05 March, 2016

Missionaries and grief

This was written several days after my father-in-law passed away.

Yesterday I sat in the waiting room of our son's orthodontist. A short period of calm where I was required to do nothing but wait. I googled "Missionaries and grief". This post popped up: Outlawed grief.

It finishes with,
"please, allow grief in your own heart and in the hearts of your family members." and 
"And if you come across someone who’s grieving a loss, please remember that they probably don’t need a lecture, or a Bible verse, or a pithy saying.  But they could maybe use a hug." 
I've received some great hugs over the last ten days. Hugs from other missionaries, people who know about grief. Many have lost their own loved ones. But more than that, every missionary has experienced grief that we don't like to talk about, that don't have culturally acceptable ceremonies attached to them:

  • moving away from everything familiar
  • leaving behind family
  • saying goodbye to irreplaceable friends in your home country
  • giving up things that are precious (be they material things or hearing your name spoken without an accent)
  • leaving aside "being competent"
  • walking away from professions
And that's just the start. When you move to the field then there are these losses:
  • missionaries who you've grown close to who leave the field or go elsewhere to serve
  • ambitions, ideals, or plans that get smashed
  • locals you grow to know and have to say goodbye to when you leave for one reason or another
  • disasters, war, yes they happen
  • death of beloved colleagues (and relatives/friends back home)
  • not being able to be present when significant events happen in your home country (like anniversaries, births, deaths, weddings, etc.)
And doing it again and again. 

It occurred to me as I read the articles yesterday that came up in that waiting room, that my husband and I are at least acquainted with grief. We haven't been to many actual funerals: the distance factor has been huge—if you're in town when your grandmother/cousin/friend dies, you probably go to the funeral, when you are an ocean away on a limited budget you often don't. But we've experienced many losses. Not so gut-wrenching a loss as the loss of a parent, but still multiple losses. All missionaries have.

Just this week we remember a colleague who died of cancer last year, David's cousin (in her 30s) who also died this time last year, and next Friday is the 5th anniversary of the triple disaster where 18,000 lost their lives. Plenty to ponder and grieve.

I also found this article about missionaries and grief:
You may say, "I don't need to know anything about grief. No one in my family has died, and when someone does, I'll fly home to the funeral." If and when that happens, it may be one of your easier encounters with grief because everyone there will understand your grief, and your culture has developed rituals to enable you to resolve your grief. Although we commonly think of grief as related to the death of a loved one, there are many other causes of grief.
The dictionary defines grief as the "intense emotional suffering caused by loss of any kind."
Missionaries experience many losses that other people do not, so those people do not understand. There is no funeral or other ritual to assist in grieving over these losses. Missionaries may offer true, but over-spiritualized, platitudes in denial of the losses they experience. When people are dying and losing everything, we do not question their denial, anger, or depression before they come to accept their loss. Regarding losses other than death, missionaries may carry a load of unexpressed, unresolved grief.' From: http://www.missionarycare.com/brochures/br_grief.htm
In the end I think it's the hugs I've appreciated most. The "I'm sorry about your father-in-law" is awkward, though heart-felt and sincere. But a simple hug speaks volumes when words simply don't work, especially in Japan people don't hug, they usually don't even touch. Generally if people touch you in Japan they apologise. Almost the only time that doesn't happen is on a squishy train.

To be fair, I haven't encountered over-spirtualised platitudes from missionaries, perhaps, though, we tend to do it to ourselves and that's what we need to guard ourselves from the most?

I'm looking forward to David getting home tomorrow morning. He's just gotten off his second of three planes. Tomorrow I'll get to hug him again and again and again. My love languages? Physical touch and quality time!

Other times I've written about grief: http://mmuser.blogspot.jp/2015/10/grief-and-loss.html

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