Josh, an eighteen-year-old senior at a boarding school in Germany, was home in Italy with his four-year-old brother Sam.  They were sitting on the balcony one night, looking up at the stars, with Sam rambling in his raspy, high-pitched voice.  He pointed off into the distance and said, “Jesus is over there and down there and up there and in there…and everywhere!”  Josh listened and smiled, content to be sitting under the Italian sky, spending time with a brother he saw only on Christmas, Easter, and summer breaks.  He is a doting older brother, a young man who delights in his young siblings and relishes their time together.  The bond between them is strong and deep.

Eventually Sam said, “Hold me.”  So Josh took this little brother into his arms and they stared up together.

“I miss you, Josh,” Sam said.  “Ask me why I miss you.”  Josh dutifully repeated the question.

And Sam said, “School.  I’ll miss you when you go back to school.”

Then he looked up at the stars and, pointing, said, “I wish on that star and that star and that star and that star that you don’t have to go.”

And then he uttered an astounding sentiment for a child his age: “But Jesus is here, and I’ll be happy with whatever He gives me.”

At the age of four, tow-headed Sam had already developed a theology of grief, a spiritual mechanism that allowed him to deal with his beloved brother’s imminent departure.  Yes, it is a beautiful thing—and yes, it is also sobering.

The statistics do not lie.  By the age of eighteen, average Third-Culture Kids will have experienced eight major moves (source: Interaction).  They will also have lived in a transient community where people are constantly coming and going, some with predictable exits and others without warning at all.  The lie that they derive from such a goodbye-loaded existence is straightforward: everybody always leaves.

Loss is as common on the mission field as big hair at a Bill Gaither convention, and it does not apply only to people.  With each of those eight moves mentioned above, a Missionary Kid (MK) will experience a host of losses:

  • Loss of possessions and pets,
  • Loss of social networks (sports teams, youth groups, classmates, neighborhood kids),
  • Loss of favorite things, particularly when they are associated with a specific place,
  • Loss of security (knowing what to expect and how things “work”),
  • Loss of status (people knowing who you are and what you have accomplished without need for explanation), and
  • Loss of lifestyle (particularly for those MKs who move across cultures and financial statuses).

None of those losses, however, are as devastating to a young person as the loss of people.  The first people we lose (sometimes without even realizing it) are relatives: grandparents and cousins who drive to the airport to see us off and whose presence in our lives diminishes in immediacy and “realness” with every year we spend overseas.  I grieved when my grandparents passed away, but not because I was sad they had died.  I grieved because of the realization that I had really never known them.  I had grown up visiting them for a week during my home-assignment summers, but I felt as close to them as I did to anyone else that I saw that rarely.

There are also those peripheral losses that happen like random meteor strikes, leaving craters that can neither be filled nor erased.  I grew up at the European Bible Institute, immersed in a subculture in which a new batch of Bible-school students arrived every year and another batch graduated.  As a child who was mistreated in the French school system, it was in the young adults of EBI that I invested my heart, devoting myself to these kind and compassionate “grown-ups” who saw in buck-toothed little Shell someone to be heard and embraced.  Every time I fell into friendship with another student, I kicked myself; they were going to leave in a year or two anyway, so why get attached?  Like many MKs, I had tried to adopt a love-no-one mantra at a young age, my attempt at sparing myself from more painful goodbyes.  I had soon discovered, however, that I craved meaningful relationships more than I feared another loss.  I could try all I wanted to remain aloof in order to avoid more painful goodbyes, but a life of solitude seemed a worse fate than familiar grief.

Adding to the weight of losses is the transient nature of the global worker community.  The time span global workers devote to overseas work varies, and there is a certain security in knowing who is there for one year, who is there for two years, and who is there for life.  We know the goodbyes will be inevitable, but we can also brace ourselves for them when we see them coming.  It is the unexpected departures that catch us off-guard and unprepared.  Having to evacuate a country in the middle of the night, as some of my former students had to do.  Seeing best friends get on a plane because a sudden family emergency had forced them to move back to the States.  Watching others slip out of our lives because their mission requested they move to another field, because they ran out of funding, or because of interpersonal tensions.  There are countless reasons for global workers to “move on,” and each one of them leads to the kind of losses whose repercussions can eventually cause difficulties in relationships, life stability, and personal vulnerability.

Fear of loss can be one of the most influential motivators in an MK’s life.  The area in which it is most obvious is relationships.  Because we know(from experience) that we will have our friends only for a limited amount of time, we often act in predictable ways:

  • We enter into relationships quickly and deeply, not wanting to waste days and weeks on the usual social dances.  Typically, an MK will “dive deep,” immediately asking pointed questions, revealing intimate details about his or her life and maybe even in some way testing the new arrival.  Where “normal” friendships begin casually and slowly mature into something meaningful, MK relationships skip all the preliminaries in an urgency to get to the “real stuff” fast…just in case the person will have to leave tomorrow.  Ironically, this means that we will only be more attached by the time that dreaded separation happens.  We are creating more pain by loving more deeply—and we know it.
  • The flip side of that approach is trying to protect ourselves.  We have learned that relationship invariably leads to pain, so we barricade ourselves inside a fragile self-sufficiency and keep reminding ourselves that we need no one and want no one.  If this strategy works (and it occasionally does), it can lead to serious difficulties in ever allowing anyone close, unless the MK receives the kind of help that will free him or her from this self-defensive strategy.
  • We tend to see all relationships as having an expiration date.  This can be a detriment to being able to think in terms of lifelong commitment.  We are so used to seeing profound friendships torn apart by life’s vagaries that it is sometimes uncomfortable for us to be engaged in long-term friendships with no end in sight, without any of the urgency that has mostly defined our previous relational style.
  • Some of us erroneously conclude that the reason people keep leaving mustbe that there is something wrong with us.  We must be unlikable and unworthy of their loyalty.  We must be ugly, stupid, or just plain uninteresting.  It is a torturous way to live.
  • We may get angry at whatever we think has caused the lack of stability in our lives.  Maybe it is God’s fault.  Maybe it is the global workers world’s fault.  Maybe it is life’s fault.  Maybe it is our parents’ fault.  Whatever it is, we do not like it, and it erodes us.

Another trait common to many MKs is that we tend to accumulate and relive our grief.  When someone we love leaves, it is not just that loss that burdens us.  Every departure brings up all the pain and tearing-apart of previous departures.  When I was growing up and had to say another goodbye, I would feel paralyzed with grief, even when the person leaving was not necessarily a close friend.  In truth, I was not just grieving for that departure, I was also grieving for every single time I had had to say goodbye in my life up to that point.  Grieving another loss.  Angry at another loss.  Bemoaning the lifestyle that caused those losses to happen so frequently and wishing it did not have to happen again and again and again.  Every goodbye released the accumulated angst and sorrow of a lifetime of losses, and there was little anyone could do to soothe the jagged pain.

Unfortunately, the world of missions will always be a place where people come and go at dizzying speeds, where transfers happen without warning and friendships develop fast and most often die suddenly.  Black Forest Academy’s graduations yield some of the most emotional and agonizing goodbyes I have ever seen.  These teenagers have lived together for years, sharing so much in common and overcoming so much through vulnerability and love.  If you did not know the context, you would think they were preparing to watch each other die, square-hatted, in front of a firing squad!

I was much the same even in my adult years, facing every major goodbye with feelings that seemed more suited to sudden death than to geographical distance.  It was not until my mid-twenties that I realized that every goodbye triggered the relived, accumulated grief of a lifetime of losses.  The best anyone can do to help an MK coping with accumulated losses is to point out that a departure is not a death.  With modern social-networking sites, email, Skype, and so many other communication tools, there is no reason why a friendship should just disappear because distance intervenes.  We may lose proximity, but we need not lose love.

The antidote to the lie that “everybody always leaves” is fourfold:

  • Realizing that the word “everybody” may be an overstatement!  It is important that we recognize and cherish those friendships we have had that have lasted more than a handful of months.  Looking back, I can now see friendships in my youth that did last for three or four years, but I was so busy bemoaning the loss of others that I failed to recognize what I had.
  • Allowing each goodbye to validate how full, rich, and beautiful that friendship was—and choosing to celebrate what we had even as we grieve.  As in most things in life, it is so easy to focus just on the painful.  It takes extra effort to acknowledge the good.  If departures can help us to see how unique and precious those relationships have been and how fortunate we have been to have them, that can further encourage a long-distance friendship that may be different, but not necessarily be weaker.  Which leads to…
  • Investing the time, organization, and effort it takes to maintain long-distance friendships with those we love most dearly.
  • Recognizing our need for relationships and choosing to continue to invest in them, even if they may cause pain in the future.  The benefits of relationships are worth the effort, commitment, and risk of further loss.

Allow me to repeat that, because if you are an MK like me, it is a truth we would all do well to repeat like a mantra: the benefits of relationship are worth the effort, commitment, and, yes, the daunting risk of loss.

©2014 Thrive