Loss: Common and Cross-Cultural

Image by Mark Filter from Pixabay

“Let’s call her and tell her you are sorry about her father and ask her if she wants to come over to play”, my mother coached me after breaking the news that my best friend’s father had just perished in a tragic airplane crash in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Jan didn’t want to play, and in a few weeks, her mother took the family back to their home country.

This was my first real encounter with loss. According to the dictionary, “Loss is the state or feeling of grief when deprived of someone or something of value. It produces sadness, ache, emptiness”.

Everyone who breathes experiences loss of some kind. These come in the form of large, devastating losses like the death of a loved one, chronic illness, disaster or personal attack. Life-stage losses are common when one gets married for the first time, adds a new member to the family or retires. Intangible losses are significant but often hard to pinpoint. Dreams, plans, expectations, financial plans and opportunities that don’t pan out can leave one devastated and shocked. These more significant things overshadow losses such as a torn favorite sweater or a broken wedding gift.

What common losses have you experienced?

As Directors of Member Care, my husband and I communicate with several cross-cultural workers each week. In almost every interaction, we identify an immense amount of loss. Because on top of common losses, global ministry produces its own set of unique losses.

The Apostle Paul illustrates this well in Acts 20:36 – 21:1, as he says goodbye to his church family at Ephesus to embark on a missionary journey:

When Paul had finished speaking, he knelt down with all of them and prayed. They all wept as they embraced him and kissed him. What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again. Then they accompanied him to the ship. After we had torn ourselves away from them, we put out to sea and sailed straight to Kos.

Like Paul, every cross-cultural worker experiences the loss of relocation, transition and near constant change. In moving overseas, they lose their familiar way of life, from the grocery store to the church congregation. They miss out on weddings and birthdays. They loose their identity as teacher, pastor, RN or CEO to become a lowly language learner and strange foreign wanderer. As time goes on, they experience disillusionment loss if ministry does not turn out as they expected, churches are not planted and local communities do not welcome them with open arms. On top of this, their community becomes a revolving door when life overseas takes it toll and government systems make it difficult for expatriates to stay. Good friends and colleagues leave on a regular basis.

What cross-cultural losses have you experienced?

Loss must be grieved, from the little things to the big things. My colleague, Suzi, says that grief is “a process of emotions that we each must pass through in order for our hearts to heal from a loss we’ve experienced”. If not, losses can build up and escalate into cumulative grief. Unresolved grief then contributes to sadness, depression, callousness, bitterness and burn out.

Try these three things to help grieve your losses:

Acknowledge the loss

Be real, be honest, don’t deny or spiritualize, however small the loss might be. Say it out loud, give it a name, talk about it. Make a list of all your losses and secondary losses. Be specific about what you miss. For example: Primary Loss: My friend, Lori. Secondary Loss: I miss the mom-to-mom conversations we had about our children.

Process grief

Write, talk, cry—whatever helps you release and express your feelings. Recognize the stages of grief and give yourself the time to walk through them. And when you’re ready, find a creative way to dispose of your list. For example: After completing your “loss list”, tear it into little pieces and create a collage representing new life.

Practice good soul care

Go to the Word of God, listen to praise music, read inspirational books, spend time with good friends, exercise, eat healthy, sleep well and do more of those activities that energize and soothe you. For example: get a massage, hike, paint, garden, play the guitar, go horse back riding etc.

Habakkuk 3:17-18 illustrates where we want our grieving process to lead us:

Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; Though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; Though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls—Yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will joy in the God of my salvation.

While this aspect of ministry overseas may seem daunting and grieving isn’t fun, it does mean that we have known love and friendship. There had to be something beautiful in order for us to feel the loss of it so much. In the process, we learn to share in Christ’s grief, how to comfort others who grieve and the mysteries of how sadness and joy, grief and love coexist and interplay, making us who we are. In that we can rejoice!

What losses have you experienced in the past year(s)? 

In what ways can you relate to Paul’s goodbye example? How is it helpful?

If you were to rewrite Habakkuk 3:17-18 in your own words, how would it read?

What are some creative ways you can process your grief?

For further reading:

Outlawed Grief, Loss, Injustice & Stress

Accumulated Grief, Loss, Injustice & Stress

6 Ways to Heal from Cumulative Grief & Trauma

Ideas to Process Grief and Loss

Tips for MKs in a Season of Grief

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