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

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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.

 

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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?