deep and strange happens when the heart goes back. When pictures show you things you remember feeling more than seeing. Like the faded painting on the wall – of water fowl and cattails — that I haven’t thought of in decades. My mom loved that painting. It feels peaceful, silently overwatching a family grow up, and then leave.
Another picture shows my late mom and dad in the kitchen, but what I see is the blue metal bowl with white speckles. It was part of the country kitchen I grew up in, the one with glass doors looking out upon green, or brown, or white, depending on the season. I see that bowl and hear the clank of metal spoon upon metal bowl, and I feel at home. No one else had metal bowls.
Oh how mysterious is the snapshot that elicits such emotions!
I look at the photos slowly, seeing the details. Looking for the background. The memories swarm, and I let them. Something deep within is washed by these shadows of what was. I need this cleansing. I need to remember my moorings.
I won’t be getting a call from my mom on my birthday. She won’t be telling me she’s proud of me, or asking about the grandkids. I won’t hear about how her journey with God is growing and changing.
My dad won’t ask about my work or ministry. We won’t talk about books or hawks or how tall the grass is.
A Pacific separates me from siblings. Time separates me from everything else.
For the time being, I am time’s subject. Moving at its pace, regardless. But time is God’s subject, and at the end of all things, time itself will be changed, and we will reign with him “forever and ever.” Time’s thermodynamic authority will be renounced, along with its painful propensity to separate. No longer will time rob and decay, slowly pulling like gravity on the soul.
God will finally do something I never could, although I was told to often enough. He will redeem time.
And he will relocate.
In a physical, undeniably earthly way, he will come home.
“Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.” (Revelation 21:3)
And when he gets here, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” (Revelation 21:4)
He’s longing for home too.
So, in my drownings and darkness, perhaps I am brushing up against the heart of God. Perhaps I am tasting his tears too.
I will never go home again. Until I do.
And that home will last forever, and not just in snapshots and pixels. It will last forever, in three-dimensional space, because of him. And all those longings, elicited by memories of home, will in turn be satisfied.
I will belong, with my own place at the table.
I will be at peace.
I will be wanted. There will be a mutual desire for presence. I will desire to be with God, and he will desire to be with me.
And then I’ll find my mom and dad and a blue metal bowl, and we’ll sit and talk forever about work, and grandkids, and maybe even grass.
And we will be,
Sometimes, music can do something that words alone cannot, giving melody to the longings of a heart.
I’ve added an instrumental piece to the end of the song, giving you space to linger, respond, cry out to Him, and remember.
I Will Bring You Home by Michael Card
Though you are homeless
Though you’re alone
I will be your home
Whatever’s the matter
Whatever’s been done
I will be your home
I will be your home
I will be your home
In this fearful fallen place
I will be your home
When time reaches fullness
When I move my hand
I will bring you home
Home to your own place
In a beautiful land
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
From this fearful fallen place
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
The accumulated losses of the years I’ve spent abroad
Sometimes make me start to wonder if I serve a loving God.
Where is love in loss and failure? Where is love in hard goodbyes?
Maybe love—to understand it—must be seen through diff’rent eyes.
If I trust that You are loving, bringing rain through darkest clouds,
I can start to see a reason for the suff’ring You’ve allowed.
Then I start to see a pattern where I thought I never could—
Love was with me in the hardships, working all things out for good.
These accumulated losses are the cares I cast on You.
Some are scars, no longer painful; others hurt as if brand new.
In this life to which You’ve called me, and the loss that life entails,
Meet my pain with a reminder of Your love that never fails.–
After six years overseas, Krista Besselman has traded the perspective brought by a childhood of Pennsylvania winters for the belief that the highlands of Papua New Guinea get “cold.” She drinks hot tea and helps track the resources used for Bible translation. She writes Excel formulas by day and poetry by night, which are really just two different ways of trying to make sense of the world. Life in Papua New Guinea has taught her a deeper appreciation for grace, relationships, and high-speed internet.
It’s hard to describe the turbulence of soul that comes from being on the move, always unsettled. You cannot be still and breathe deeply. You cannot love the wild-growing front-lawn tulips too much, or the way the sunlight turns the living room into a golden elven forest in the afternoon. They will soon be gone. And with every big move, you are the new person all over again, trying to make friends at double-speed, weary of explaining where you came from and why you’re here.
We have lived in our current home in Taipei for thirteen months, the longest in any one place for nearly four years. This dubious “longevity” doesn’t prevent my gut fear of another uprooting. Experience leaves an imprint of expectation in our hearts. The nomadic lifestyle began in earnest when we finished seminary, after which a pastoral job and preparation to be missionaries led us to several different cities and even more homes. We moved twelve times in a span of two and a half years, and it hurt my heart terribly.
At nearly every house or apartment I resolutely unpacked everything, decorated the walls with my grandmother’s paintings and the children’s art, and brought cookies when meeting our new neighbors. I tried to make each place a home, even if it would not last long. And I grieved the loss of our previous home and the life we had built there.
I grew up in one place, but without knowing it, even then I longed to be home. I kept subtly searching for something that tingled like a phantom limb; it had to be there—my entire being reached out for it! Or was it only an untouchable dream?
I can relate to Peter when he tells Jesus, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28). I reflect with some self-pity, perhaps like Peter, that we have left our family and our friends and our homeland to follow Christ. I know that dying to myself is the only path to life and abiding happiness, but even so, my heart is burdened in the midst of loss.
Jesus responds to Peter’s outburst with a longer-term view:
“Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29-30)
His words, though demanding, are a balm to my soul. God has fulfilled the temporal part of the promise many times over. We have been welcomed into the physical homes of fellow believers when we were in need, and our brothers and sisters in Christ are our family in every way. But even more so, the fleeting losses of following Christ are nothing compared to the eternal gain.
The ESV Study Bible notes that “Jesus assures the disciples that they have answered the call and are blessed.” This pain of being between worlds is not a logistical problem, but a sign of following His call. It’s not a sign that we are failures as missionaries, but that the redemption of the world is costly. Christ bore the greatest cost of all.
The home we long for is not a phantom or a dream: we were created to yearn for our Lord’s lovely dwelling place. “My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God” (Psalm 84:2). In his earthly life, Jesus shared in our homelessness. He left his perfect heavenly home to rescue us from our sin; he had no place to lay his head. And he will return to remedy our aching hunger with the ultimate Home he prepares for us even now, where there will be no more crying or pain because the former things have passed away.
Grief is a powerful thing, echoing on and on through the chambers of a heart.
Loss singes the soul, and death does indeed bite.
We are not the only ones who grieve, to be sure, but those who’ve lived abroad certainly know this to be true: it hurts to leave. It hurts to return. And when others leave, whether by death or call or transfer, that hurts too.
Our stories are the ones written with contrails, straddling continents and seas. And these stories, the good and the bad, the ones that heal and the ones that hurt, must be written. And remembered.
Some would say to get over it.
Some might accuse. Too little faith. Too little thought of Heaven. Too much focus on the past.
As if holiness requires Novocain.
But grief is a part of our story now. Indelible. Grief bleeds through the pages of our lives, marking the pages and stories that follow.
Failing to acknowledge these chapters is to censor. To edit out.
To delete plot twists and main characters. To murder history.
So we leave the pages as they are, splotched and imperfect.
Because on every single ink-stained page, He remains.
Comforter. Rock. Shepherd. God.
He remains the God who grieved.
He remains the God who understands.
He remains the God who comforts.
He remains. And He is enough.
So we keep feeling, refusing to numb. We keep sketching out these life-pages, confident that He knows our stories. He loves our stories. He redeems our stories.
And we keep trusting that in the end, our stories are actually a part of His story.