I was ten years old for my first, genuine goodbye. Our church prayed for us before we left for our initial move to Mongolia. I sobbed on the sanctuary steps and when we walked out to our car, my best friend sobbed with me, begging me for one more hug before we drove away. I have pictures of me with swollen red eyes, forcing a smile.
It was awful.
Fast forward four years and I found myself in a similar situation. Goodbyes were coming again, but this time I knew how painful goodbyes could be and I wanted to avoid the emotional chaos they evoked. So, instead of hugs and tears, I waved at my friend over the fence and said my goodbye. I thought I had gotten off easy and I could breathe more deeply, but my friend called me an hour later and on the phone we sobbed together. Little did I know that I would never return to that home again, or to that city, or to that life.
It was awful.
The day we left Indonesia—my most recent goodbye—there was a terrorist attack on the police station just outside our hotel. My husband was gone and I was in the hotel alone with my four kids and I was terrified. There had recently been coordinated attacks around the country, and I was sure that God was not going to let me leave; after all, terrorists target police stations, churches and hotels. And there I was, in a hotel, alone with my kids, trying to decide what to do if a bomb went off. Do you stay in the hotel and barricade the door? Or do you get out before a potential collapse? Questions I had never thought to ask.
As we headed off to the airport, hoping flights weren’t cancelled, the military lined the streets, guns ready. By the time we boarded the plane the fear mingled with my grief and I wanted to leave; I longed for safety.
It was awful.
I have so many memories of goodbyes. Each of them uniquely different and yet they are all the same. It is no surprise that unresolved grief is a problem associated with cross-cultural living as goodbyes to friends and family, countries, languages, and homes pile up in our souls. These losses often go unattended as we focus on the coming adventure or minimize the intensity of the losses, telling ourselves that we will be ok, that God will provide. There is a dying world to save, after all, who has time for grief?
Yet, genuine loss demands genuine grief and God knows it, he sees it, and he legitimizes the reality of it. Most of us are familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But have you ever applied those to your goodbyes?
Has anyone lived in denial that the loss is even real? Focusing instead on the future or diving headlong into ministry, deciding that this is all for the best.
Have you ever been angry about the goodbye? Have you ever been angry with someone leaving you behind? Sure that they are abandoning you and choosing an easier life while you have to stay, continually sacrificing for Jesus?
Do you have conversations with God, informing him that you will give him your life as long as he provides what you need? Arms crossed, feet firm, demanding restitution for all that has been taken from you?
Have you ever had a hard time getting out of bed? Do you feel lethargic, not wanting to continue to pursue personal growth or activities you enjoy? Have you wanted to call it quits and give up on ministry and life altogether as the weight of grief sits on your chest?
Then there is acceptance. What could it possibly look like? Does it mean you give up feeling or caring? Or is it an embracing of the pain?
I’m learning that acceptance is attainable only when the former steps have been walked through. When we have felt the anger and depression. When we have bargained with God. When we no longer cover our pain in denial but instead bear its burden. In this way we come to know and understand how we have been affected and changed by each goodbye, accepting it as a part of our experience and building upon its foundation.
The problem I’ve found in this process is the culmination of unending goodbyes. How do you grieve every single loss? I fear I would be inconsolable if I allowed myself to feel every grief, all the time.
This is why I allow myself to have days of grief. Days, in which I cry, stay in bed, eat comfort food and feel grieved and sorry for myself. Sometimes this lasts a day and sometimes it can be longer, then I sleep and climb out of bed and continue on with life, until the next day comes, when my body tells me that I need to tend to the grief that sits with me. It’s like pulling my favorite book off of the shelf, perusing its pages, remembering its story, feeling its feelings before placing it back on the shelf to attend to again another day.
Because we all know that more goodbyes are on their way, each of them unique and each of them the same and they all etch themselves like scars on our bodies. Testifying to the love we’ve given and the love we have lost. This love and this loss ought to be honored in grief; it ought to be given the weight it deserves as it inevitably changes us.
When was your last goodbye? Take some time and ruminate over the impact that particular loss has had on your life and tell someone you trust about the pain, giving yourself permission to cry and feel the grief without shame.
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