Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Grieving Missionary

When I first moved to Uganda, the decision was almost surreal. My goodbyes to friends and family didn’t seem like real goodbyes. Getting on that one way flight to Uganda seemed like any other flight I had taken. I had no clue what life would be like in Uganda nor what I would miss.

That was three years ago.

I am acutely aware this time around what I am saying goodbye to and the implications of that. You don't have to tell me how difficult it is to arrange to talk with loved ones with different time zones and poor internet. I know all too well. I now know what it’s like to miss living life with loved ones. I know what it’s like to miss birthday parties, anniversaries and births of babies. I know what it’s like to desperately need a face to face heartfelt chat with a dear friend and not be able to have it. This time, it’s not two years…it’s forever. I’m moving my whole life over to Uganda. It’s much more final; much more real.

I just finished training at Missionary Training International. During our last week of training, we talked about loss and grief. There are so many joys in the life of a missionary, and I truly hope that those joys come across in this blog. I absolutely love that God has called me to this. However, there are some insanely difficult parts of the missionary life. The discussion on grief hit deeper than I thought it would. I wanted to share this with you all for two reasons:

·       I desire to be open and honest here with the goods and bads, the joys and sorrows. I want to show my struggles and where I’m at now.
·       So that you can more deeply understand what some of the struggles that your missionary friends go through. While there are greater joys than you can imagine, there are deep sorrows experienced as well.

In our training, we covered six guaranteed losses of a missionary:

Stable Nest or Home: The loss of the familiar, of warmth and security, of refuge, of consistency and dependability, predictability and orderliness as well as balance.

Safety: In America, one of our core values is safety and comfort…what happens when you find out the system is corrupt and justice will not have a voice?

Competence: Who are you when you feel inadequate? When you are entering a new culture and reentering your home culture?

Identity: What happens when you’re no longer an insider anywhere? Where does your identity lie?

Support System: Welcome to a vocation where it is a revolving door of relationships. Constant hello’s and goodbye’s.

Quickly and easily attained goals: We come from a goal oriented society. What happens when those goals take years? Learning a language takes years. You never stop learning culture. Discipling others takes years if not generations.

Each one of these has gut wrenching implications. As the group of us processed these, the depth of the sorrow was evident. Fathers weeping; realizing that the safety of their family was no longer in their control. The cries of many as they shared what special occasions they would be missing. And if I could only explain the sorrow of feeling homeless in this world without sounding crazy.

These were all things that I had experienced the past two years and know that it will be heightened even more this time around. This time…I know. And I can now put words to these insane emotions inside of me.

So…I grieve. I grieve over missing the birthdays of my nieces and nephews; seeing them grow up from a distance. I grieve missing the births of my friend’s babies; not only not being there during their pregnancy but also not being there to watch their kids grow up and as they transition in their lives. I grieve not being able to live life with those that I love so deeply. I grieve the loss of stability in my life. The nomadic life sounds romantic and exciting until you’re living it. I grieve the loss of safety and comfort. The unknowns of this life are so many. I grieve the loss of some comforts. I’ve probably mentioned my love of air-conditioning, good roads and fast internet too many times to count. I grieve the loss of home and home culture.  I grieve that I will never fully fit into either culture.

While grieving isn’t exactly a fun party, it’s good. It’s good that this all feels real to me this time instead of constantly living in a surreal state. It’s good that I’m not so excited about leaving that I bypass the grieving on my end or others around me. As much as I know how we can utilize skype and other such ways to stay connected, it's good that I will grieve the loss of closeness in relationships.

Still worth it? Most definitely. Insanely difficult? You best believe it.

So, pray. I know that I need prayer in this process...and if you have other missionaries in your life, pray for them. Be a listening ear and a safe place where they can let their guard down and share their struggles. In the midst of grief, may we not lose sight of the joy set before us.


Al Burpee said...

Sarah, I have been thinking about this a lot lately myself. On Monday, I was at CCU speaking to a group of accounting students as a favor to one of my old professors. One of the reasons I wanted to share with them is that I wanted them to think about different opportunities that they could do with accounting decides just getting a job in the US. I was asked at the end though if I would recommend a career as a missionary. It was weird because in that moment I had previous 2.5 years flash in front of me, and I knew what my answer would be, "Absolutely not ." I had wanted them to think about doing something different with their lives, but I realized that was the wrong message. In realizing what being a missionary has cost me, I could only recommend being obedient to the life that they are certain God has called them too. As I was leaving Colorado the next day, I spent that evening saying goodbye to people. What you wrote about not realizing what you were saying goodbye the first time you went is really true. I cried myself to sleep that night and it certainly won't be the last time I do that as I say goodbye to friends and family in Idaho.

Sheryl said...

Well said, my friend.

There is so much grief. Missionary life overflows with it. Of course there is joy, but I think grief is much stickier than joy. At least it is for me. Joy is a hummingbird like thing; it flits in and out. Grief is more like dirt in dry season; it's ubiquqitous and impossible to eliminate. But they go together. Joy is much more triumphant because it contrasts so vividly with the muck of grief. Likewise, grief is so much more poignant because we know joy.

You'll encounter many more losses on this journey. As a journey of obedience, it's well worth the loss. It's hard, but worthwhile.

Jim VanDuzer said...

Wow! Love you girl! Praying for you...and so many others. SO proud of you!

Beth Matheson said...

I read this earlier and can't shake it. This is my thought- I feel like this missionary grieving your belonging process is in some ways like the journey towards spiritual maturity. On a much MUCH less tangible and real way. In teeny, tiny ways. (PS- I actually don't know what it is like to leave everything behind, I just tried imagining what it would be like for me to be in your shoes) You are living through on a huge scale what a person must face when faced with the decision to trust and obey Christ. It is such a HUGE leap from many people to come to believe that Christ can be their savior....and then to leap to He loves them gave His life for them....then leap to learning how to love and obey Him (don't even get me started on THAT). In the process you WILL loose things, sometimes you will feel like you don't belong and it will be rewarding despite all this. Only God could make something that painful or difficult bring glory. Praying!

SarahPish said...

Al, I wonder what they would have thought if you would have said "absolutely not". :) I resonate with what you said: be certain and obedient. I've cried more this time around than ever before and know that many more tears are to come.

Sheryl, your description is beautiful and so true. Grief is indeed stickier making joy feel like breaths of fresh air amidst the muck.

Jim, thanks for being a part of this journey God's had me on. Would LOVE to have you come on out sometime. Bring Kathy and your kids (who are now adults??) too! :)

Beth, as with so many things in our faith, they're all so much easier to say than to actually do and live out. Living out our faith is difficult. I'm clinging to "joy comes in the morning".

Sarah said...

Sarah, I really love how you summarized our MTI training on grief. I am sure I will reference this again after we move. Thank you for articulating this so well. I am praying for you. I am also overwhelmed right now with are not alone! Love, Sarah Blaine