The Happy/Sad Truth About Returning {The Grove: Return}

In her intensely thought provoking book, The Poisonwood Bible, one of Barbara Kingsolver’s fictional characters has just landed back in America after living in a jungle in Africa. She puts it simply:

“It is impossible to describe the shock of return.” (p. 411)

We spend a lot of time talking about leaving well, but what about returning well? You see, once you get on that plane and leave the foreign soil, you’ve left. You’re now right smack in the middle of returning. And what does that look like?

On one hand, returning was a huge blessing. I got what I wanted. We moved back to Texas. I’m elated for the next chapter’s beginning and excited about so many things ahead.

On the other hand, it’s a tragedy. I hesitate to use such a strong word, because in the big scheme of things, it’s not that big of a deal. We got on a plane in China and got off in Texas. But, the emotions I stuffed to be able to do that are slowly seeping out of me. Here are just a few of them:

  • Sadness in the realization that my youngest child will never truly grasp how much she is loved by our Chinese helper we left behind–the one who practically lived with us for 4.5 years, and on that last day in China loaded us and our monstrous pile of bags into the van, waving her final goodbye, her arms empty and tears rolling down her face.
  • Longing for the story to have turned out differently and the place we called home to have had long-term sustainability. Only a few short years ago, we celebrated as our school (and reason for being in China) signed a twenty-year lease on a new building. We felt like the school was home at last, and it seemed possible some of us might stay for twenty years. I’m sad when the memory of that happy day is paired with the current reality of the same school changing ownership and almost all its foreign teaching staff relocating.
  • Confusion over the boys’ education and language ability and unavailability of soccer (then again, I’ve always been confused over such things…)
  • Loneliness of missing the fellowship of good friends who know the part of me that speaks Chinese and wanes philosophical over a good book and hosts fellowship on Sundays and mostly bakes without Crisco.

It’s not truly a tragedy. No one died. But there are people we loved dearly we’ll probably never see again and places we loved that touched our daily lives as they provided the backdrop of our ordinary, overseas days that now seem to exist only in our minds. And those people and places will most likely be forgotten by my younger children. Even I have a hard time realizing the place we lived is still present on the very same planet we still inhabit because it’s a complete 180 degrees different than our new place on the globe in small town Texas.

If we had known how it feels to return, would we ever have packed up and gone to China in the first place? Truth be told, the initial going felt like a tragedy as well, boarding a plane with a 9-month-old baby waving goodbye to mourning grandparents. It seems our overseas story–all the good stuff I want to remember–lies in the middle, bookended by the asphyxiating feelings of going and returning.

I hesitate to share my true sentiments because I’m sure to be misunderstood by people who have never gone as well as people who have gone but never come back (that’s a lot of people). But I trust there are those out there who have the same bookends on their shelves, propping up amazing chapters of their overseas stories between them. Those are the people who will nod my way, whispering, “Yes, I hear you.”

I also don’t want to admit how it feels because then I’m afraid that means leaving was a mistake. Or that going was a mistake. But I know better, and the one I follow reminds me of that. Jesus led his disciples through tragedy at the cross and said “Take up your cross and follow me.” We were not misguided in the going or returning, and I’m learning to allow myself to fully process and feel my way through it.

Don’t get me wrong—I’m happy to be where I am and returning was the thing to do. But if there’s one thing my time in China taught me, it’s that happy and sad can co-exist in the same heart at the exact same time. I tend to find that when I’ve stuffed my feelings they’re harder to sort out later, so I’ve been getting downright honest with myself and God about how I’m feeling post-China, no shame attached. I’m getting through it day by day and the intensity of my emotions are lessened by the acknowledgement of their presence as I continue to have a clearer understanding of myself and my story.

Is tragedy a word reserved only for Romeo and Juliet, or have you experienced something similar in returning which you can label with no other word? Fling open the gates of transparency and share a bit of your feelings on your return with me today.


This is The Grove and we want to hear from you! You can link up your blog post, or share your practices, ponderings, wisdom, questions, ideas, and creative expressions with us in the comments below.

Here’s our Instagram collection from this week using #VelvetAshesReturn. You can add yours!


  1. M May 18, 2017

    I hear you… this resonates so much with our experience of returning. We were shocked at the depth of grief upon coming “home” and couldn’t find community who understood. We are still recovering… Thank you for sharing this.

    1. M'Lynn May 18, 2017

      I think it’s a hard thing to understand, especially since I’ve had more than a few moments when I don’t even understand myself! Recovering…Great word!

  2. Kimberly Todd May 18, 2017

    Nodding your way, whispering, “yes, I hear you.” Nearly three years past our return now, there is light and air, and joy at the memories marbled with ache and love.

    1. M'Lynn May 18, 2017

      Ah, thanks for the nod, Kimberly! “Memories marbled with ache and love.” Oh my goodness! I love that! Now I want to find some sort of marbled wall hanging in the shape of a heart to include on a gallery wall (haha…There’s this big blank wall in the living room where something like a TV would go…)

      1. Kimberly Todd May 19, 2017

        If you find one, let me know! Calling all artists…

        1. Sarah Moulding May 22, 2017

          memories marbled in ache and love

          1. Kimberly Todd May 22, 2017

            How exquisitely lovely. Thank you, Sarah.

          2. M'Lynn May 22, 2017

            Sarah, this is wonderful! Thanks so much for sharing it! This is so fun to see The Grove doing its thing…bringing people together with words and art and prayer and encouragement

          3. Michele May 22, 2017

            SARAH! I want one!!!

          4. Sarah May 23, 2017

            If folks would seriously like a copy I’m happy to send a higher resolution copy to velvet ashes to be sent onto those interested to print out as they wish if that’s ok by VA!

          5. Michele May 23, 2017

            I would seriously like a copy! 🙂

          6. M'Lynn May 23, 2017

            I would also love to have one! Thanks so much for sharing your talent with us 🙂

          7. Kimberly Todd May 23, 2017

            Thanks for this kind offer, Sarah! You can send it to me at [email protected] and I’ll pass it along. =)

  3. Ashley R May 18, 2017

    All of this! We are in the last two weeks of a discernment process that may very well lead to moving back to the States in mid-July, and I am already feeling so much of this and dreading so much of it. Truth is, I don’t love China right now. I long to be back in pollution-free North Carolina. But I also already grieve all of the “should haves” and “never got tos” of our six years moving around this country. I already grieve that my youngest will likely not remember China, or much of it, including the two “ayis” who loved and cared for him so much in the two Chinese cities he called home. I grieve the friendships that my boys are just starting to make here in Beijing. I grieve for all of the times they have had to say “good-bye” already and that I am going to take them through that yet again. But mostly I resonate with this sentence: “I also don’t want to admit how it feels because then I’m afraid that means leaving was a mistake. Or that going was a mistake.” Thanks for the reminder that stuffing down the emotions of it all won’t do me any good. And even if we don’t leave and just move elsewhere in this city in July, I know the time will eventually come when we do leave. I hope I remember this advice then! Thanks for sharing your heart and all of the messiness of transition and re-entry. It’s good to know other people feel that way!

    1. M'Lynn May 18, 2017

      Yikes. Nothing makes me more emotionally exhausted than a discernment process. Praying you get peace about what to do! I hope you’ll be able to find some quiet in the midst of it all to sit with your feelings a bit (as scary as that can be). I felt so much better after writing this and acknowledging my true feelings as confusing as they are. You are where you are for a purpose and He has a good plan for you whether you stay or return. And…I feel ya on the air pollution thing. 🙁 Hope you get some good air days in the midst of your wrestling!

  4. JO May 18, 2017

    Thanks for opening your heart and sharing the thoughts we seldom like to acknowledge in the midst of our sifting and sorting of all of the emotions. I find it comforting to hear that I have sisters who have been home 2 or 3 years who are still wading through some of those memories and feelings that are so bitter sweet. It’s so easy to feel like I’m walking down this road alone… thank you again.

    1. M'Lynn May 18, 2017

      YAY for Velvet Ashes! The place where we remember again and again we’re not alone! I’m so glad you commented today.

  5. Melanie May 19, 2017

    We haven’t returned yet, but we keep moving. From country to country. Because of the Lord’s leading, but each time we mourn differently and deeply. And rarely do we find ears and hearts that want to hear our story and feel the aches with us. It’s teaching me how to pour into others better. To listen the way I want to be heard. To open my heart up to feel the aches of another in new ways. My flesh wants to have friends who ‘get it’. We all want to be understood and known. But God is drawing me closer and reminding me that He is enough. That HE sees me, us. That we are fully, completely known and understood. In our depths. Thanks for posting, M’Lynn. This was a gift! Praying for you, now…

    1. Michele May 19, 2017

      Yes! The moving countries is so hard too, and I also found that no one, even expats, wanted to hear about the places I’d left behind. I love that you are using the experience to learn how to listen well to others. I think that’s the direction I need to take too as I also learn to give myself in new relationships. I’m four years in this last country, but just this year realizing how detached I’ve become!

    2. M'Lynn May 19, 2017

      “It’s teaching me how to pour into others better. To listen the way I want to be heard.” Yes! Same here. I now am able to serve others by listening to their stories (and their God-given vision)! It’s also showing me I need to acknowledge the people in my life who have served us by listening (from the beginning!!!) What a gift they are! We make sure to acknowledge people who have blessed us and made an impact on us in the place we’re leaving, but I’m seeing now as I walk through returning my heart needs to affirm those supporters and friends who’ve stuck with us through it and cheered us on. And… I’ve been so thankful for my husband and kids as we can talk about our adventures and laugh and remember together and appreciate where we’ve been together like members of some secret club, it knits us closer as a family. And yes, best of all, we look to the Lord who knows and understands us in ways we don’t even know and understand ourselves.

  6. Sarah May 19, 2017

    We have been back about 8 months now in the uk, our transition has been amazingly smooth and bit by bit God has put everything into place that we have needed, and yet I can’t face the memories, I can’t even look at photos yet. We have stayed connected with friends through what’s app but I find it so difficult to write to them, they were family and yet I feel such a disconnect. Adjusting to life in the uk has taken so much effort and energy, physically and emotionally, I feel I just don’t have the capacity to include the past as well when I’m trying to fully engage in a new life in the present. Bolivia is a fast fading memory, a time in another world. People ask if I miss it, I feel bad when I say no as life here represents so much more freedom for me and my family, yet it feels a betrayal to those friends we left behind for whom the daily life struggles continue.

    1. M'Lynn May 19, 2017

      So far, I don’t miss it either…As a whole. But I do miss the people I was close to and parts of my previous life (like getting to speak Chinese every day)…But over all…I don’t miss it. And I think that’s good because if I’m sitting around looking back and missing what’s behind me, I’m gonna miss what God has in front of me! I hope, as Kimberly states in her comment, that eventually you’ll find “joy at the memories marbled with ache and love” and in the meantime take it slow (as Leslie wrote earlier this week).

    2. Susan May 21, 2017

      “I find it so difficult to write to them, they were family and yet I feel such a disconnect. Adjusting to life in the uk has taken so much effort and energy, physically and emotionally, I feel I just don’t have the capacity…”
      Thank you, Sarah… you’ve given me an answer about why I’m not writing(skyping, chatting, vibering, etc) to dear friends across the Pacific. I’ve thought if I did maybe I wouldn’t feel so disconnected, but just can’t get around to it – and that’s mostly emotional blockage. I’ve been back in the usa for just over a year.

      And to M’Lynn – – “I hear you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”

      Thanks to both of you for writing and connecting the disconnected.


      1. M'Lynn May 22, 2017

        “Thanks…for writing and connecting the disconnected.” I’m encouraged by your words this morning, Susan!

  7. Annie May 20, 2017

    Oh, man! I’m just crying as I read this. I returned once after a year abroad when I was single and that alone was rough, but now my family and I are getting ready to return to the States after four years in Kenya. Both our daughters were born here, but they won’t truly remember. I’m rather dreading the experience even as we are trying hard to prepare well and leave well. But it’s just rough. This speaks to my heart that I’m not the only one and gives words to my emotions!

    1. M'Lynn May 22, 2017

      Annie, I think there should’ve been a “tear-jerker” warning on this one! I cried when I wrote it, I cried when I read it again…But that’s probably a good thing for me since I’d usually rather NOT cry!! I hope and pray you’ll be able to stay present during the hard time of disassembling your home in Kenya and moving to the next blessed place the Lord has for you! I’m thankful for the age of digital photography as I have an incredible number of photos to show my youngest who will probably not remember her globetrotting adventures and life in China. But I know it’s somehow in her heart forever, and for that I’m thankful. I’ve been pondering lately that our time in China is ours forever and nothing can take it away. We may have left dear friends and places, but it all truly happened and the memories and experience are ours to keep.

  8. Micki May 21, 2017

    I have not gone and returned from a foreign country, but I hear you. I’ve move from Lubbock and return twice, and I know the experience of returning; as well as the missing of those left behind. What I know is that I have always found a place where I’ve been. I loved your statement, “it’s that happy and sad can co-exist in the same heart at the exact same time.” That hit the nail on the head for me. It’s how I feel when I have to explain how I can love my new husband while I still morn the loss of my first. I will probably start quoting you on this.

    As for returning, If we as adventurers fear the aftermath of the returning to greatly, then we will cease from adventuring. Life is lived in the adventure. You’re just on your next adventure.

    1. M'Lynn May 22, 2017

      Micki, I’ve heard from several friends who haven’t moved from one country to another but still relate to what I’ve said here. That’s so cool 🙂 and…Wow! You’ve uncovered an even deeper layer to this happy/sad thing with your example about having a new husband but still holding the dear memory of the first. Thanks for sharing that. And…yes! We’re definitely on a new adventure! So far it’s involved a few too many skunks than I ever thought possible, but now that they are in the rearview I have a stinky but funny Re-entry story!

  9. Mackenzie May 21, 2017

    The word I feel about returning is “guilt”- guilt at leaving my teammates, guilt about how much I am enjoying and embracing my new life in the US. I don’t feel guilt about the actual leaving- I fulfilled my commitment to the organizations I was with and still feel that it was where I was supposed to be for that time. My life in the US feels enriched and informed by my time overseas, with few negatives in it— except for the knowledge that there are so many places I could be useful and so many friends I could help lighten the load for if I were to return to the field. When people asked how it felt to be back my answer has been “amazing” but feeling slightly guilty that I should be so content in my new life.

  10. M'Lynn May 22, 2017

    “My life in the US feels enriched and informed by my time overseas” I love this statement and I totally agree! On the guilt thing…I felt it more immediately after we arrived back in the US and we’re enjoying blue skies and clean air and family at Christmas, but then I remembered that when God asked me to stay, I stayed and when He paved the way for me to leave, I left. So the knowledge that I’m on His path has helped with the guilt. But I hear ya on that confusing feeling!!!

  11. Jen January 6, 2018

    Hi. We have been home from china for 6 months and it has just now hit me. Literally this week I am realizing what we lost. I am struggling mainly because my husband hasn’t found a job yet. We are considering going back and I worry/wonder if we are just trying to hang on to what was. I think it just hit me that we can’t re create what we had even if we go back. I feel really lost and sad. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    1. M'Lynn January 6, 2018

      Hi, Jen. I think you’re on track because you’re grieving your loss instead of denying it. We once moved from one apartment to another within the same neighborhood (in China) and at the time, I was reading “Emotionally Healthy Spirituality” by Peter Scazzero. The words “every move is a loss” jumped out at me. Even though we were just moving a stone’s throw away, I mourned the old as I greeted the new (which is a new I wanted and I chose!). That experience helped me prepare for the BIG move that came only one year later when we left China. Those words “every move is a loss” rang true again as I mourned the old and greeted the new (but it’s a long, drawn-out greeting of the new because it’s been said (by whom, I forget!) that it can take up to 6 months for every year you were abroad to settle into a new normal back in your home country). All that to say…it’s good to consider going back if that’s where you’re being called (the first time my husband and I returned from 1 year in China, we found ourselves committing to go back within 6 months and returned for the long-haul within 2 years!) BUT…it’s also good to consider not going back 🙂 I’m sorry it’s been rough, and I pray you continue to find clarity as you seek the Lord.

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