Beyond Reverse Culture Shock Part 3: The Journey of Post-Traumatic Growth

by Shonna Ingram

Welcome to Part 3 of our series, where we’ll explore each re-entry season in depth, uncovering how to apply the principles of post-traumatic growth and offering specific resources for each season of the journey. (If you missed them, you can read Part 1 and Part 2 at these links.)

The concept of Post-Traumatic Growth hypothesizes that while trauma inflicts deep wounds, it can also create change. Through the post-traumatic growth journey, individuals can uncover new strengths, gain new perspectives, and explore new possibilities. More importantly, it can help them find restoration and a deeper connection to God. By embracing the post-traumatic growth model and committing to the journey, missionaries can discover their next step in ministry.

While not all individuals experience trauma during re-entry, a trauma-informed perspective acknowledges the possibility of trauma. In the following sections, we will explore the different facets of the re-entry journey, shedding light on the experiences and challenges missionaries may encounter along the way.

Season 1: Return (Pre-Departure and Arrival)

This phase of re-entry is covered extensively in most re-entry literature, which focuses on “saying healthy goodbyes” and “preparing for landing.” As we discussed in Part 1, ideally, missionaries have time for pre-departure preparations; however, unforeseen circumstances may disrupt this. Regardless, the Return phase marks the start of settling back home, from pre-departure readiness to initial arrival and approximately six months after they arrive.

Pre-Departure Preparation: Typically starting nine to six months before departure, this phase involves logistical, emotional, and mental readiness. Prioritizing intentional farewells, addressing logistics early, and engaging in reflection is crucial for a smoother transition.

Initial Arrival (0-3 months) Preparation: This season can be especially hard if there is no pre-departure preparation. This phase addresses practical responsibilities like housing, transportation, and internet service. It is important to be aware of the emotional undercurrents accompanying these responsibilities.

Extended Arrival (3-6 months) Preparation: This phase sees missionaries exploring life in their home country, navigating ongoing adjustment, and settling in. Challenges may persist despite time passing, inviting reflection on overall well-being, family dynamics, career trajectory, and how to manage continued reverse culture shock.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding your return, you may grapple with the complexities of leaving behind your life overseas. You may exhibit a range of behaviors indicative of trauma responses, including fight responses by asserting control over your circumstances, fleeing from overwhelming emotions, freezing by looking like you are in indecision, or engaging in fawning behaviors to appease others. Being aware of these normal responses is essential in finding effective support during this transitional phase.

During the initial Return season, consider the following strategies:

  • Find a comprehensive checklist outlining essential tasks and considerations for preparing to return home. This checklist should encompass logistical arrangements, emotional preparedness, and strategies for self-care. Check out our free checklist here.
  • Beware of circumstances surrounding your departure so that you can ensure that you receive the assistance needed to navigate the complexities of re-entry effectively.
  • Foster awareness of the first re-entry season among other missionaries and support networks. This way you can better anticipate and address the challenges that arise in this season.
  • Create environments that validate your re-entry experiences.

Starting with these tips will help ensure that the journey to your home country can be done with confidence. 

Season 2: Restore (Navigating the Space in Between)

The Restore phase follows the initial adjustments of re-entry, representing a crucial period. This season involves navigating space between two life chapters and may span from a few years to a lifetime if not addressed.

During Restore, you may confront a range of emotions and experiences, including ambiguity, waiting, and uncertainty. Particularly important to address during this season are family dynamics, career shifts, and overall well-being. 

This phase presents unique challenges, such as supporting children through their adjustment and navigating shifts in faith. If done well, it can prompt spiritual growth while addressing unprocessed emotions, trauma, or even positive life changes.

Navigating this transitional phase involves a fluctuating journey, marked by moments of feeling stuck and longing for clarity, especially when neither the overseas nor passport culture feels entirely familiar. Questions about identity, purpose, and belonging may arise, prompting individuals to grapple with their new realities and search for their place in their communities.

Taking a trauma-informed approach to the Restore season is vital, considering that you may be wrestling with hidden traumas during this phase. Common trauma events observed during this season include: 

Acute trauma, which stems from one-time events like theft or accident.

Compound trauma, which arises from insufficient time to process between smaller transitions or smaller one-time events.

Survivor’s Guilt, which occurs when a person survives an event or leaves others to fend for themselves (this happened during the pandemic, especially if the worker had to leave national friends and coworkers behind). 

Moral Injury, which occurs when individuals have to act against their values, such as breaking laws to achieve certain objectives or witnessing others do so.

Unresolved childhood attachment issues, which lead individuals to feel unsafe or insecure.

It is imperative to be in a supportive environment where you feel empowered to address these parts of your journey in this season. 

During the transitional Restore season, consider the following strategies:

  • Adopt a holistic view of well-being and recognize all areas of physical, emotional, and spiritual health.
  • Be a part of a supportive community where you can find understanding and encouragement. Check out our Restore groups. 
  • Address traumas effectively. A team of counselors or coaches specializing in re-entry trauma, older couples, pastors, or organizations familiar with the re-entry space can all be helpful here.

It’s crucial to create a supportive environment where missionaries feel empowered to address trauma and to work from a post-traumatic growth model effectively as part of their journey toward restoration and healing during the Restore season.

Season 3: Rebuild (Developing the Next Step)

The Rebuild season marks a significant shift in how we spend our time, being able to move beyond the hard places, trauma, or liminal space that held us in a Restore season. This is when our brains shift out of survival mode, allowing us to move forward with openness and curiosity. We integrate past experiences, accepting the present while still allowing space for grief. It is also a time to embrace the future with hope.

Key areas of focus during the Rebuild season include cultivating cultural awareness, unfolding one’s faith journey, and embracing growth and transformation. By reflecting on your re-entry journey, leveraging your international experiences, setting new goals and aspirations, and embracing change and adaptability, you can step into a future filled with purpose and fulfillment in your passport country. 

During the Rebuild season, our attention shifts towards narrative development within the post-traumatic growth model. Utilizing resources such as re-entry workbooks and seeking guidance from coaches or trusted friends, individuals can explore their new values and motivations, recognizing both their strengths and areas for growth. Through the process of crafting a new purpose statement and adopting a forward-thinking mindset, you can actively shape your new narrative to cultivate growth and resilience.

During the Rebuild season, consider the following strategies:

  • Explore your renewed purpose and possibly consider further education or training to align with your values to foster a profound sense of purposeful living. You can also join a Rebuild group.
  • Engage in meaningful work or ministry opportunities, which offer avenues for personal and professional growth.
  • Explore new avenues of service, whether through pursuing new job opportunities or engaging in cross-cultural ministry endeavors. 
  • Foster connections within the community, whether through church involvement, professional networks, or volunteer opportunities, as this is essential for building strong support systems and facilitating a smooth transition during re-entry. 

As you start the Rebuild season, you can embrace new opportunities and navigate this transformative phase with confidence and purpose.

You Don’t Have to Go Through Re-entry Alone

As we wrap up our series, remember that you’re not alone in this journey. My consulting company’s new Re-entry program is dedicated to providing resources for each season of your re-entry journey. Whether you’re navigating a season of Return, Restore, or Rebuild, we’re here to equip you with the tools and insights needed to support yourself or others through the re-entry process. From comprehensive digital courses to engaging in small group discussions, we offer a space where you can find understanding, connection, and support. Our team of experienced coaches is ready to walk alongside you, offering guidance and encouragement every step of the way.

If you’re part of an organization with a member care program, consider how you can further support your missionaries by becoming a trained re-entry coach yourself. And if you know someone who could benefit from our resources and community, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Our supportive community is continually growing, so whether you’re planning your return to your passport country, you are still in the process of transitioning back, or you are seeking guidance in retirement, we’re here to assist you. We would love to help you navigate this journey. 

Not sure what season of re-entry you are in? Sign up to take the free quiz.

Our next groups start April 25th and May 3rd. 

Connect with more re-entry resources at shonnaingram.com/resources.

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to post-trauma care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent eight years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to four amazing adults.

Beyond Reverse Culture Shock Part 2: A Case Study of the Three Seasons of Re-entry

by Shonna Ingram

In this second installment of our three-part series on Beyond Reverse Culture Shock (read Part 1 here), I will share a case study to explore the complexities of the three seasons of re-entry. To review:

Season 1 (Return) encompasses the nine months prior to departure from the field and the initial six months upon arrival in the home country.

Season 2 (Restore) spans approximately six months to two years after arrival and encapsulates the space between the overseas missionary experience and the transition to what comes next.

Season 3 (Rebuild) extends approximately from two to five years after returning and entails living out the next phase of one’s life and determining how to show up in this new reality.

Throughout this article, we’ll follow the journey of Sarah as she journeys through each of these seasons, and we’ll look at the challenges and growth she experienced along the way. 

Sarah’s Life on the Field 

Sarah and her husband started on their missionary journey accompanied by their four children, ranging in age from four to nine, and headed to East Africa. Despite Sarah’s background in social work and psychology, which led her to take on the role of on-field care facilitator for their branch, they encountered challenges soon after they arrived. 

In their daily work, these challenges included navigating the complex team dynamics of a young team and wrestling with a partnering organization. As their responsibilities expanded, it became increasingly clear that their primary mission was to hope and pray the new missionaries would return for their second term. 

Living four hours away from quality medical care, Sarah became proficient in managing frequent health issues like malaria and stomach illnesses. They grappled with regular water and power outages, in addition to dealing with multiple missing items which Sarah knew had been stolen. They faced the unexpected deaths of a few national team members and a house helper due to AIDS. 

The trust in any security that she once had no longer was there. It was all so draining. Despite receiving feedback from a missionary care psychologist who indicated the unhealthy nature of their position, Sarah felt compelled to continue, sensing that they had no other choice. Their hearts were burdened for the new missionaries, and they felt responsible for taking care of them.

Amidst these daily challenges were moments of success, such as helping their house girl start her own business and launching ten Bible translation projects.

Sarah’s Pre-departure 

As they approached the five-year mark, her husband said that it was time to go on home assignment and explained that they needed to decide if they were going to return to the field. Sarah found herself hesitant to leave, feeling they had only scratched the surface of their mission. However, it soon became clear that returning to the States was their next step. 

Since they knew in advance that they were leaving their overseas ministry, they followed re-entry book recommendations on how to leave well. They also secured new positions at their international headquarters in the States. Despite feeling somewhat broken yet functional and still in need of a break, they felt like they left the field well.

Sarah’s Arrival (Return)

The first six months started with navigating the housing market, including multiple failed attempts at securing a suitable home due to bidding wars and undisclosed issues. The season was full of stress. They had to find everything that a family of six would need to feel settled, like beds and a car that would hold them all. They made multiple trips to supporting churches explaining their new ministry and the need for more financial support because it was more expensive to live in America.

A few months after they started paying their mortgage, their largest church and individual supporter thanked them for their service in Africa and abruptly discontinued their support. This added to an already fragile state which put a strain on her marriage and her children’s attitudes. 

Reverse Culture Shock in many other areas of life set in and started a downward spiral of not being able to keep it all together. Sarah started having unexplained physical symptoms (beyond the normal perimenopause symptoms that most women feel during their 40s) which she knew were from unprocessed experiences from their time on the field.

Despite a year of fundraising efforts, disappointing results occurred, with discouraging remarks like “You work in the States now; why doesn’t your organization provide your salary?” and “Get a real job and support your family.” These experiences only added more questions about God’s presence, her identity, and her relationship with the church. 

Then one day they received an email from their organization stating that they didn’t have enough funds in their account to get a salary that month. After doing everything she knew to do, she was done with missions and very angry with God for not providing and protecting her and her family even as they tried desperately to do the right thing. They had given up everything to move across the world, and this is what they get? This intensified Sarah’s emotional and physical pain, culminating with bouts of pneumonia and eventually being diagnosed with an auto-immune disease.  

It became evident that their return season consisted of two distinct parts: While they managed the pre-departure phase fairly easily, it wasn’t until they arrived that they found themselves not being able to get out of survival mode, since they could not even get their basic needs met. 

Sarah’s In-Between Season (Restore) 

A few years later, as she continued to navigate a season of uncertainty, Sarah was introduced to the study of trauma. It was there she recognized its grip on her—feeling trapped in a constant cycle of fight or flight, numbing out, and being easily triggered by seemingly insignificant events. 

Her journey into trauma recovery led her to confront her heart wounds. She learned how to face loss head-on and to address feelings of disappointment and resentment stemming from past experiences, including things that happened before she went to the field. Engaging in the practice of lament over past hurts, she began the journey of forgiveness, extending it to others, herself, and God.

This shift marked the beginning of her path toward healing and hope, transforming her approach from merely doing work for God to partnering with Him. This part of the healing journey wasn’t a one-time event but a lifestyle change of healing and growth.

In addition, Sarah began healing her body through specific somatic exercises and nervous system regulation techniques. Furthermore, she learned how trauma impacts brain chemistry and how the brain can rewire itself. Armed with this knowledge, she navigated the connections between her heart, mind, and body, fostering a deeper sense of self-awareness. 

A few years later, looking back on her re-entry journey, she realized that if she had known this information earlier, her recovery might have been quicker. As she shared her story and spoke with others going through similar transitions, she found that many could relate. Seeing the value in her own journey of healing, she felt motivated to assist others on their path to recovery.

Navigating the phase “in-between” two life chapters often entails moments of feeling stuck and a strong desire for clarity, especially when struggling to fully adjust to either the overseas context or the passport culture. Nearly everyone I’ve worked with has experienced at least a few days in this in-between season, but some people get stuck in this season. Additionally, during this phase, questions about identity, purpose, and belonging may arise, prompting individuals to wrestle with their new realities and seek their place within their communities.

Sarah’s New Narrative (Rebuild)

Driven by her passion for helping others heal, she immersed herself in various trauma recovery trainings. Through those trainings, she noticed a significant gap in available resources for those in the church and missions world. 

At the beginning of 2020, she created a new post-traumatic growth program for churches. Later that year, she was asked to help her organization establish a re-entry program. Eager to contribute, she created new resources specifically for returning missionaries. Other organizations worldwide started reaching out to her as they saw what she was doing to help missionaries return well. This led her to create a new organization geared toward those on the re-entry journey. She is now able to impact more lives than she ever did while she was on the mission field.

The Rebuild Season signifies new beginnings, offering an opportunity to reevaluate our contributions to the ongoing narrative of ministry. It’s not a one-time event but a continuous journey of growth and hope, where we discover our evolving purpose and embrace the next chapter of our ministry.

If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it is mine. I am Sarah.

In the next article, we will look at trauma-informed care in each season of the re-entry journey.

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to post-trauma care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent eight years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to four amazing adults.

Beyond Reverse Culture Shock Part 1: Trauma-Informed Care for the Re-entry Journey

by Shonna Ingram

As I stepped off the plane at Houston International Airport with my husband and four children between the ages of 9 and 14, my thoughts were all over the place. We thought we were ready for the next season. A little broken, sure. A little uncertain sure, but isn’t that what God called us to? 

We had read a re-entry book that guided us in ending our overseas service well, which led me to believe this next chapter shouldn’t be too difficult, since we had only been overseas for five years. However, the months and years that followed show a different story that I hope to never repeat. That was over ten years ago, and nothing has been the same since. 

Navigating the Changing Mission Landscape

The missionary care landscape experienced a significant change with the sudden onset of the pandemic, particularly impacting missionaries who had to unexpectedly return from their field. Missionaries found themselves forced to leave their country of service within 24 hours’ notice—a situation seldom witnessed in recent history, if ever. Even before the pandemic, there was a notable trend of missionaries returning home due to factors such as visa complications, burnout, or health issues affecting themselves or a family member. 

Additionally, there has been a noticeable shift in the duration of missionary service, with many individuals opting for shorter overseas assignments, deviating from the traditional model of long-term commitments. As someone closely involved in a Bible translation organization, where projects typically span several decades, this evolving trend has prompted concerns and reflections. 

I found myself pondering these trends. Are these changes viewed as failures or simply a natural progression within the missionary journey? These reflections led to further questions about the preparation and support available for returning missionaries.

Throughout this series, we will delve into the re-entry journey across three key seasons, exploring its impact on missionaries and offering practical insights for navigating this critical phase of the missionary sending process.

Defining Re-entry

At first glance, re-entry is simply the process of returning to one’s passport country after a period of overseas service, whether returning from a short mission trip or ending a lifelong career as an overseas worker. No matter how long you live overseas, it does something deep within you. However, for those who have at one time dedicated their lives to overseas Christian service, re-entry can be a confusing and complicated season.

It is also important to note that re-entry comes in two forms: planned returns and unplanned returns. Planned returns can often be marked by the completion of a project, retirement, or at least entering into the season knowing that they will be returning to their home country after a period of overseas service. It may entail celebratory send-offs and opportunities for reflective gatherings to honor the missionary’s service. Many resources are available to aid missionaries in this initial phase of re-entry, through books, articles, and checklists focusing on ensuring a successful conclusion to their on-field service.

On the other hand, unplanned returns are a different type of return. These unexpected departures can stem from various reasons, such as health concerns affecting the missionary or their family, marital crises, visa complications, or unforeseen global events like pandemics. Missionaries facing these unplanned returns require a different approach and guidance in navigating the re-entry process.

Regardless of the circumstances surrounding the return, the re-entry journey is not merely a physical relocation but a transition that affects emotional, psychological, and spiritual dimensions and can be a complex experience that demands careful attention and support. 

Understanding the Re-entry Journey

During the pandemic, I had the privilege of being part of an organizational think tank tasked with establishing a re-entry program. My involvement stemmed from my expertise in crisis and trauma support, career development, spiritual formation, and my own re-entry journey struggles. We wanted to comprehensively understand the journey of returning missionaries and identify strategies to facilitate their transition.

Our initial inquiries revolved around the difference in experiences among returning missionaries. Why do some navigate the re-entry journey more easily, while others find it profoundly challenging? We then conducted interviews and focus groups, soliciting feedback on what helped, what didn’t, and what could have been beneficial during different phases of the process.

Then I went one step further and took into account the SAMHSA definition of trauma, which states:

Trauma arises from an event, series of events, or circumstances that an individual experiences as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening. This trauma can have lasting adverse effects on various aspects of a person’s well-being, including their mental health, physical health, emotional health, social well-being, and spiritual well-being.

One glaring observation emerged: while existing resources predominantly catered to those experiencing expected returns, we were experiencing a significant number of missionaries facing unexpected circumstances around their return. Moreover, we identified a progression through a few distinct stages.

We distilled the missionary re-entry journey into five key phases which I turned into three key seasons:

  • Season 1 (Return) encompasses the nine months prior to departure from the field and the initial six months upon arrival in the home country.
  • Season 2 (Restore) spans approximately six months to two years after arriving and encapsulates the space between the overseas missionary experience and the transition to what comes next.
  • Season 3 (Rebuild) extends approximately two to five years after returning where they integrate their overseas time into their next life season.

Note: It’s crucial to recognize that these stages are fluid and not strictly bound by timelines. External factors such as marital issues or health concerns can indeed impact the progression through these stages, potentially causing delays or requiring additional attention and support. While we’ve outlined approximate timelines for each stage, it’s important to acknowledge that individual experiences may vary, and flexibility is key in navigating the re-entry journey effectively.

By reframing the re-entry process through the lens of these stages (which I prefer to call seasons), we gain a more nuanced understanding of the challenges and opportunities on the journey. This approach allows us to anticipate and address the unique needs of returning missionaries more effectively and to facilitate smoother transitions.

In the next article, we will take a deeper look at the three seasons of re-entry through the use of a case study.

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to post-trauma care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent eight years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to four amazing adults.

I’d like a refund for this cup of suffering

by Elizabeth Vahey Smith

“It’s not fair,” I whined in the backseat of the car, my sister next to me.
“It’s not fair,” I moped from the end of the line.
“It’s not fair,” I mourned, overlooked for a role I wanted.
“It’s not fair,” I gasped, taking the fall.
“It’s not fair,” I wailed, watching everything I’d built fall apart.

“But look at what God is doing through this,” they point.
“It’s not fair,” I say again.

I think it’s just awful that wonderful things come out of terrible things. I hate that you have to bury seeds for them to bloom. I hate that pearls come from irritants. I hate that delicious strawberries come from fields fertilized in manure. And I hate all of those things because I hate that post-traumatic wisdom only comes from going through tragedies.

Yeah, I guess if you have to go through hard things, it’s nice that something good can come from it. But why do we have to go through hard things to have the good things that come after?

I can point to the traumas and tragedies that have brought me to a place of being able to weave words into stories that present hard truths in soft ways. I cherish the times people tell me how these words altered the trajectory of their homes in ways that brought them closer to the unconditional love of the Father. But surely there is another way to learn this wisdom and pass it on?

Everything is possible for you, Father.
Take this cup of suffering from me.

And thus begins a sacred journey.

We all know that life’s not fair, but it makes it a bit easier to not have to go it alone. To know that the Lord has gone before us even in this. To know that the journey through unfair trauma and tragedy can take us to glorious destinations. To know that we have a comforter, a counselor, and a light to guide our path. 

I have a journey before me, but I’m standing at the front desk with a complaint, “Excuse me, sir, I specifically asked that this cup would be taken from me. And yet, behold, still there is a cup. I would like this to be rectified.” And Jesus comes alongside me to guide me. “Yet not what I will, but what you will,” He coaches me.

“I’m sorry, what?!” I’m doing double-takes as Jesus leads me forward on the journey. I am a reluctant follower. But I follow, nonetheless, and I see how the path I walk is neither new nor novel but a well-worn road.

My soul has been overwhelmed with sorrow.
I have felt betrayed.
I have stood silent against accusations.
I’ve had friends abandon me.
I’ve experienced pain.
I’ve had tragedy happen.
I’ve survived it.

But it’s interesting, isn’t it? That’s not the end. The story, the journey, it isn’t over yet. Jesus isn’t yet at the right hand of God, and I have no wisdom to offer anyone yet.

It seems that after the death of Christ, we stop focusing on his humanity. We talk extensively about the agony of the cross, which makes sense because all four of the Gospel writers draw us into this tragedy. The curtain is torn. Darkness falls. And the focus shifts from Jesus to the perspective of those left behind. That makes sense for the Gospels. What was Jesus doing at this point? We hear about the work of Jesus conquering Death in the epistles, but his followers didn’t know these things.

Even on Easter morning, the focus doesn’t shift back to Jesus. We continue to follow the story of the women and the disciples. Jesus just appears and disappears until he finally ascends. That’s how the authors wrote their gospels, so it makes sense that we would follow along that way. 

We receive so many emotion words from the women and the disciples. I can imagine Luke interviewing people and hearing from their perspective, “We were so frightened; we thought he was a ghost. Even when we saw he wasn’t a ghost, we still couldn’t believe it. We were amazed and overjoyed” (Luke 24:37-41). How was Jesus feeling during this? The eye-witnesses were too gobsmacked to notice and give account. 

Thus, the sacred journey continues. 

My eyes fixed on Jesus; I see how my journey overlays His.
I’m aching and weary.
The moment of trauma is over, yet my body is still on high alert.
My skin feels electrified. Every brush of my own clothes sears my skin.
I feel like my back’s been flayed.
And I look toward Jesus.
I don’t know how his back is doing, but the wounds of his hands and his side are still gaping.
Honestly, it’s a miracle he’s even alive.

We each come across a couple of our friends, but they don’t recognize us.
Our friends recount our own story to us, but they totally miss the point.
I’m furious and think, “How foolish you are!” (Luke 24:25)
I explain to my friends, and He explains to His, in a way that they don’t miss the point.
And then Jesus walks away.
 
“No, no, no,” I call him back. “These are our friends, our people.”
I’m clinging to what I know.
He keeps walking until his friends urge him to stay, even though they still don’t recognize him.
It’s like he wants me to be willing to walk away from people I’ve grown away from.
I’m not ready for this lesson.

When he comes back, I’m glad.
I watch them eat together.
In the common monotony of everyday life, his friends finally recognize him.
But it’s only two people.

It happens again.
Different people. More cherished friends.
They don’t understand what’s happened either.
“You’ve changed,” they tell me.
“Why are you troubled? Look at me. It’s me!” I implore them.
My words echo His, as Jesus tries to convince his friends he’s not a ghost.
They believe: we’re each still who we are.
Now what?

“Do you have anything to eat?” Jesus asks.
He invites us back into the common monotony of everyday life.
We eat, we talk, we tell the story again.
It’s hard to tell every time.

The hardest part is reconciliation, so I hang back and watch.
Jesus comes to Peter.
Peter recognizes him and dives off the boat to greet him. Classic Peter.
Jesus invites them to eat.
I take notes. Always start with food. It brings people together.
Three times, Jesus asks Peter if he loves Him.
I’m thankful for this interchange.
I don’t have to be content with one apology and be expected to get over it.
I can request reassurances in proportion with the damage rendered.

Finally comes the conclusion.
Finally comes the ascension.
Finally the journey ends. 

Trauma is like any other story. It’s got a setting and rising action before the conflict and climax. And it ends with cleaning up all the leftover messes. Often the leftover messes of a trauma are the relationships: reconnecting, repairing, reconciling, and settling back into normal rhythms. This is a hard part of trauma that is often overlooked. Many times this hard part takes a lot longer than we expect. 

In this time following Resurrection Sunday and leading up to Ascension Sunday, we hold sacred the long journey through trauma and tragedy to the good that God has in store for us: the wisdom that these experiences give us. And as much as I cherish that wisdom and the goodness God has for us through the hard things, I’m going to stay mad about the awfulness of how this broken world functions. I can do both. 

I refuse to get over how awful it is that good things come from hard things. 

I will hold this space for those of you still in the early stages of your journey, for those of you banging your fists on the front desk, demanding a refund for this cup of suffering, insisting that it’s not fair. I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.” 

For those of you further along who are activated and who feel disconnected from their communities, who wonder why it had to happen like this, who wonder why it’s not getting easier in the wake of tragedy, I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.” 

For those of you who have seen the beautiful things that the Lord has wrought out of the awful things you’ve lived through, who are turning back and grieving for themselves that they ever had to endure that, I’m here to say, “You’re right! It’s not fair! And most importantly! You’re not alone.”

And I can point out to you the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He walked with me through the valley of the shadow of death, and He will walk with you.

It seems agonizingly unfair that much of wisdom, strength, and personal growth comes from difficult and painful journeys. Not just the hardship, but the recovery, coming back to people and them not recognizing you, being met with doubt, and having to convince people of the journey you’ve been on. 

In this season, we remember the sacredness of this journey, a trauma-versary that changed the world forever. The Lord has gone before us. But moreover, he goes alongside us, today, at whatever stage of the journey we’re in. 

Trauma doesn’t make us stronger, but continuing onward through the hard things toward healing does. 

And I hate that for us. 

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Elizabeth Vahey Smith is a TCK mom who spent 5 years in Papua New Guinea as a missionary. Now her family explores the globe full-time as worldschoolers. Elizabeth works remotely as the COO for TCK Training, traveling often for work and always for pleasure. She is the author of The Practice of Processing: Exploring Your Emotions to Chart an Intentional Course. Follow her travels on Instagram @elizabeth.vaheysmith and @neverendingfieldtrip. Learn more about research-based preventive care for TCKs @tcktraining.

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

How to Start Healing From Trauma: The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field Part 3

by Shonna Ingram

In part one of this series on trauma, I explained what trauma is and what it does to us. In part two, I told you about James’s story. As we think about his story, we notice that he is not in this situation because of one big, traumatic event. Instead, it was small experiences that piled on top of each other that he wasn’t able to process (although there were some big ones in there too).

James was stuck, and he knew it. When people like James come to me for help, I don’t tell them to “just pray about it.” They’ve often heard advice like that before, and it usually isn’t helpful. Instead, I take people on a recovery journey. This journey is not linear, but rather an opportunity to reflect, create, and grow in an ongoing process. 

As I said earlier, there isn’t one single therapy or modality that will heal the layers of trauma we see in this story. On different parts of the trauma recovery journey, James will need different interventions and approaches.

 

Laying the Foundation

We start trauma healing by integrating the brain, heart, and body. To do this, we need an approach that connects mental health principles with a Biblical framework. 

We need an evidence-based approach. The first rule in mental health is to “do no harm.” To help with that, we need researched and proven tools to use throughout the healing journey. But more than that, we need compassion and people to come alongside us in our season of trauma recovery. 

Trauma recovery is not linear. Healing is more of a mending process than a single moment, and we need to think of it as a journey. Some days everything will be fine; other days we will find ourselves triggered for no reason. This is normal, and we need to create space for these ups and downs. With a story like James’s where there isn’t one big event, it’s not always clear what the traumas are. We have to be patient while we figure it out. 

Allow the Holy Spirit to work. We acknowledge that Jesus heals people’s trauma. This isn’t meant to over-spiritualize the process; even secular trauma training holds to the idea that there is something bigger than us out in the universe.

 

Steps for Healing

Before beginning the six steps outlined in this section, it’s important to make sure you are surrounded by people who will support your rebuilding process.

 

1. See where you are. 

If you think you might have experienced a traumatic event, the first step is to get out of the crisis. Think about how the Red Cross or Samaritan’s Purse meets people’s physical needs or about the first level of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: water, food, and shelter. Psychological First Aid (PFA) material is a good place to start. (I also recommend the Trauma Healing Institute’s Beyond Disaster material.) 

 

2. Pay attention not only to the things you are saying but also how you are reacting to things.

In the last article I gave examples of some trauma reactions (Fight, Flight, Freeze, and Fawn). You can think through the different types of trauma you may have experienced (Acute, Chronic, Secondary, Childhood Abuse or Abandonment, Moral Injury, Survivor’s Guilt, Loss of Identity, Compound Grief) and ask whether Order, Justice, or Self Value has been lost because of what happened.

 

3. Become familiar with the stages of grief.

Understand the different stages of grief. In 1969, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross popularized the five common stages of grief. They include: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

 

4. Find safe places.

Find someone who will hold your emotional, relational, and situational stories. Safe places should make space for: 

  • Normalizing what is happening. For example, I told James that if I had gone through the same thing he did, I would have felt the same way. 
  • Listening without judgment. 
  • Reflecting back what you are saying. 
  • Discerning with you. This might look like them praying with and for you and bringing your feelings and emotions to Jesus.

 

5. Reach out to a professional counselor, trauma-informed mental health coach, or trauma-informed spiritual director. 

Hopefully you will have a list of vetted mental health professionals that you can reach out to if your needs go beyond what a friend or leader can provide. This is what James needed as part of his recovery from his childhood attachment issues. He went through a series of EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) appointments. 

Note: EMDR is one possibility of getting to some of the roots of trauma. Brainspotting (my training), Internal Family Systems (IFS), Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), tapping, and Somatic Therapy (grounding and breathwork) are other methods used in trauma therapy. I have also seen healing through healing prayer sessions with a prayer minister. It depends on the season and what you are most comfortable with. Ask your therapist, coach, or spiritual director what method they use. 

 

6. Lastly, for ongoing recovery to take place, you need to get involved in a trauma-informed community.

When I was studying trauma recovery, I kept coming across the idea of small groups. A small group allows people to share their stories and see that they aren’t alone. That is why Alcoholics Anonymous and Celebrate Recovery programs are so successful. 

I saw a great need for these types of conversations in the missions community and was asked by many of my therapist friends to start something like that. So I created the Renewed Hope Approach, a year-long trauma-informed recovery group that walks people through the three stages of trauma recovery. The groups spend time sharing their pain and talking about common topics like theology of suffering, grief processing, and forgiveness. 

During the pandemic I was able to field test these groups, and I’m happy to announce that they are now open to the public. In these communities we focus on:

Stage 1: Grief, Loss, and Forgiveness (I call this stage Restore.)

Stage 2: Finding Your Renewed Purpose (I call this stage Receive.) 

Stage 3: Growing in Hope (I call this stage Rebuild.)

Each stage connects the brain, heart, and body by telling our story (brain), engaging in expressive therapies like art and prayer (heart), and engaging in body work practices like grounding and breathing exercises (body). The purpose of all these exercises is to reconnect with God, others, and ourselves. These activities, especially in combination, help facilitate our healing.  

 

Wrapping Up James’s Story 

James has come a long way since I first met him a few years ago. Most days he is in Stage 3 (Rebuild). Not every day is perfect, and there are times that he has to go back to Stage 1 (Restore) to spend some time reflecting on another loss or forgiving someone (or himself) for something that happened. But he did start a Master’s in theology and psychology and is looking to help his organization with missionary care. He processed his wounds and decided he wanted to help others, and that is the final stage of trauma recovery: helping others.

 

You are Invited

Maybe your story is as big and complex as James’s story. Or maybe you just need a place to be seen and heard or are interested in taking preventive measures. Maybe you want to process a series of losses or are wondering if you’re dealing with secondary trauma. 

Or perhaps after reading these articles, you find yourself wanting to help others in their season of trauma recovery.

You can find out when the next group or training starts on my website. I would love for you to join us.

My hope for you is that you don’t just take this information and put it on a back shelf. I hope this series will help you see more clearly what is happening within yourself and within the missions community. And I hope you learned that help is available when you need it. 

If you need help discerning your next step, my team and I are only an email or small group away, and we would love to help you on your healing journey. You can check out our groups and trainings at shonnaingram.com

 

Additional Resources

EMDR

Brainspotting

IFS Institute

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Missionaries 

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Shonna Ingram is the founder and director of the Renewed Hope Approach, a program that provides a practical approach to Post Trauma Care. She’s been in ministry for over 20 years and spent 8 years in Africa as a missionary. Shonna is a Board Certified Master Trauma-Informed Mental Health Coach specializing in career, self-development, and spiritual formation, and she has trained hundreds of people in over 30 countries to integrate mental health into a biblical framework. Her heart for people in the re-entry season led her to create her second series, Your Re-Entry Path, as a way for them to figure out their next season, whether inside or outside of vocational ministry. She is mom to 4 amazing adults.