[This article also exists in podcast form. You can listen to it on Pondering Purple, HERE.]
Someone asked me, recently, why there is such an emphasis on grief and loss in my speaking on MK topics. Muki, one of the participants in a reentry retreat this summer, said it best: “I feel like grief has become my love language.”
Muki further wrote this:
I’ve lost my home, my security, my church, my friends, my job, my relationships… It continues to haunt me that I will never see the places that I roamed in the same light again, nor will I breathe the air as someone who is planted there. I lost myself in the convoluted mission of leaving. There is no way to express how lost I feel, and I don’t think anything can change that. No amount of crying or talking will heal my soul.
I’ve already written about the effect of grief on the lives and outlook of MKs (see HERE) and on their relationships (see HERE), but after another summer witnessing the powerlessness of young people in the face of such devastation, I want to offer nine small steps that may help with the challenge of living while feeling bound by the process of grieving.
If you’re not an MK:
Please understand this—those who repatriate to their “home” country aren’t just moving from one state or province to another. They aren’t just losing a measurable number of people, places and “sacred objects.” It’s the intangibles that exacerbate their grief and intensify their response to it.
Moving home is more than a transition, it’s a foundational dislocation and reinvention.
Beyond the people, places and “sacred objects” of their lives, MKs have lost the languages, sounds, aromas, events, values, security, familiarity and belonging that have been their life. For many of them, those intangibles aren’t just something they’ve enjoyed, they’re an integral part of who they are and how the view the world. So when they leave that universe behind, for many of them, it feels as if they’re surrendering their identity too. That’s the enormity of their loss.
If you’re an MK:
This article is not an nine-step plan on how to move on from grief. Much as I would love to be able to offer that to you, I probably wouldn’t even if I could—because it is in the roiling center of your grief that understanding and growth reside.
We’re often in too much of a hurry to put the hard behind us so we can get to those “acceptable” stages of praising God for the healing and using what we’ve endured to help others.
Here’s the problem: if we slingshot our way over grief or find ways to get through it fast, we don’t actually process it—we merely shove it deeper, allowing its power to intensify and its control over our outlook, self-assessment and relationships to increase. I’ve known too many MKs who have suffered unnecessarily in their adulthood because they so successfully “stuffed,” minimized or ignored their grief when it became a burden. I’ve seen in it my own life too.
When we understand our losses and their impact on our lives—through the process of discerning what they are, how they shape our view of God and self, and how they can lead us both to greater strength and dependence—only then can something beneficial and beautiful come from the bitter pill of the goodbyes inherent to the life of an MK.
So this article is not about methods for circumventing the lostness that often walks hand in hand with the treasure of a multi-cultural existence. What I’m offering here is a few suggestions for managing the shadows we carry within us, so we can remain functional and connected while slowly disentangling the roots and rewards of our grief.
1. Redefine your relationship with grief.
There’s a tendency among us to see it as a weakness, a shameful lack of faith. We tell ourselves we should be able to bounce back and embody resilience.
Here’s the truth: what we’ve left behind is monumental. And our feeling of lostness, as Muki put it above, is a haunting thing. Yes, grief can feel debilitating, but it is also the measure of our love for the distant world that is still home. Not only is it okay for it to hurt, but it is necessary for it to hurt.
2. Let your grief breathe.
Give it the time and space it needs to reach a natural ebb. Pain is not our enemy. It points us to the tender spot that needs our attention and grace. It exists for a purpose, and any attempt to suppress it will only cause more harm in the future.
When I meet with adult MKs who are still struggling to figure out their lives, we never fail to uncover some measure of unresolved grief. They thought they were being expedient, in their youth, when they decided to ignore it or live above it. This allowed them to function and move on more easily, but it also left the darkness of their loss anchored to their life’s perspective.
Grief is not reduced by our attempts at stuffing it. It only builds under the surface as we neglect it, then erupts more violently when it finally finds release. If we let it breathe, we give ourselves the chance to heal.
3. Don’t stuff it, shelve it.
As important as it is to make sense of our grief, it would be detrimental to our health (and our deadlines, social engagements, job…) to be constantly processing it. In order to function in the real world, we might be tempted to “put a lid on it”—to tamp down the emotions, screw the lid on tight and make believe there’s nothing there to think about. I assure you that nothing good comes from that approach.
What I do advocate is learning to “put it on the shelf.” (I picture a transparent jar, its lid just resting on top of it, sitting safely on a shelf within my range of vision.) It’s still there. I’m still aware that I need to pay attention to it. But it’s out of the way for now, within reach when I need to go back to the healing process.
Shelving grief isn’t denying it, it’s managing how much and when it gets our attention. Resilience comes from returning to it again and again until it has been fathomed and restored.
(There may be moments when something triggers an overflow that cannot be “shelved.” That is sometimes part of the process too.)
4. Speak about it to someone who cares and hears you.
This is another reason why learning to manage the processing is important. We need to be careful in choosing people to process along with us. If we’re unable to shelve the grief, we’ll look to the first person who enters our life to be that voice of compassion and support.
It’s wiser and safer to wait until we’re sure of who it is we’re inviting into our lostness.
That person needs to be someone we respect, who has proven himself/herself trustworthy and who has demonstrated wisdom and compassion.
There’s nothing wrong with communicating on this topic with someone from our past, and modern technology certainly makes that easy. But that person can’t be the only sounding board we have. There’s something beneficial about speaking to someone who lives in our here-and-now too.
Consider professional help too. Counseling can be something of a taboo subject in missionary circles. We’ve got God and we’ve got that vaunted “MK resilience”—we don’t need an outsider’s help, right?
Here’s the thing: grief is powerful, murky and unpredictable. A person engulfed in the tides and turbulence of dark, raging water may not be able to extricate himself without the help of another person whose feet are firmly planted on the sturdiness of the dock, able to throw in a life-saving buoy.
That’s who counselors are. They may not fully understand what we bring to the situation, but they’re solid, they’re clear-minded, they’re eager to help, and they’re equipped with tools we may need to overcome.
5. Explore who God is.
Study God’s heart as revealed in his Word and through those he sends into your life. Remind yourself of his promises—they’re not limited by time or place. They were true in your old world and they’ll hold true in your new one.
God is still present. He is still speaking to you—though it might be hard to hear him above the roar of your coping mechanisms.
His promise to fight for you and comfort you still stands. Look back over the road you’ve traveled and see the way he has been faithful, then remind yourself that he has not changed, though your circumstances have.
If you’re like me, there will be a tendency, in your darkest moments of grief, to blame God for what caused it. “If you hadn’t called my parents…” “If you had provided what we needed to stay overseas…” Blaming God for the hard stuff makes him into your tormentor—and it’s impossible to seek comfort from the same being we also accuse of everything that harmed us.
There will be time to understand his role in our circumstances when the crisis is past, but when we’re coping with overwhelming loss, his presence is the most powerful aid we can reach for.
He is not ashamed of our sadness—he experienced it too.
Though there is comfort in activity, friendships, rest and accomplishment, there is nothing and no one who comforts, understands and heals grief more deeply than Christ.
6. Remember who you are.
It’s so easy to feel that we’ve lost our identity, that all that’s left of us is the bruised remnant of who we used to be—before loss, before transition, before the desertland of being unknown.
You are still capable. You are still lovable. You are still valuable. You’re just figuring out how to be all those things in a new context, without the geographical markers, relational buffers and defining anchors of your past.
It’s important to carve out some time and energy to remind yourself of those things that are significant to you, to reacquaint yourself with what thrills and fulfills you, to connect yourself again with the traits and passions that define you.
7. Find healthy ways of relieving the emotions.
There is nothing wrong with engaging in activities that distract us. In fact, there’s true resilience in those minutes and hours of “distance” from the grief. Do what you enjoy to inject a bit of light into the darkness of your losses: join an intramural team, cook, write, play video games, Skype with friends, go to the movies.
Just make sure these are temporary measures. It’s easy to escape into the coping mechanisms so deeply and often that we stop really participating in the life going on around us.
One more thing: move. Exercise releases chemicals in the brain that counteract the grip of sadness. I know it won’t be the first impulse, for some of us, to get up and go for a walk or head to the gym, but if you can force yourself to add some movement to your life, you’ll feel the benefits of it.
8. Look for reasons to be grateful.
Making of gratitude an intentional practice can be life-altering. And it can be as simple as jotting down three things we’re thankful for at the end of every day.
The hard stuff will always be at the tip of our brains—it’s just the way we’re wired—but the good stuff will take some focus to identify and acknowledge.
Choosing gratitude is not a magic bullet, but it’s a practice that pays off in a shifted perspective, determined optimism and emotional balance.
There will be days when the effort of pushing forward through the grief will feel like too much, when it will seem easier to press that lid down over the emotions or to lock the door, crawl into bed and close your eyes on the “hard” that’s sapping your strength. There will be times when just making conversation will feel like too much effort.
Please believe me—it will get better. As someone who has survived the kind of loss, grief and pain that left me feeling crippled, I can assure you that there is “hope and a future.”
As you pay attention to what’s hard—as you give your grief the space and care it requires while still investing in the tomorrow you’re building—you’ll find a sort of balance returning. You’ll find the memories more sweet than bitter and the future more welcoming than frightening.
You’ll discover that though you lost a universe, you didn’t lose yourself, and the God who promised to walk with you, to love you through the changes and uphold you through the challenges, is still working to bring beauty from the ashes of your past.
Grief is not a comfortable phase. It feels like the aching reminder of a “homeness” and wholeness we fear we’ll never know again. And it is more than a dark ravine we just need to get over. There is richness and growth in acknowledging and understanding it—the opportunity to learn who we are and who God is as we explore its source and find healing.
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