How to Welcome Her Back

welcome her back

Your loved one is coming back! After time in a place you couldn’t pinpoint on a map before she fell in love with it, she’s coming home.

You will pick her up at the airport, feed her good home cookin’, take her shopping to update that…ummm…wardrobe. Man, is it going to be great to have her back!

Is she happy to be home? Absolutely! She is so glad to be back with you.

And honestly? No, she’s also not glad to be back. The problem is, her “normal” changed.

Here’s what you need to know.

Your loved one changed in ways she has difficulty articulating. The depth and breadth of the shift is still unknown to her.

For you, her reentry is an event you’ve been waiting for. It’s here. It’s over. It’s time to continue your daily rhythms of life. For her, it’s a marathon and she’s barely at the halfway mark. She is staggering in intense, complex, conflicting emotions. Exhausted by the logistical and emotional fatigue of farewells and deluge of decisions, her life is in upheaval.

You might think she’s finally crossed the finish line. But she is still in the in-between with questions about who she is, where she will belong, how she is going to live in this oh-so-familiar-yet-unfamiliar place. An undercurrent of grief is pushing and pulling, tugging away at her energy and focus. She is in a fog of longings and confusion and doubts and concerns. And all of this is perfectly normal.

The waves of transition will ebb and flow for months, probably years. It’s an intensely personal experience, far more like a rickety roller coaster in a country with no safety laws, than a lovely stroll in a park.

So, here’s how to help her.

Give her space.

Two basic needs for wellbeing are threatened when a global worker returns to her home country: a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging and connectedness.

She’s come back to very nice things: safety, comfort, love of family and friends, communicating in her native language, conveniences she’s been dreaming of, ease of living.

No visa kerfuffles, no quandaries about how to communicate with only gestures, no navigating corruption vs. getting things done, nothing demanding she courageously give her all just to get through today.

I know it seems crazy, but she is going to miss those. A lot. Being a square peg in a round hole is hard. It sure enough is. But it’s also invigorating and life-giving. We humans aren’t created for ease. We are created for challenge, for purpose, for living beyond ourselves. Humans thrive in hardship when focused on a purpose bigger than ourselves. We wilt where we are unnecessary.

She contributed, added value to a community, brought light to dark places. Though often overwhelmed by the immensity and scope of needs, that abundance of needs also affirmed in every moment, “This is a place I am needed and whatever small difference I can make, well, it matters.” She mattered. That’s hard to give up.

Be curious.

Ask questions. Help her unpack her stories. When a trusted listener opens the door, stories may come like a flood. If you are comfortable with paradox, other stories will bubble to the surface as you create a safe place for them to land.

She won’t be offended by your ignorance and “dumb questions” born out of genuine interest in her. Apathy is what hurts. The key is to be respectful of the place she served and sensitive to her experience.

This chapter in her life closed, but it is not over. She’s taken off the badge but being a global worker is still a primary source of identity. She hasn’t completed her leaving yet.

Extend grace.

She is working hard at adjusting back to “civilian life.” She will say insensitive things as she processes aloud. For a while, she’s probably going to dread going to church, attending social functions, engaging in regular life. She might even feel a little judgmental of the excess and complacency in her home country. Don’t worry. That’s normal. She is in the midst of processing how she fits.

She needs permission and space to grieve her deep and varied losses. Not only teammates and friends, but she’s also lost a lifestyle, a role, a way of being and being known.

Grieving is messy. She may need extended time alone for reflection, time with other returnees, space and resources to think through how this past season shaped and impacted her.

Encourage her connections with other returned global workers.

Don’t make her feel guilty for leaving you for a week of reunion with a former teammate or a long road trip to see a friend from her place of service. Her global tribe hasn’t taken your place. They created a whole new category of relationships vital to her wellbeing.

The communal nature of living interdependently in a foreign place creates an intense social bond and connection. She lived among a band of brothers and sisters who take responsibility for and suffer on behalf of one another, sharing their collective treasures and efforts.

Loneliness and alienation are common to those who reenter their home culture. Not because they don’t have people who love them dearly, but because they need people who can relate to the wildly different life they have been living. She is disconnected from the people she was in the foxhole with, the community she learned to rely on and the ones who relied on her.

Pardon the comparison, but when a lab rat is traumatized and put in a cage by itself, the trauma symptoms can be perpetuated indefinitely. But when in a cage with other lab rats, the effects of trauma dissipate over a matter of weeks. She needs room to heal among people who understand that intensity of relational dependence. She needs space to reconcile unresolved issues and unfulfilled dreams. She might not know how to tell you that. She may not even know she needs that right away.

Encourage your person to go to a retreat or a debriefing program designed for global workers. Better yet, pay for her to go! Give her the gift of working with a transition coach. Buy her a reentry workbook or a helpful book on transition.

Be a culture bridge.

Competencies gained over there were hard won treasures. It takes moxie to move from clueless to competent, from ignorant to expert. She earned her chops and proved her worth as a member of the community.

Navigating cultural intricacies, reading what first looked like squiggles, and traversing streams overflowing with crocodiles aren’t skills that easily translate into figuring out how to use the self checkout or order coffee with 53 possible add-ons. This incredibly resourceful, creative, competent, determined woman is reduced again to “inept foreigner.”

Approaching her home culture as she would a brand new culture means she’s going to need your time, resources, and information. She needs people who will take responsibility for her needs in gentle, unobtrusive ways.

Embrace the tension.

Go to fun places. Do enriching things. Enjoy her giddy elation of relishing in all her favorite things. And be ready for tears at inconvenient times and awkward misunderstandings over silly things. She’s finding her way.

This period of transition is fertile soil for growth. Growth takes fertilizer and fertilizer can be, well, unpleasant. As she processes, she is going to discover riches in hidden places, a strengthening for the next season, knowledge about who she is in this new place. Her sense of awe will grow as she explores the sacredness of her story and healing will come. All in time.

Feel the tension. The good, the bad, the ugly. The joy, the tears, the unknowns. Embrace all of it with her.

She’s going be alright. Thank you for welcoming back our sister. You will both be richer and fuller as you walk together.

What else would you share with those who are on the other side of reentry, waiting to say hello and welcome back those who are returning?

Photo by Cristina Gottardi on Unsplash


  1. Elizabeth June 20, 2019

    I definitely relate to many of these points. I resonate with the lab rat analogy. It’s been almost three years, but I’ve moved to a place where I didn’t know a soul and have come to find out there are few transient type persons, which means my experiences often go unspoken or I see people back away from conversations when they realize I am not a local and have lived overseas. This has definitely made the transition longer, harder, and lonelier. And, in this last year, I’ve been deeply grieved at not having that community referenced. I miss that insense social community, my family, more than anything. I’d encourage people in the midst of transition to find those people with shared understanding! These are all very spot on points. We just need more welcomers to read this.

    1. Patty S June 20, 2019

      Thanks for sharing your experience, Elizabeth. Healing of our grief is often connected to being with people who love and accept us, who listen and give us space to download our stories. Even one person who loves and listens can tip the scale. I’m asking the One who comforts and loves you fully to give you that person and the community you long for. Much love and grace to you, Elizabeth!

    2. Abigail Zhao July 20, 2019

      Aw, Elizabeth. I can really feel that missing of community! I’m in my husband’s home country temporarily for a home assignment, but it doesn’t feel like home to me. It’s so challenging to even find time to catch up with someone, in such a huge city as Sydney. I’ve been messaging a few fellowship friends for months already, without actually succeeding in meeting for coffee with one who offered. Thankful though for the few friends I’ve found here, even if I don’t get to see them often. Will be lifting up your situation, for some like-minded community.

  2. David June 20, 2019

    Loved this article, Patty. And though I’m not a “her,” I could readily identify with many of the points you shared. My wife and I spent seven years abroad and went back “home” in 2014 to settle down. After three and a half years, we are back in our country of service because we felt that Father never really allowed us to settle down or get comfortable. We are doing different work in a different province, but so many of the wonderful and terrible things about living cross-culturally have brought both the meaning and flavor back with full effect.

    1. Patty S June 21, 2019

      Hey David. This life of serving cross-culturally seeps deep into your bones, doesn’t it? May you and your family thrive in your new place!

  3. MikeC June 21, 2019

    This deeply resonates with me as well. I’m a him, and never made it all the way home. In my wife’s country for over a year now after we left the field, being a househusband for the sake of my son’s catching up academically. I haven’t found my place here yet, and I don’t know if I ever will.

    1. Patty S June 21, 2019

      That’s a lot of transition, Mike. I’m going to be trusting with you that fruit will come from your faithfulness to your family’s needs. May you be surrounded with kindness.

    2. Ed June 28, 2019

      @MikeC, I’m about to leave the field (19 years) to head to my wife’s home country to serve remotely, different reasons.
      My advice, seek out community. If you can find others, expats or locals, who’ve lived outside their home country, do. They will have the boxes to “get” you and be safer places to unpack.
      Three years ago we joined a small group from my wife’s home church when we were their for our 2nd child’s birth. That’s our small group when we’re in her home country. The couple that hosts, the wife is local, the husband is Colombian (I’m American), we hit it off with them and the rest of the group. It was a great blessing to us and my heart is lifting at the prospect of reconnecting. I pray you find some brothers to run with for as long as the Lord calls you there.

      Sisters, thank you for letting us borrow your space.

      1. Patty S July 8, 2019

        Ed (and Mike and others), you are always welcome in this space. Thank you for sharing from your experience, Ed, and your encouragement to Mike.

  4. Gail June 21, 2019

    This article really resonates with me ~ as do the comments shared. Being back in my native land is not truly being home, because I feel as though I left my home to be here. I try to remember how blessed I am to have two places that I love deeply, and where I am loved deeply. All in time I suppose….

    1. Patty S June 21, 2019

      Gail, I love that thought of having two places where you both loved and are loved deeply. That’s why there’s such an ache, right? Because you invested and loved. Trusting with you there are people who need that kind of love where you are at now.

  5. Katie June 21, 2019

    I’m a little more than 15 months into this transition back to the states, and how I wish someone had told the people in my life all of this 15 months ago, or that I had been able to articulate it myself. The hardest months are over now, but it still makes me teary to read through this – that transition is such a lonely, isolating time, even when you’re surrounded by people who love you but don’t understand what’s going on inside of you.

    1. Patty S June 21, 2019

      Oh Katie, I hear you. It’s almost impossible to articulate what you need while in the midst of this kind of transition. One of my motivations for this post was to create the possibility of a softer landing for my friends.
      You are loved, Katie!

  6. Jules June 23, 2019

    The hardest part is when those closest in proximity, family, don’t even care enough to read something like this. Resent any mention or reference to your previous life. Get uncomfortable and change the subject. They’ve waited for you to come back the whole time and want it to be over..a phase.
    11 years isn’t a phase.
    But God is faithful. After the hardest 8 months of my life… So many tears… he’s provided new family in a church home that we adore, glimmers of the future as we stretch different ministry muscles as laypeople. He’s pruned so much that died overseas without me noticing. Given me a fresh start and a new urgency. If He ever graciously allows me to return to the field, I’ll be ready.

    1. Patty S June 23, 2019

      Thank you, Jules, for your 11 years of serving, even when not supported by family. That takes courage and perseverance!
      I love that the Gardener of your soul has lovingly pruned and now created a freshness through your new community. Beautiful!

  7. Nancy Mauger June 27, 2019

    Hi Patty, I really like this post so I was going to save it in a file of good blog posts. But lo and behold, I found the exact same article that I had saved from Velvet Ashes On May 26, 2016, written by Amy Young. That’s kind of strange. Would the real author please stand up?

    1. Patty S June 27, 2019

      Hi Nancy. As occasionally happens on a site with multiple authors, my original post was mistakenly attributed to Amy when it was first published in 2016. It was corrected on the site, but emails were already sent out.. Amy’s a wonderful friend and a great writer, so no harm done. 🙂 Thanks for asking.
      And thanks for saving it twice!

      1. Nancy Mauger June 27, 2019

        Thanks for clarifying!

  8. Rachel B July 17, 2019

    Six months back in my service country after my first furlough. Even in that, I find many parts of your article apropos. I cannot imagine transitioning home permanently, and get I can’t help trying to. Thinking of friends who have done so. Thank you so much for this.

    1. Patty S July 18, 2019

      Thanks, Rachel, for your note. You’ve highlighted the need for one another in these transitions! Blessings!

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