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.
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.
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 welcome back those who are returning?
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