Accumulated Grief, Loss, Injustice, & Stress
Global workers may experience any number of traumatic events, such as the death of a child or spouse; a life-threatening tropical disease; a serious car accident; getting caught in a riot; having to be evacuated; getting robbed by a friend you have come to love; and/or the senseless death of a dear national friend due to poor medical care. When these happen, we receive a lot of support from family, community, agency, and churches. This is great!
What I would like to address, however, is the concept of accumulated grief/loss, accrued injustice, and cumulative stress, as every servant experiences those realities when overseas. In many countries, the local community often minimizes these experiences because they are so commonplace. For example, we were robbed (mild to traumatic) ten times in Africa; at least seventy percent of our friends were also robbed multiple times. We came to minimize (and not properly grieve) the loss from each robbery—consequently, we let the loss build.
Grief and Loss
At Alongside* we had a seminar on grieving loss. The following concept presented there is so true: if I do not grieve loss #1, when #2 comes, I will feel both losses. Loss #3 is even worse. If I let them accumulate, it can get to the point that a particular loss—let’s say #6—causes what may seem to others to be an emotional overreaction. In reality, the meltdown is due to the cumulative losses 1–6.
Here are a few examples of legitimate loss:
- Loss of relationships in your home country (friends, family, church)
- Loss of the familiar (speaking/hearing your native language, entertainment options, Christian radio)
- Loss of personal safety (depending on the country)
- Loss of grandparents living near your children
- Loss of dreams (“effective” ministry, good health, working within your gifting, an exciting adventure)
- Loss of being able to attend weddings, funerals, and holidays in your home country
- Loss of a child going off to college across the pond
- Loss of ability to go jogging to de-stress (depending on the country).
Twice during our overseas career, I wrote down a grief/loss timeline. The first time was five months after leaving Africa (after thirteen years there) and two months into living in SE Asia. The volume of grief and loss surprised me. I was encouraged to grieve each loss, which was very helpful in my life. The second time I made a grief timeline, I remembered the eye-opening experience of understanding the volume of loss; this time I wanted to add the “joys” of that term to get a more balanced picture. It is an incredible experience to see God work in the midst of pain, and my grief/joy timeline actually told a story of redemption and grace.
Please put each individual and ongoing loss, as it comes, into the hands of your loving Father. Receive His comfort.
Accumulated Injustice (and the often-resulting anger)
When is anger appropriate? Look at the life of Jesus.
IF Jesus was allowed to feel:
- Angry that a house of prayer was turned into a den of thieves:
“It is written,” he said to them, “my house will be a house of prayer; but you have made it a den of robbers” (Luke 19:46).
- Angry with hypocrisy:
You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you (Matthew 15:7).
Jesus, knowing their evil intent, said, “You hypocrites, why are you trying to trap me?” (Matthew 22:18).
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! … Woe to you, blind guides! … (Matthew 23:13–29).
- Angry/furious with evil:
Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (Matthew 7:23).
You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of (Matthew 12:34).
THEN there are certainly instances when we are allowed to feel anger too. Please take that anger to Jesus, who understands. Global servants deal with injustice all the time—situations that are just not fair.
These are a few examples of legitimate injustice:
- Misunderstood by relatives in your home country
- Criminal behavior of politicians and/or police asking for bribes
- Knowing that sex-trafficking is prevalent and/or working with the girls
- Hospital ineptitude hurting a person you love
- The visa you worked so hard to acquire is stolen
- Unfair agency/church decisions
- Colleagues criticizing without understanding.
Remember that Jesus can relate—He was despised and rejected by men (not fair), (he was) a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53:3).
Please put everything that is “just not fair,” as it comes, into the hands of God. Receive comfort from your Father, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
There is a stress test adapted for overseas servants (Holmes-Rahe) that measures the amount of stress that a global worker is going through in several categories. The person answers 55 questions regarding their last year; each one has a numerical value attached to it (examples: death of a spouse = 63; raising support = 39; adjusting to a new climate = 22; making new close friends = 15). The worker then totals their score. Studies have shown that living above 200 might affect one’s health down the road. Most overseas servants average 550! Please understand that the realities of living overseas are abnormally stressful.
The following are a few examples of legitimate stress:
- Change in the health of a family member
- Change in the reliability of electricity, water, plumbing, etc.
- Change in financial state—raising support
- Change in climate (living in intense heat or a cold, dark place)
- Change (again) in responsibilities at work
- Change in reliability of basic equipment (appliances, computer, vehicle)
- Change in lifestyle, or needing to be flexible all the time.
In spite of all the stress, overseas workers are often resilient and have integrity in the middle of the mess, but stress still takes a toll. Please understand this concept and ask friends for de-stressing ideas in your country of service. Furthermore—and this is vital—fight for precious time with your Father to rest in Him and learn to de-stress.
My guess is that you live with at least 50% of the legitimate loss, injustice, and stress listed. You may be tempted to think, “This describes my life and the life of all my colleagues—it is called ‘Life Overseas.’” Please do not normalize your life and minimize tough realities. Your overseas life is not normal. It is therefore imperative that you spend more time with God naming, grieving, and ultimately handing Him your legitimate loss, injustice, and stress.
Remember, Jesus has walked in your shoes/sandals! He is well acquainted with your pain. Please hand it to Him.
*Alongside is a rest/renewal place in Michigan which I highly recommend.
Questions to consider: How have you seen God work through your grief/loss? What are some ways you deal with your “appropriate anger”? What are some “de-stressing ideas” that you have found helpful?
About the author
Elisabeth Marie is married with three children. She served in Africa from 1997-2010 and SE Asia from 2010-2016. She is passionate about encouraging cross-cultural workers in various ways. First term: adjusting, mom/wife and office manager at an international school. Second term: started/managed a retreat home for overseas workers and facilitated Bible studies. Third term: started a salon for women serving cross-culturally (1 1/2 years) then moved to SE Asia and had a salon, facilitated studies, did a couple of "office" projects, provided hospitality for global servants and wrote a couple of books on member care. She greatly respects cross-cultural workers and desires to serve them in multiple ways (as God leads).View all articles by: Elisabeth Marie
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