This is possibly the most painful part of missions. Saying goodbye. No matter how often you do it and how much separation you experience, it does not seem to get easier. Like the MK girl in the video posted below says, “Saying goodbye does not get easier. It just gets…more.”
Research has shown that MKs experience more loss by the time they graduate from high school than most people will experience in their entire lives.
Chronic loss and separation in an MKs life is a fact. There is no debating this point. The important thing is that it be handled well. When loss is not grieved or processed, or even acknowledged sometimes, it can cause harmful issues later on down the road. The grief is there, whether you let it out and process it, or whether you shove it down and drown it with activity. It is still there and it is going to come out in one way or another.
Unresolved grief, or loss that is never acknowledged will affect an MKs life in many ways.
Ruth Van Reken, an MK from Africa who has been studying Third Culture Kids (kids raised outside of their parents’ culture) for more than 30 years now talks about these losses as being “hidden.” She calls them invisible losses. She says that often, MKs don’t grieve what they have lost for several reasons. The first reason is that they don’t recognize their losses. It is not a tangible death, so there is not a funeral. Yet, it is a death of sorts. It is the death of their world. The have lost their place, their function, their identity as a Missionary Kid and all of the ministry involvements that entails. They have lost their status.
Another reason these losses are not mourned is that there is a lack of permission. Often when an MK is grieving, people, with good intentions, want to cheer them up. They remind them of how greatly their parents have been used. So now there is an element of guilt involved with the MKs’ pain. “How can I be so sad when this was God’s will for my family? When people came to know the Lord?” They remind them of all of the great experiences they have had. That is true. They did have great experiences, but the great experiences and the salvation of lost people does not cancel out the pain of losing all of it. They have to both exist at the same time…the beauty and the pain.
Sometimes a person needs comfort instead of encouragement. There is a difference. Encouragement tries to list all of the positives and make the hurting person look at the bright side. Comfort says, “I am sorry you are hurting. Comfort says, “I love you, and I am going to sit here with you while you cry and we will look at pictures of who you have lost, and I will probably cry too, but you won’t be alone, and your pain is not unseen. I see it, and I am right here.”
The third reason Van Reken gives for not mourning our losses is that often there simply is not time. Leaving the field and heading off to college is like a whirlwind of chaos. You run around like a chicken with your head cut off and when the dust finally settles, you are on the other side of the world buying college textbooks and signing up for classes and life just happens and you feel like you don’t have time or space to reflect on what you just lost, or to properly say goodbye and have that closure in your heart.
The book, “Third Culture Kids: Growing up among worlds” is a wonderful resource for MKs coming back to the States from the mission field. I would strongly recommend that parents have their MKs read this before going off to college. It gives practical ways to say goodbye well. David Pollock, one of the authors of the book talks about building a RAFT before you leave your host country (mission field). RAFT stands for: Reconciliation- making things right in relationships before you leave. Affirmation- thanking people who have had an impact on you and invested in your life. Farewell: saying goodbye to people, places, even pets or possessions that are precious to you. Thinking Destination- getting ready for the next step, but not before saying goodbye.
How the goodbye phase is handled is so important. I feel like this was something I was completely ignorant of when I went off to college. I was not prepared for the emotional upheaval that I would experience. Sometimes the sadness and grief I felt was almost suffocating. I would not let myself think about Peru and my life there because it was almost physically painful to do so. A boss of mine at Gino’s Pizza during college told me that I was literally the saddest person he had ever met. I did not know how to process that grief. I shoved it down and kept plugging ahead. I wrote some songs during college trying to process what I was going through, trying to put words to the pain I was in.
After college, I somehow came across the book, “Third Culture Kids.” I read it, and it was like I was reading my own life. It helped me understand myself and my responses in certain situations. I wish I had read that book before college. I think it would have helped me understand what was happening and be more prepared to handle it.
Over the past few years, the Lord has been opening my eyes to things I need to process and let Him heal. Maybe these blogs are partly for me too..because I am still processing. I was talking to a dear MK friend from Indonesia a couple weeks ago, and I explained to her that there are things in me that are broken, and I don’t think they can be fixed in this life, but God can ease the pain of it. She replied “For me, the grief about loss was so deep and painful that I continued to process it intensely for probably 10 years. You see some of that in the blogs I wrote. A counselor said something that deeply resonated with me. One of the last things she asked me as I was if I had a picture of what healing would look like. The truth was that I didn’t. I always sought to process, to understand myself. I saw it all as a wound in me that was ripped open and bled again when I suffered again (usually with a loss). I didn’t think of it as something that would actually heal, but that would be comforted, just like you wrote. But now, I don’t think that is true. Even though we are always going to be broken humans in this broken world, Jesus made it clear that His work is that of healing and redeeming what is broken. That includes me, and you, even though we are already saved. I think our sadness is an effect of the Fall, and the redemption of Jesus of all things broken begins now, even if it won’t fully be fulfilled until He returns. He “heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds.” So I think these things you are processing are deep pain that will always have left their mark on your life, but when you say there’s something in you that can’t be fixed…I think God is in the business of soul and heart fixing, and He has you on that journey right now. ‘Behold, I make all things new.’”
I love that hope. My friend is right. He can heal all things, even the complicated things we can’t even understand about ourselves. My objective in this post is not to make people feel bad for MKs, or to cast a negative light on missions. My hope is to shed some light on the burdens MKs carry so that we as the church can be the ones there to comfort them as they mourn, and to help lighten their load. Please watch the video below for an MK perspective on goodbyes and loss.