What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 2: Support that Lessens the Impact of Witnessed Trauma

In my previous post (What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 1: The Impact of Witnessed Trauma), I shared data from TCK Training’s latest white paper (Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods) along with wisdom from many A Life Overseas authors. As we sifted through information on what can be a difficult topic, we kept in mind these two key points:

  1. We are not comparing the experiences of missionary kids to a theoretical ‘perfect’ childhood they could have had elsewhere.
  1. Not every potentially traumatic event is experienced as trauma by each individual.

This means that often there is no clear ‘right’ answer; different people (different families, different children) will need different things. Setting blanket rules is unlikely to address every situation. Instead, we are going to talk about principles.

My last post included four suggestions for ways we can support families, and in this post I will expand these ideas with practical tips and more wisdom from the ALO team. 

  1. Protect children where possible.
  2. Fight the normalisation of trauma.
  3. Provide support to both parents and children.
  4. Continue support after they leave the field.

Protect children where possible

Knowing that witnessing potentially traumatic events is linked to increased risk should cause us to think carefully about taking our children to places where this can occur.

Part of determining field suitability should include a careful assessment of the level of trauma, including witnessed trauma, likely to occur in the location. If the risk is high, additional supports should be in place. If traumatic events end up happening frequently, a change of location may be warranted. 

How do we make these momentous decisions? Anna Hampton’s thoughts on Risk and the Cross Cultural Worker are so helpful here: “A theology of suffering asks a different question than a theology of risk asks. When I was a young mom facing daily threats of all kinds but especially kidnapping and murder, I needed to be able to evaluate what God was calling me and my children to that day. We hadn’t suffered the reality of kidnapping, but we were facing the risk of it. So how was I to think, to process my emotions, hear God’s voice, and then make a decision on what I was to do?” 

A lot in life cannot be predicted, including how individuals will react to and cope with potentially traumatic events. Flexibility and a willingness to change plans is important – in life generally, but especially in high risk areas. Sometimes a location changes from low risk to high risk very suddenly. Sometimes a single event changes how individuals within a family feel about their emotional and/or physical safety. 

Being willing to sacrifice our plans in order to protect children is crucial. If we sacrifice children in order to continue the plans we had made, there is something wrong with our priorities.

I love how Kay Bruner writes about this in Ask A Counselor: No Child Soldiers, No Child Sacrifice: “We are not called to deliberately – or carelessly – traumatize our children for God’s sake. When traumatic events occur, we should be the first ones at our child’s side bringing care, concern, and healing…Please don’t take your children into active danger, thinking that this will somehow make you a better kind of Christian.” 

Fight the normalisation of trauma

Just because something happens regularly does not mean it is normal. When potentially traumatic events happen regularly, we must actively fight against them being seen as ‘normal.’

Whatever happens regularly during your childhood becomes your normal. Children can adapt to anything – including, sadly, horrible abuse and devastating traumas. Believing these events are ‘normal’ does not, however, stop them from affecting a child’s psyche. This means that in order to process the impact of the abuse and/or trauma they have suffered, an individual must first recognise that what they went through was not normal. 

Many missionary kids normalise abusive and/or traumatic events they experience during childhood – to the point of not mentioning them to adults in their lives, including their parents. This is something we see over and over again at TCK Training, when Adult TCKs dismiss dramatic events and inappropriate behaviour from others as potential sources of trauma because “that was normal where I grew up” or “that happened to everyone.”

Adults in their lives unwittingly contribute to this every time we downplay things that make children feel uncomfortable or unsafe. In addition, while phrases like “Don’t worry, this is normal here” or “You’ll get used to it after a while” may be intended to comfort, they instead teach children to ignore their feelings because what is common is normal. We think that by putting on a happy face, we can make a scary situation okay, but we’re wrong. 

Anna Glenn writes about the problem of pasting a smile over pain in Toxic Positivity in Missions: “Toxic positivity is a reaction that stems from fear and shame rather than faith. It focuses on self-reliance to ‘power through’ and create or shine our own light rather than calling us to step into the light through surrender to the one true God. Toxic positivity is a shallow substitute for the hope of the gospel and a genuine relationship with Christ.” 

Instead, we all need to be brave enough to sit with difficult emotions and to sit with children and young people experiencing difficult emotions. We need to call out the wrongness in our world, even when it happens frequently around us. We need to acknowledge that witnessing potentially traumatic events is evidence of the brokenness of this world – not something to dismiss, but something to mourn. It is something that impacts us, and even the smallest child, on a soul level – because the world should not be this way. 

“We need to recognize these stressful events as threats to the mental health and stability of international families. When we recognize them as such, we can mobilize to acknowledge and debrief these events.” – Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods

Provide support to both parents and children

We need to think about the entire family unit. Children do not live in isolation, but with parents and caregivers who live in the same environments and therefore are likely witnessing the same or similar potentially traumatic events. They may even have witnessed more events from which they have sheltered their children.

Just because parents are adults does not make them immune to the impact of witnessing traumatic events. On the contrary – the impact of traumatic events flows through them to their children. The whole family needs support when living in environments where traffic accidents and violence are occuring. 

“The stress of bearing witness to trauma is easily brought into the home, impacting family dynamics and parent-child connectedness.”  – Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods

Parents need support to process what they have witnessed so that they can be emotionally available to support their children. Unfortunately, in many cases these occurrences are normalised, and families do not feel they are ‘allowed’ to need or want help to work through witnessing events that happen regularly. Yet regular debriefing (and crisis debriefing when a significant event takes place) should be a key part of how families are cared for to ensure long-term health and thriving for each person. 

When these potentially traumatic events are ignored and families do not receive adequate support, the impacts do not go away over time – they fester. As Abigail Follows writes in The Myth of the Ideal Childhood, “We can think of a trauma as a ‘heart wound’ – a wound that needs tending, otherwise it will get infected – a wound that can heal with the right treatment.”

In addition to targeted support, supportive communities that surround families in these situations are incredibly powerful. As I wrote recently in It takes a village – including for missionary families, “The communities supporting families living abroad are essential to these families’ long-term thriving. If we want to see missionary kids thrive long term, we need more than good parenting advice; we need to be the community these families need.” 

When potentially traumatic events occur regularly, when missionaries and their children see these soul-injuring sights in the course of their daily lives, it takes a toll. Anna Glenn writes poignantly on this in The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries:

“For many missionaries who are serving in underdeveloped nations where hunger, disease, and violence run rampant, the horrors that they have witnessed day in and day out may have grown to be too much. We all know that death and pain are a part of life, but when you see people, people you know and love, dying from easily preventable causes nearly every single week and you see bodies on the side of the road mangled to the point of being unrecognizable, your psyche is forever impacted and sometimes there are just no words.”

Given that these words were written in the content of missionaries who have returned to their passport countries from the field, this leads us to our final point:

Continue support after they leave the field

The impact of witnessed trauma doesn’t end when we leave the environment in which it occurred. Unfortunately, upon leaving the field many missionary families lose the supportive community who understood those experiences. Taking care to support missionary families through the lens of accumulated trauma can make a big difference.

This means acknowledging that what feels safe/unsafe may be different for them – especially for children who grew up in a different environment – and that what triggers unsafe feelings may be different. 

Often this includes exposure to media coverage of other countries, including but not limited to countries where the family lived previously. Lilly Rivera brings up an important point in Reading the News When Crisis Hits: “Reading the news can be a triggering experience if you have gone through traumatic experiences yourself. The injustice, violence, and pain can make you feel paralyzed, angry or really upset.” 

I also appreciate this perspective from adult MK Aneurin Howorth in Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad: “The trauma we carry around as TCKs usually manifests itself through mental illnesses once we are adults. The counselor Lois Bushong says that most TCKs tend to only start going to counseling once they are in their 30’s. I am not yet in my thirties, but already, increasing numbers of my classmates report having mental health issues, almost exclusively struggling from unresolved trauma or grief on the mission field. Being a TCK does not stop when we become adults; both the blessings and the curses will follow us forever.” 

The impact of witnessed trauma does not always manifest immediately; sometimes it is a slow burn, which is why long-term care and support is important. It is also why TCK Training is running research on both the good and hard experiences TCKs had during childhood, as well as their strengths and struggles as adults – we want to know more about the links between these so that we can better support TCKs as they grow. (Learn more about the survey here).

 

Resources referenced:

Risk and the Cross Cultural Worker

Ask A Counselor: No Child Soldiers, No Child Sacrifice

Toxic Positivity in Missions

Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods (TCK Training)

Debriefing Resources (TCK Training)

The Myth of the Ideal Childhood

It takes a village – including for missionary families

The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries

Reading the News When Crisis Hits

Devastating Secrets of Living Abroad

Impact of Childhood Global Mobility on Adult Wellness (TCK Training Survey)

Photo by Transly Translation Agency on Unsplash

What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 1: The Impact of Witnessed Trauma

Trauma. What does this word make you think of? Does it worry you, even scare you? Does it bring to mind certain events from your own life? Have you seen it used so often that it’s beginning to lose meaning for you? 

I found the definition of trauma Shonna Ingram shared in her post The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field: What Trauma Is and What It Does very helpful:

“Trauma results from any event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting negative effects on a person’s mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

Over the years, A Life Overseas has not shied away from difficult topics – including trauma on the mission field and how it impacts missionaries and their children. Together we have written about how to understand trauma and heal from it; specific experiences of trauma and how to process them; the long-term impact of trauma on the field, including on mental health; theology of risk; toxic positivity; moral injury; and more. I have also shared research insights from my work with TCK Training, looking at the experiences of missionary kids and their families over time.

Today I come with new data from TCK Training’s latest white paper (Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods) together with the collected wisdom of A Life Overseas’ authors. I’ll discuss data on potentially traumatic events witnessed by TCKs and reference excellent articles from the A Life Overseas (ALO) library. I’ll list these resources at the end.

Why do we need to talk about trauma?

In TCK Training’s research, which involved over 1,000 missionary kids (MKs), exposure to potentially traumatic events was one of two key risk factors linked to high ACE scores. High ACE scores in turn are linked with increased risk of a range of negative outcomes in adulthood. (The other key risk factor was high mobility, which I wrote about in Mobility is tough on kids: here’s how you can help.)

It’s important to start by recognizing that trauma can, and does, happen everywhere all over the world. Staying in your passport country does not make you immune to trauma, and leaving for the mission field does not guarantee a traumatic outcome. Abigail Follows explained this nicely in The Myth of the Ideal Childhood, where she wrote that “disasters, traumas, and crises happen. They happen everywhere.”

In addition, there is a difference between potential trauma and actual trauma. Witnessing a potentially traumatic event does not mean an individual will necessarily experience it as traumatic.

As Kay Bruner wrote in Ask A Counselor: How Do We Recognize and Cope with Trauma, “The perception that we are helpless in the face of frightening events is one of the foundational pieces of psychological trauma. This helps us understand why some members of a family may be minimally impacted by an event, while others are deeply traumatized.” 

In fact, lack of control means that sometimes children feel a deeper sense of trauma from an event than an adult might in that situation. In other cases, not understanding the full impact of what is happening might mean a child is less impacted. The important point is that we cannot know how each individual will respond, so assumptions are unhelpful.

As we start to look at some difficult numbers together, let’s keep in mind these two pieces of wisdom:

  1. We are not comparing the experiences of missionary kids to a theoretical ‘perfect’ childhood they could have had elsewhere.
  1. Not every potentially traumatic event is experienced as trauma by each individual.

Witnessing Potentially Traumatic Events

The 1,904 ATCKs who took our survey were asked both if they had witnessed a certain type of event at all, and if they had witnessed this ‘regularly.’ The events we asked about included:

  • Extreme poverty
  • Serious traffic accident
  • Armed conflict
  • Traumatic death (human)
  • Traumatic death (animal)
  • Physical violence

86% of missionary kids witnessed at least one of these potentially traumatic events; more than half of missionary kids witnessed potentially traumatic events regularly (53%).

Extreme Poverty

77% of missionary kids reported they had witnessed extreme poverty at least once, and 61% said they witnessed this regularly. Living among those experiencing extreme poverty and knowing you cannot fix it can lead to what Rachel Pieh Jones labelled ‘moral injury.’

In her article on the topic, she writes: “All my high ideals and righteous ambitions lie in tatters at my feet while people around me go hungry and I can never feed them all. When injustice reigns and I don’t protest. When racism rules and I benefit. And that’s just what I’m willing to publicly confess.”

Witnessing extreme poverty was the only item on the above list not linked to higher-than-average risk. That is, MKs who only witnessed extreme poverty (18% of the group) had an ACE risk similar to that seen in the general TCK population.

Serious Traffic Accident

In some countries traffic accidents are more common, and where cars regularly share badly maintained roads with motorcycles (and helmets are not worn), accidents can be particularly traumatic to witness. As Anna Glenn writes in The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries, “[When] you see bodies on the side of the road mangled to the point of being unrecognizable, your psyche is forever impacted and sometimes there are just no words.” 

Three out of every five missionary kids (40%) had witnessed a serious traffic accident by age 18. Nearly a quarter of those (9% of all missionary kids) witnessed serious accidents regularly. 

When originally crafting this survey, we made sure to ask about serious traffic accidents because we’ve seen the impact of ongoing struggles related to witnessed accidents, even when TCKs were not directly involved in the accident themselves. A variety of reactions, including fear, anxiety, nightmares, reluctance to drive/learn to drive, and PTSD, can be involved. 

Witnessing Violence

More than half of missionary kids (59%) witnessed one of the final four types of potentially traumatic events we listed: 

  1. armed conflict
  2. human death
  3. traumatic animal death
  4. physical violence

For the purpose of our survey, we defined armed conflict as “two groups fighting with weapons.” We found that 20% of missionary kids had witnessed armed conflict.

One quarter of missionary kids had witnessed the traumatic death of a person (24%), including 4% who witnessed a murder. They had the same increased ACE risk as those who witnessed armed conflict (28% of the group had high-risk ACE scores). The risk was higher again for MKs who regularly witnessed any kind of human death, with one third of this group having a high ACE score (33%), nearly double the rate for MKs overall. 

In our work with adult TCKs, we have often found that animal death comes up as an event requiring debriefing as it had not been processed effectively at the time it occurred. More than one third of missionary kids (35%) reported witnessing the traumatic death of an animal. Witnessing animal death came with an increased ACE risk, especially when it happened regularly. The risk associated with regularly witnessing traumatic animal death was the same as the risk associated with regularly witnessing human death.

What do we do about this?

Based on the research around trauma, including the data we have on what MKs are experiencing, I have four suggestions about what we should do next. In my next article, I expand on these four ideas with practical suggestions and more quotes from the ALO library: 

  1. Protect children where possible.
  2. Fight the normalisation of trauma.
  3. Provide support to both parents and children.
  4. Continue support after they leave the field.

The Good News

Not all TCKs, and not all missionary kids, witnessed these types of potentially traumatic events. When we review the data on those who were not exposed, we find some wonderful news!

Looking at the missionary kids who did not regularly witness traumatic events, only 9% had a high Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) score (4 or more out of 10), compared to 12.5% of Americans and 17% of MKs overall.

Looking then at missionary kids who did not witness ANY potentially traumatic events, only 6% of recorded 4 or more ACEs – lower than seen in any study we could find in any country using the same question framing.

This is really good news. It suggests that when MKs grow up in environments where they are not witnessing these types of potentially traumatic events, their families are healthier overall. 

Read part two: What Missionary Kids See on the Field Part 2: Support that Lessens the Impact of Witnessed Trauma

Resources referenced:

The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field: What Trauma Is and What It Does

Sources of Trauma in International Childhoods (TCK Training)

Mobility is tough on kids: here’s how you can help

The Myth of the Ideal Childhood

Ask A Counselor: How Do We Recognize and Cope with Trauma

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) (TCK Training)

Moral Injury

The Untold Stories of Returned Missionaries

Photo by Nimrod Persson on Unsplash

 

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. 

~~~~~~~~~~

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 

~~~~~~~~~~

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.

How Trauma Shows Up on the Field: The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field Part 2

by Shonna Ingram

This is the second article in a three-part series about the Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field. Today we will explore the way trauma shows up on the mission field.

As I mentioned in Part 1, the first place we notice trauma is in behaviors and reactions. If you do a google search on trauma reaction, you will probably find the three most common responses to trauma: fight, flight, and freeze.

Fight is usually associated with someone who can’t control their anger.

Flight is usually associated with someone who is running. 

Freeze is usually associated with someone going numb. 

However, there are other ways these reactions show up. 

Fight responses can include angry outbursts, controlling behavior, bullying, narcissistic behavior, explosive behavior.

Flight responses can include workaholism, overthinking, anxiety, panic, OCD, difficulty sitting still, perfectionism.

Freeze responses can include feeling stuck, difficulty making decisions, dissociation, isolation. 

Another way trauma can show up is called Fawning. I have especially seen this in the missions community. The fawning response can be exhibited as a people-pleasing reaction. It might also look like a lack of identity, an inability to set boundaries, a feeling of overwhelm, or codependency. 

Note: Unless you are a mental health professional, this list should not be used as a diagnosis for trauma. Instead, you can use it as a guideline to help identify what could be happening inside you. 

To see how these reactions play out, I’ll share a case study. Let me introduce you to James.*  

James grew up attending his local church. His dad worked long hours as a traveling sales person, and his mother stayed at home. He was the oldest of three siblings, the top basketball player at his local high school, and attended all the church youth group events.

However, there was a family secret. James’s mother drank a lot of alcohol. At home during a binge drinking episode, she would chase after her children with a knife threatening to kill them if they didn’t do what she said. When he was only ten years old, she would leave him in charge of his two siblings for days at a time, with no food in the pantry. Since his dad was often traveling for work, the children might go days without food. No one at church knew what was going on because at church the family acted like everything was fine.  

The summer between his sophomore and junior year was the year James finally got to go on the high school missions trip. He wasn’t particularly excited about going; he just wanted to get away from his family for a few weeks that summer. During his time in Central America, God stirred something inside him, and he felt closer to God than ever before. So he told his youth pastor that he wanted to be a missionary. This decision excited people, which gave him the validation that he so desperately needed at the time. 

But when he returned home from the missions trip, nothing really changed. In fact, for the rest of his time in high school things actually got worse. His mother stayed out for weeks and his dad was around even less. His younger brother started to get into trouble at school, and James became responsible for them.  

Let’s stop the story here. What concerns are you noticing in James’ story? Two overarching themes that I see are abuse and abandonment.

James assumed that leaving home would make these things better, and it did for a while. He attended a Christian college and started his intercultural missions training. He met the love of his life there, and together they joined an internship in West Africa. During their internship there was an unexpected political coup, and although the fighting wasn’t close, James started having panic attacks and nightmares of being beaten and left for dead. He didn’t tell anyone, though, so no one knew that he needed help. He thought leaving Africa would fix it and that everything would be ok. It did for a while.

Five years later James and his wife finished their partnership development and headed to East Asia. They lived in a town, but their ministry was in a village about four hours away. He and his wife had regular first-term stresses which included his wife giving birth to their second child. They didn’t really have anyone to talk to about what was going on, and everyone back home thought they were fine because their newsletters were full of exciting ministry opportunities. But he started getting angry over little things and started working more. He and his wife started fighting for the first time in their marriage.

After two years on the field they came to the States for a required six-month furlough. They had a two-hour administrative debrief with their agency, and they told them they were fine, just tired – although they did mention they could use a weekend away because baby number three was due in two months. 

They returned for their second term with three kids ages three and younger. Things in town were worse this time around. The police were starting to ask for bribes at the checkpoints. If James didn’t pay, he would be interrogated and possibly beaten, so he paid the bribes even though he didn’t feel right about doing so. It was the first time he feared for his family’s safety.

Then one day on the way to the local market he saw a small child being beaten. He was in total shock because he had never seen that kind of thing in his passport country. Giving bribes and watching a child almost die caused him deep guilt and shame. He started shutting down and began staying late at the office. There was a young, national secretary there who listened to him when it seemed like his wife wouldn’t. Fortunately he caught himself before that relationship turned into an emotional affair, but he became mired in even more guilt. 

James was having problems sleeping and started using alcohol as a coping mechanism. He decided that if this was missionary life, he didn’t want any part of it. He couldn’t put a finger on a moment when it all went wrong. He started crying out to God, but God was silent. Why was He allowing this to happen? He started meeting with a friend to talk about what was happening and started feeling better.

Then COVID came. They were close to the epicenter and had to evacuate the country within 24 hours, leaving behind their house church and the friends they had just started discipling after six years of being in the country. He said, “How can I just leave them there? They could all die.” 

Let’s stop the story there. What potentially traumatizing events are you seeing now?

You’re probably seeing quite a few, but I want to point out two possibilities: moral injury and survivor’s guilt.

Moral injury is usually associated with military personnel and can occur in response to acting on or witnessing behaviors that go against an individual’s values and moral beliefs. This causes a deep sense of guilt and shame or what the Trauma Healing Institute calls a “soul wound.” Moral injury showed up when James had to pay bribes and watch a child almost die from being beaten.

The second trauma James experienced is survivor’s guilt. This happens when a person has feelings of guilt because they survived a life-threatening situation when others did not. War veterans, cancer survivors, and yes, even missionaries can all experience this. For James, it was leaving behind their house church and the friends they had just started discipling after six years of being in the country.

Let’s finish the story. When COVID led the family back to the States, little did they know that they were not going to be able to return to East Asia. James felt stuck, overwhelmed, disillusioned, and totally out of control. Because of their evacuation, they couldn’t bring anything back to America, not even his wife’s grandmother’s china, and for him that was the last straw.

He got physically sick and isolated himself. The isolation left him bitter with God for allowing these bad things to happen and not protecting them, and he had no idea what to do. He said, “I thought we were going to live there forever. What do I do now, and who am I now?”

The evacuation experience led to two more potentially traumatic outcomes: cumulative grief and loss of identity

Cumulative grief “is what happens when you do not have time to process one loss before incurring another. The losses come in too rapid a succession for you, the bereaved, to heal from the initial loss.”

Identity loss involvesquestioning your sense of self or identity.” 

James knew in his head that he was supposed to suffer for the kingdom, but this was just too much. At this point, he had lost all hope. 

He didn’t know that he had experienced traumas, but he did know that he had lost his sense of Order, Justice, and Self Value.

Thankfully there are specific steps a global worker can take to process grief and heal from traumatic experiences, and thankfully James reached out for help at this point in his journey. 

The last article in this series will focus on the steps people can take toward healing.

 

*For privacy purposes, James is a composite of several clients. However, his story is representative of the types of trauma that workers on the field endure.

~~~~~~~~ 

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.

The Unseen Trauma of the Mission Field: What Trauma Is and What It Does

by Shonna Ingram

In 2008 my husband and I took our four children to East Africa to serve in a Bible translation project. We didn’t go overseas until our early 30s. We thought that having some life experience would give us a little bit of an advantage over those joining missions right out of college. But my second year, I still cried and highlighted the entire book Expectations and Burnout by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss

Our time overseas had its normal ups and downs plus a few unexpected challenges. When it was time to leave the field, we felt like we left well. However, our re-entry season put me into another season of unmet and unclear expectations which included loss of financial support, physical illness, and a long list of other losses. It was during this season that I realized I was experiencing trauma responses, but I had no idea how that had happened. 

According to my understanding of trauma at the time, I hadn’t experienced trauma. So why was I experiencing trauma responses?

In college, I’d been trained in mental health, so I thought I knew something about trauma. However, back then (in the early 1990s) we weren’t taught about neuroplasticity, and I didn’t know the brain could change. I had been taught that trauma was one bad or terrifying experience that I might never recover from. I couldn’t recall anything like that ever happening to me. 

All I knew was that during my re-entry season, I felt stuck, depressed, and confused. I was in physical pain, and I had lost hope. I couldn’t put a finger on one event that had caused these trauma responses, and what’s more, I didn’t know how to get out of this situation.

My coping mechanism was to learn everything I could about the word trauma in the hope that I could understand what was going on and eventually help others avoid the pain I was going through. 

Through trauma healing training, I discovered that while it was true that trauma can be a big, terrifying, life-altering event, it also can be smaller ongoing events that topple over each other. And if we don’t have an opportunity to process these smaller events like we do the big, one-time event, it can lead to the same results in our brain, body, and heart.

Since that experience, I have coached and trained hundreds of people in mission organizations and faith-based communities about trauma. 

There is so much to share with you about trauma, especially as it pertains to the mission field, that I broke up the topic into three articles. In this article, we will talk about what trauma is and what it does. In the next article, we will look at how trauma might show up in the life of a missionary, and in the third article, we will look at some steps you can take toward healing.

 

What Trauma Is

A few years ago I led a trauma healing training and asked the participants, “When you hear the word trauma, what comes to mind?”

There were so many different answers to this one question. The answers were anywhere from what happened during a traumatic experience to how trauma affects people after the event. It was an “ah ha” moment for me because for many people there seems to be some unclarity about what trauma is. 

So I shared this definition with them:    

“Trauma results from any event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting negative effects on a person’s mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”

In that discussion I focused on the idea of lasting negative effects and whether the event(s) caused them to lose their sense of either Order (the world makes sense), Justice (justice is available), or Self Value (knowing that they are a person of value), or all three.   

This means that two people can go through the same experience, and one might become traumatized while the other one doesn’t.

I also noticed that the participants were assuming that there was only one type of trauma, when there are actually different types of traumas. Some general types of trauma include:

Acute Trauma (the one people think of the most) is a one-off traumatic event, such as a car accident, natural disaster, etc. 

Complex Trauma occurs during the developmental years when there is a disruption in the child’s development. This can be seen in cases of neglect, child endangerment, or institutional care and can result in insecure attachment.

Chronic Trauma is a traumatic event over a long period of time, such as with domestic abuse or bullying.  

Secondary Trauma occurs when an individual hears about the firsthand experience of others.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening, or distressing events. A person may engage in avoidant behavior, live in a state of high alert, or even relive the event. (If these symptoms last more than 30 days, a person should be evaluated by a mental health professional.) To learn more about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in cross-cultural workers, check out this Missio Nexus article

 

What Trauma Does

During this training I noticed that the participants were only looking at the behaviors of people in trauma and not what was going on inside their brain, body, and heart. But the internal response is very important because trauma disconnects and causes disintegration in our brain, body, and heart.

Trauma affects your BRAIN by changing brain chemistry levels of substances like: 

  • Serotonin (which affects appetite, sex drive, mood, and the ability to sleep)
  • Dopamine (which affects memories and your ability to concentrate) 
  • Endorphins (which reduce pain and stress) 
  • Cortisol (which affects adrenaline)
  • Neurotransmitters and receptors (Glutamate and GABA/gamma-aminobutyric acid)

Sometimes these chemicals can only be fixed with medication; however, there is mounting evidence that exercise and rest can do some of this as well. 

Trauma affects your BODY by getting stuck in your nervous system, usually in both your voluntary and involuntary responses:

  • Somatic Nervous System, which controls voluntary responses to external stimuli
  • Autonomic Nervous System, which controls involuntary responses and includes the Sympathetic (fight or flight response) and Parasympathetic (the way your body relaxes)

Trauma affects your HEART by distorting your relationship with God, others, and ourselves:

  • Trauma can become the lens through which you see everything that happens. You might start questioning the truth and what is real. 
  • It can lead people to question their faith.
  • Trauma can isolate you from others.
  • Trauma can trigger emotional self-harm (such as believing lies) or physical self-harm (such as cutting).

Is it any wonder people are unclear about this word trauma

Because of all this disintegration, you might think that trauma would be hard to heal. What I have seen and experienced is that it depends. It is true that healing from trauma is a process and that no single method or therapy works all the time and in all seasons. Sometimes people go through a six-week trauma healing class, and that’s all they need to start their healing process. On the other hand, I have also walked with people for years using different methods and approaches to help them heal from trauma. 

The important thing to remember is that there is help for healing your trauma. In the next article, we will discuss how trauma might show up on the mission field.

 

Recommended Resources:

Hand Brain model from Dr. Daniel Siegel

Expectations and Burnout: Women Surviving the Great Commission by Sue Eenigenburg and Robynn Bliss

More details on complex trauma   

PTSD article from Missio Nexus

~~~~~~~~~

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.

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

by EC Nance

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Moral Injury

I first learned the term “moral injury” in a Plough magazine article by Michael Yandell, Hope in the Void. He quoted authors Rita Nakashima Brock and Gabriella Lettini who say moral injury, “comes from having transgressed one’s basic moral identity and violated core moral beliefs…Moral injury destroys meaning and forsakes noble causes. It sinks warriors into states of silent, solitary suffering, where bonds of intimacy and care seem impossible.”

Foreign Policy magazine describes moral injury as “damage done to a ‘person’s conscience or moral compass by perpetrating, witnessing, or failing to prevent acts that transgress moral and ethical values or codes of conduct.”

Can you think of ways you have experienced this in your life abroad?

We know about female genital mutilation and cannot stop it. We turn away from the begging children. We participate in economic inequality. We are inappropriately respected or honored because of the color of our skin or our passport and we do little to stop it. We huddle behind locked doors and guarded, walled compounds when disorder breaks out in the streets. We pay the bribe to get our mail or our water turned on.

This is not how we imagined serving, helping, or changing the world. We are humanitarians, we are people motivated by faith and by a desire to serve and help. Some of us thought we could change the world, only to discover we are complicit in harm, subconsciously or not.

About his own memories of serving as a soldier in the Iraq war, Yandell wrote, “I know I am not who I thought I was. I am something different, something I never planned on being.”

Another way to think about moral injury is as a wound to the soul.

I am not heroic and I know this far better now, after 16 years abroad, than I ever would have learned had I stayed in the US. I am the opposite of heroic. Living here has stripped away all illusion of moral superiority or high character. I stand exposed.

All my high ideals and righteous ambitions lie in tatters at my feet while people around me go hungry and I can never feed them all. When injustice reigns and I don’t protest. When racism rules and I benefit.

And that’s just what I’m willing to publicly confess.

I know now, who I am. I am not who I thought I was or who I intended to be.

Oh how deeply runs the chasm between who I thought I was and who I now know myself to be.

Oh how much greater my knowledge of my need for a grace I cannot earn.

This is not about moving abroad and learning how selfish and greedy and impatient and proud you are. (I learned all that too) This is darker, deeper, and more damaging.

Moral injury is a heavy, serious topic that deserves much deeper exploration than a single blog post. I’ll provide some links below and encourage you to explore the idea on your own, to see how you may have been impacted, or not. And then I encourage you to find a place where you can be honest and courageously vulnerable so that you can find healing.

Does this resonate with you? How? And how can you move toward healing?

The Headington Institute

Hope in the Void, Plough Magazine

Foreign Policy The Warrior and Moral Injury

Psychology Today: Moral Injury

What an evacuation taught me about naivety, arrogance, and God

evacuation-sign-1738375_960_720a

Before going to live in a third world country we had a lot of people come to us concerned for our children. I remember standing so tall and proud as I answered them and said I was sure of a few things. One was that we were definitely called. Since that was the case, it meant our kids were also called to go with us, and God would protect them. But I’ll be honest — my heart as a mom was not so sure. However, as I went to the Father with my questions, I didn’t hear a response so much as receive an immense amount of peace and assurance of His love for all of us.

I determined that more than anything – more than safety, a life of ease, health, happiness, or contentment — I wanted my kids to really know Jesus. I wanted them to hand their whole hearts and lives over to him – to eat, sleep, and breathe the Holy Spirit. I wanted a passion and intimacy in their relationships with Him that would cause me to seek for a deeper one. I wanted them to truly experience God in the fullness of who He is.

That kind of experience usually does not happen in a “perfect” world.  If I am trying too hard to protect and shelter, I could actually be making it harder for them to see and know God.  How can one know the true meaning of Him being made stronger in our weakness if one doesn’t experience one’s weaknesses?  How can we know the closeness of God that comes in nothing but complete brokenness if we are never broken ourselves?  I’ve been through some brokenness, and I know the sweetness of coming through that with God. I desire that for my children.

I wanted my children to know and understand that they are so very important to me, and I would never do anything to intentionally hurt them, but that God loves them even more than I do and that His plan is perfect. I wanted them to know that they are my priority – but they are NOT the only people in this world. I wanted their eyes open to the fact that God loves them in an immense and perfect love – and He also loves the little ones all across the world with that same intense and perfect love. These things are hard to comprehend if you don’t really see other parts of the world.

And if I’m really being honest, I never really believed my family was in danger.

A few years later, coming out of a place where we were on lockdown and in the middle of war, I think back to these convictions I had before, and I get so angry.  Who did I think I was? I didn’t really know or understand anything in the comfort of my safe little home in the States.  I didn’t know what was coming.

I didn’t know when I ripped teenagers away from their familiar worlds with friends and technology and family and clean drinking water and fast food and air conditioning how much anger would erupt from that. I didn’t understand how living in a war-torn, remote, isolated place could cause such a deep wound on the hearts and psyche of all of us. And I didn’t know that of course it would mean that I couldn’t take care of the 6 of us – I couldn’t take care of myself.  It was a daily lesson in survival for spiritual and emotional health.

I had known war was happening there – but what did that really mean to me other than movies and history class? I had not lived through gun fire, burnings of compounds, and assassination attempts on people I knew before. I wasn’t prepared for those people to have a real face, a name, a family. To have them cry with me about it. Or worse yet – not talk about it with a stone-faced look because it was all too normal.  I had gone through hostage simulations, but I never lived with a go-bag packed so we could take off with a change of clothes, malaria meds, and important documents in a matter of minutes.  Growing up in a rural area, I had shot a gun before – but at a tin can target, not a person.  And I had never seen tracer fire or heard AK-47s – I’m not in the military, after all.

When I said those things before we left I must have been completely naive.

When we left our first place of ministry and came to a safe place to process the huge amounts of grief and fear we had felt in that past year, I started to see the effects it had on my kids. I knew I had been naïve. I was embarrassed because I had said it all so strongly to people and now I wasn’t even sure I believed any of it.  It had felt good and empowering, and pretty darn prideful if I’m willing to admit to being that mom that had all the right answers and was brave enough to go. Missionaries – we can be such arrogant creatures at times.

Then I watched an episode of NCIS (isn’t that how all good spiritual revelations start?).  They were in our country – the one we had just left. I realized from the first scene it wasn’t just a TV show for me. I found myself in tears at the first sighting of the makeshift hospital tent where people were all gunned down.  I felt panicked at seeing the gun ships come in. I felt homesickness for the people, the landscape, and the accents that seemed so familiar. Because yes, it had been hard, but it was also so good.  I experienced over and over the hospitality and love of a people that were not willing to give up or to give in to bitterness.  I heard stories of loss and grief that ripped my heart in two and put a burning desire for justice to be brought forth.  I learned anew what hope looked like even when it made no sense.

My kids experienced all these things right alongside us. Over and over again their hearts and eyes were opened to things that seemed harsh but are realities to many of the people of this world. My daughter says she remembers clearly when we were on lockdown and she realized the people we served among had no choices. We talked about evacuation and safety and looked at our options while grieving what we were leaving, but at least we had options. She also said she realized people were glad for us that we had that option because they cared about us and wanted us safe. It opened her compassionate and empathetic heart up to being a justice seeker. My son has said that though our time there was hard and he found himself angry most of the time, he has since understood things about himself and his relationship with God that he would not have come to on his own, and he is a better man for it.  He actually thanked us for this experience.

Would I have liked to spare my children from some of the things they have seen and known?  Certainly that’s true from a human mother’s perspective. Yet I love seeing who my children are becoming today, and I know a big part of that was this crazy time of life. Their hearts are open to other people and passionate for the world to know the love of Christ.

I forgot that for a while. I got caught up in the momentary things and didn’t see the molding and shaping of things that were happening inside. I forgot that this world really isn’t our home and there is a purpose for each of us here. Grief can draw out a sense of purpose in you the way that a life of ease cannot.

So today I stand by my naive self and the statements I made a few years ago. I stand more battered, slightly scarred, and much more humbled. But I stand. And I pray for my family to have boldness and compassion, to embrace the brokenness and seek him out, to repeatedly be brought to the place where we remember He is enough, and to be justice seekers and truth bringers to this world.

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

meHeather Wallace is a wife of 20 years and mom to 4 amazing, globe-trotting children, a pastor’s wife and missionary, a Jesus-lover, Spirit-seeker, and sojourner of this world. She blogs at wallacesinafrica.com 

Longing for a Better Country

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It was May of 1989.  I was 12 years old, and my family was getting ready to leave the country where I had spent most of my childhood.

We were leaving Liberia to go back to California for a year-long home assignment.  We packed up our house and put all our personal belongings into the spare room.  Another family would stay there for the year we were gone.  The plan was that we would return in the summer of 1990, and would stay in Liberia for my four years of high school.

But during that year we were gone, a civil war broke out in Liberia.  It got worse.  And then it got catastrophic.
And finally it got so bad that all the missionaries were evacuated.  The compound where I grew up was bombed.  Many Liberian friends were killed.  We never returned.

We lost everything.  Everything we owned was in Liberia, and it was all looted.  I lost my dog, my bedroom, my sixth grade journal, the painting my grandmother made me when I was born, and my childhood treasures.  More significantly, I lost my home country, my identity, my innocence.

I never got to say good-bye, either to the country or the people I loved.  Liberia haunts my dreams; it remains an unfinished part of my life to this day.

I grieved deeply for Liberia at age 13.  But we were forced to move on—and quickly.  We were reassigned to Ethiopia; I was off to boarding school—all in a period of a few months.  I grew up; I went to college, and shortly after I was married, God brought my husband and me to Tanzania, east Africa.  I was thrilled!  Back home in Africa, at last.  I figured all of the holes left in my heart from Liberia had been filled.

It wasn’t until the spring of 2013, at age 36 and after 10 years of life in Tanzania, that I realized that the ache of Liberia had never left me.  We were leaving Tanzania to go back to California for a year-long home assignment.  I was packing up our house and putting all our personal belongings into a spare room.  Another family would stay in our house for the year we were gone.

As much as I was excited to visit California again, anxiety swelled within me.  The feelings were too eerily familiar to what I experienced as a child–packing up, leaving everything behind, assuming I would return.  I found myself worrying that the same thing would happen again….that I would lose everything.

It was a mostly irrational fear.  Tanzania is a far more stable country than Liberia was in 1989.  But after losing Liberia, and then being evacuated from Ethiopia in 1991, I realize that you never really know what’s going to happen in Africa.  I was forced to come face to face with the loss I had experienced so long ago.

We went on that home assignment, and we did return to Tanzania last year.  In many ways, it was a healing experience for me, to return.  But if there is one thing this life has taught me, it’s that I must hold loosely to everything.  Everything.  I can’t put down roots anywhere; I will never find stability.   Even if I spend my whole life here, I will never be allowed citizenship of this country.  I will never be allowed to own property here; I will never grow old in one house.  I may someday have to evacuate with the clothes on my back.  Or, I could just get robbed blind.

I’m reminded that I can’t love this life so tightly.  This life is not all there is, and it’s definitely not worth fretting over.  After all, can I ever ensure the protection of my earthly treasures?  Even if I was to live my entire life in one house in America, would I be guaranteed stability and safety?  It’s just an illusion, and my transient life as a foreigner helps me to remember that reality.

Liberia, Ethiopia, or Tanzania are not my home, but America isn’t either.  I will always be a foreigner, until that Day when heaven meets earth and all is made new.   So I set my sights on things above, and relax my grip on my possessions, my country, my identity.  They were never mine to begin with.  The whole reason I am living in Africa is because I want to store up treasure in heaven.  May I never try too hard to cling to the things of this earth as well.

 

 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.  People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

 

amhAmy Medina has spent almost half her life in Africa, both as an MK in Liberia and now in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, since 2001.  Living in tropical Africa has helped her perfect the fine art of sweating, but she also loves teaching, cooking, and hospitality.  She and her husband worked many years with TCKs and now are involved with pastoral training.  They also adopted three amazing Tanzanian kids along the way.  Amy blogs regularly at www.gilandamy.blogspot.com.

When You Need Help Abroad: Finding A Good Counselor When You Live Overseas

One of the first questions people often ask me when they learn that I’m a psychologist is, “are you practicing?” They are invariably disappointed when I tell them “no, I’m still busy with our young children, and I’m trying to start a business on the side.” Here, like many other places I’ve lived abroad, there is a shortage of trained mental health professionals who are well equipped to help the expatriate population.

And, boy, a significant chunk of the expatriate population needs some helping.

That’s not surprising, really.

Moving abroad pushes you out of all sorts of comfort zones. Pretty much everything in life – from grocery shopping to figuring out the point of life – gets more complicated. The level of challenge in your life goes way up, right when you lose a lot of your normal support and coping mechanisms.

Yes, this can be a recipe for great personal growth. It is also, often, a recipe for great personal struggle and pain.

Coping with sudden and extreme change gets exhausting. Living far from family and friends gets lonely. Witnessing the impact of your choices on your family members – particularly your children – can breed guilt and insecurity right alongside gratitude. Having the familiar social and cultural scaffolding of your life ripped away can force you to confront core identity questions around yourself, privilege, meaning, purpose, and the existence and nature of God. The pathways to answering these questions often lead through dark valleys.

I would guess that those who live overseas entertain a higher chance of experiencing significant mental health problems, marital challenges, or substance abuse issues than those who remain on home soil. I’ve seen numerous marriages hit the rocks and other important personal and team relationships become hopelessly mired in miscommunications and conflict. I’ve seen people skid into alcohol and porn addictions. I’ve seen parents feel guilty and helpless as they watch their children implode (or explode). I’ve frequently seen more people who cannot shake anxiety, grief, bone-deep exhaustion, or the grey, soul-sucking fog of depression.

When these things happen (and they happen more often than you might think) expatriates can find it very difficult to get help.

There are all sorts of reasons why this is so, but one of those reasons is a shortage of qualified mental health professionals who themselves live abroad. So today, we’re going to talk about how to find some help when you find yourself struggling with a dark, difficult chapter in your story.

Keyboard_Help

When you’re trying to find a counselor locally, ask around

If you’re looking for a psychologist or counselor, start by asking others in town about the options. You don’t have to go into details, just ask if anyone knows of any psychologist, counselors, or social workers living in town.

You might want to start with your embassy. Talk to the doctor on staff at the embassy clinic, if there is one. Ask them whether they know of any psychologists or counselors practicing locally and, if not, what they recommend when people contact them asking for mental health or family counseling referrals.

If you live near an international school, you can approach them for information, too. The international schools may know of skilled expats in town, especially those who work with children.

You can also ask other expatriates, particularly doctors, nurses, midwives, doulas, and pastors.

Search online

world magnifyingWhen you live anywhere outside the major city centers, word of mouth is your best bet when it comes to finding mental health professionals who live nearby. However, you might get lucky with an internet search. Here are three things to try…

Check out International Therapists Directory. It provides an online global listing of professional mental health therapists who are familiar with the TCK and international expatriate experiences.

Use Google. I’m in Laos, so I would try searches like “mental health Laos” “mental health Vientiane” “psychologist Laos” “counselor Laos” “family therapy Laos” etc and see what comes up. I’d also search LinkedIn with those same search phrases.

When it comes to choosing a counselor, be picky

Don’t work with someone just because they live nearby. Yes, there are some benefits to sitting down with someone face to face, but a significant proportion of the mental health professionals I’ve met abroad are… well… to be honest… strange.

Be picky. You will be far better off talking to someone you trust and like via Skype than sitting with someone locally who isn’t qualified or able to help you.

Selecting a counselor is an important and individual process. Remember that a counselor who works well with one person may not be the best choice for another person. Also, when you live overseas, it can be helpful if your counselor has lived abroad themselves or has previous experience working with expatriates.

When you’re considering working with someone, you might want to let the counselor know you’re thinking of making an appointment and ask if they have a couple of minutes to talk with you before you make a decision.

Don’t use this time to explain at length why you want to make an appointment. Instead, ask some questions that can help you get a better feel for this counselor and whether you feel comfortable talking to him/her.

Here are some questions you could ask:

  • Can you tell me a bit more about your training and experience? Are you a licensed mental health professional?
  • Can you tell me a bit more about your general approach to counseling?
  • What do you enjoy about counseling?
  • If you feel comfortable naming the issue that you want to work on in general terms (e.g., “issues related to humanitarian field work,” “child-rearing problems,” “marital issues”), you might ask, “How much experience do you have working with people with this concern?”
  • How long (over time) do you generally like to see clients?
  • Can you tell me more about your fee structure/how you handle billing? (Either on the phone or in your first meeting, the counselor should provide information about procedural matters – fees, meeting times, availability, confidentiality, etc.).

When you meet with a counselor, ask yourself whether this is a person with whom you feel comfortable talking. You may need to talk with the counselor more than once to know the answer to that question. Do you feel the counselor is listening to you? Does the counselor treat you with respect? Does the counselor respond to your questions constructively?

If you can’t find someone local who you like and trust, find someone back home and work with them using Skype, Facetime, or other video-chat options. Nowadays, many counselors are happy to take on long-distance clients.

Find and read resources online

Articles, online training modules, and podcasts are not an adequate substitute for talking to someone, but they can help along the way. Here are a couple of websites that you might find useful.

The Headington Institute: Provides psychological and spiritual support services for aid and development personnel worldwide. Check out their free online training center covering topics related to resilience, stress, trauma, relationships, spirituality and more.

Member Care Associates: Provides and develops supportive resources for workers and sending groups within the mission/humanitarian sectors. Click on their Articles/Books tab to find a long list of resources for those on the mission field. Click here to read about their latest book in the Member Care series.

The American Psychological Associations Online Help Center: This is a good source for general articles and tips sheets about health, emotional wellness, families, relationships, and children.

Please chime in and add to this list!
Feel free to ask questions, share your experiences, or add useful links.

Four Things You Could Do

There is no shortage of  instructions on the interweb.

In any given month it is quite likely you will be instructed on multiple topics.  The list could include:

 Ten things not to say to your single friends

Five things Christians should stop saying

Ten things for a healthy marriage.

Five reasons your teen is rebelling.

Those never ending lists just serve to overwhelm me.  Say this. Don’t say this. Do that. NEVER do this.

I can barely follow directions. Kraft Mac and Cheese has one step too many for me.

There are SO many instructions and they all run together and before I know it I have applied one of the items to the wrong problem.  After reading all those articles I learned that my teen was rebelling because I was too controlling. Somehow I got mixed up and became certain one of the keys to a happier marriage was to be more controlling.

As you can see, there is a HUGE margin of error here.

 *             *             *

Today, I shall add fuel to the fire…

My list of things you “should” do to care for yourself.

One caveat, I don’t actually care if you reject my entire list. These are just some things that have been helpful to us in eight years overseas.

Guess what?  Just because they helped us, doesn’t mean they will necessarily work for all of you.

Therefore, today I present to you:

Four things you could do.  (Four possible not mandatory ways to care for yourselves and your families while working/living/serving and growing “overseas” .)

  1. Time Away/Rest
  2. Community
  3. EMDR and Counseling
  4. Prayer

Time Away/Rest – I don’t have to tell you this, you have heard it a kajillion times. “Even Jesus took time away”.   So do that.  Be like Jesus.

We all do what we do because we believe it to be important, even necessary, work.  There is a tendency in all of us to cast ourselves in a role that is irreplaceable, as in “without me this cannot happen” – so I cannot rest. Well,  here is the thing: If that is true, you have got larger problems than just needing a rest.

Take time off. Leave work and “mission” for a time and regroup. I am not suggesting you be  a lazy lard. I am suggesting that within a system of accountability you take time away every so often because that is good for you and your family.

Community – This is easier for some than it is for others.  There is a great benefit to living in community with other believers.  In this day and age there is a way to have an on-line community and an in-real-life community. If you can have both, you have the best of both worlds.  There should be a few people in your life that you can share your deepest fears and joys with on a semi-regular basis. There should be people that you allow to speak into those things.

EMDR and Counseling – Right now you are wondering where the heck the train left the track, you did not see it coming.  Stick with me, please. EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing and it is a type of trauma treatment.  Any of us that spend significant amount of time living cross culturally are almost guaranteed some trauma.  I could give you sixteen examples but I will simply share this testimonial:  After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti we discovered that PTSD was not just something soldiers in combat have.  EMDR seemed like hocus pocus to us at first, but we can tell you it absolutely helped us with the trauma of the earthquake and other previous trauma we had not dealt with at that time. It was an effective way of dealing with small and very large traumatic happenings.

If trauma is not your issue, perhaps basic therapy/counseling would be a way to process some of the stressors of living cross-culturally.  Going to talk to a professional to get some advice, feedback, or help is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of being a real, living, feeling, human being.  Marriages fall apart under stress and living abroad is stressful.  I am no math expert, but after some rudimentary calculations I can see that perhaps counseling would be helpful for those doing marriage outside of their home culture.

Prayer- This is a big one…Maybe even the biggest one. There are two parts to this suggestion.

First, have a team of people in place that you know you can count on when you call or write them with a prayer request or urgent need.  Whether they are your parents and siblings, your home church, or a circle of friends, you will find that you need a group that will carry you when things are very difficult.

During one of our years in Haiti we had a personally devastating set-back that made it hard for us to get out of bed for a couple of weeks let alone accomplish our daily tasks.  There were those “back home” that carried us in prayer until we were back on our feet and able to face life again.  On another occasion we were in a parking lot in Port au Prince when I sensed danger. I could not identify what it was, but I knew I needed to go back to the car with our kids.  That afternoon when I returned home I had an email from my Dad that said, “Where were you at noon? I had a strong sense you were in danger and I prayed for you guys until it passed.”  You will likely have times when these intercessory prayers will absolutely matter.

Second, make prayer a part of your breathing. As you go about your day, be seeking God in each interaction and task. Try to make family and spouse prayer times a high priority.  Try to pray with your community and carry one another’s burdens. None of us were meant to do this work alone, call on your Heavenly Papa and ask for His help.

As soon as I finished this list I remembered that there is a fifth thing.  I guess I failed at internet bossing, cannot even count it out correctly.

5. Excercise Regular exercise will help you feel better about everything that is hard about your life. You could give that a try too.

 

photo copy 8
This ^ combines prayer, community, and excercise – three of the five happening on one run.

 

That is my list of four five. 

What else would you add? 

What ways have you found helpful when taking care of yourself?