I was about to pick up a box of cereal on my weekly grocery shopping trip when I suddenly felt my throat tighten and I froze. Tears filled my eyes as I heard the song playing over the loudspeaker. I am sure that to others in the store it was just an old love song—that is, if they even heard it mixed in with all the other background noise in the store. But for me it was a bit of China, a bit of home.
The smell was sudden and so strong! It seemed to come from nowhere, and I am not sure if my friends noticed it. But for me, it smelled just like a certain part of the street between our house and the school we were studying in China.
I was looking for a book on the shelf and there, stuck between two of the books we had brought back, was a card from one of our favorite families. Seeing her handwriting on the envelope—oh, how I missed them. The sound of kids playing, the laughter and the tears, and the hard work we had shared.
As we were visiting my elderly grandma and she poured us coffee, my eyes wandered and stopped at a small souvenir I had brought back when we returned home for our first home assignment almost twenty years ago. It was just a small trinket but then and there my heart stopped: what if I never get to go back?
I heard about these and other seemingly insignificant moments from people who had left China and are now elsewhere. Most of them were dealing with transition in their home countries while others had already arrived at new destinations. These triggers—things that pop up suddenly and unexpectedly in the midst of life today but that take you back to then and there—are perfect examples of how grief triggers work. They are unpredictable. They catch you off guard. They are unavoidable. They unleash a flood of mixed feelings and suddenly you find yourself on an emotional roller-coaster.
One thing to point out, which I always tell those I am providing member care for, is that grief triggers are not bad. They are actually a good thing. They play an important role in the grieving process. They help you heal. These memories can lift you up and fill you with gratefulness as you remember cherished moments and precious people.
Unlike the literal journeys we take, there is no road map for the grief journey. We want to know what is ahead, but no guide can tell us exactly what to expect. Grief is a uniquely individual experience.
For couples this can create tension. I have observed feelings of relief when I’ve told people that people grieve differently and they respond, “Yes, I recognize that. It was one of our struggles—that we dealt with grief so differently.” Or, “Really? I thought it was just us . . .”
Often, but not always, women have an easier time sharing their grief. They may have close friends who are ready to listen—and that is wonderful. Sadly, I have observed men who have a hard time acknowledging that they need someone to share with, or even acknowledging the pain of grief Sometimes it is necessary, but not easy, to seek out professional help for one’s spouse. That’s where leaders and friends come in and can help each one get the help they need.
In order to get truly well again and be restored and ready for what lies ahead time, space and resources are needed. When our time in China ended in a rather dramatic way and we returned to our home country hurt and grieving, our organization did not know what to do with us. We met with a counselor one time. We were told it was serious, especially for my husband, but after that there was no follow up. That was that. It was never talked about again and we were expected to be back in the saddle and move on. Time, space, and resources were not available to us.
That has not been the case with those I have talked to recently. I have been encouraged to hear of the support that people from different countries and serving with different organizations have been blessed with. Not one that I talked to felt that they had not been cared for. Although their stories were different, one thing they all had in common was that they needed (and received) help from a number of people around them, each one serving in a different role in the grieving process.
The teams they had left were mentioned by almost everyone as one of the best sources of help. Even though the team members themselves were grieving, there was something healing about sharing with people who understood without having everything explained. I heard of people traveling around the world to be part of team debriefs that were facilitated by the organization with an outside professional counsellor, and of how helpful these times were. One commented, “All of them did a really good job, but, for me, it was the time in between sessions when we were just hanging out together that was the most helpful”
Over and over again I heard, “I just needed to be allowed to be.”
One woman shared:
Although I was very sad to leave my corner of the country where I had been for ten years, I also couldn’t wait to arrive safely in a third country, be met by my member-care person and taken her home. At that stage all I needed was a bed and safety. She made me feel safe and loved and cared for without asking anything of me. It was helpful for me to wait some time before I went to the counseling center for trauma counseling. I later continued the counseling in my home country, but being in a third country, in between, was very helpful rather than going straight back home.
Another told me how helpful it was to go with a friend to his art studio and just be there. And help a little, see people in a different setting, and just get out of the house without any expectations.
One man was so blessed to be invited into a small group. He was asked to just come. No need to share, no need to say or do anything. When he was ready he would talk about what he had been through.
Several mentioned their appreciation for people who allowed them to stay with them without any pressure to talk. “The biggest needs were for shelter, to feel safe, and for someone to make sure that I ate. I didn’t want to eat”
The importance of a small circle of friends who journey with you in a special way was mentioned often. Special friends who are just with you, walking alongside you, making you feel safe. They share your tears and laughter and do the journey with you. They don’t have to be in your city. They can be anywhere in the world and yet be close thanks to technology.
The home church was mentioned several times as the weak link. They wanted to help, but didn’t know what to do. They had very little insight and understanding about China and about trauma. Some of them were helpful with practical things, but were could not understand what the big problem was. “After all, you are back home now and all is well” One person said, I wanted to shout, “No, it isn’t and I am not even sure that this is my home”
And as I said in my previous blog, it is very important to grieve lost hopes and dreams. To grieve what could have been as well as what was lost.
In my conversations, a question I had for them was: What does grief look like? What did it look like for you?
- “I was surprised how intense it was at times. Somehow I thought I would be able to handle it better.”
- “I lost my temper. I am pretty sure my wife got the worst of me. I think I took out my frustration on her. I was not a fun guy to be around.”
- “I just can’t get over how tired I was. Grieving is hard work! I felt drained, not only emotionally, but also physically”
- “It was just so unpredictable! I had a couple of really “good days” and then suddenly bang! It was back again and I had a really rough day.
- “I honestly worried that I was going crazy!”
- “I felt embarrassed that it took so long time. I kept thinking, “shouldn’t I be done with this by now?”
I would encourage each one who has faced a traumatic departure from China to get to the stage where you can build on your past experience as you look forward. Where you are whole enough to sort through your experience and recognize what is good to bring into your next season, perhaps a new ministry in a new place.
But remember, just because you have grieved well and moved on in life, to wherever God takes you, that doesn’t mean that you won’t, perhaps many years later, feel a sudden sting of sadness out of the blue when something happens that takes you back to life in China. But your sadness will go hand-in-hand with gratefulness for the time you had and excitement for what is still to come.
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