Many years ago, I remember sitting in my dorm hallway in university late at night, worried about a child in my extended family who was extremely ill. At that point in my life my extended family lived only one state away, but I felt the distance acutely. I realized if I continued on the path I had chosen, international work, there would be losses and major life events in my passport country I would be absent from. My life and the lives of friends and family would go on no matter where in the world I chose to live. I knew it would be difficult. I knew that probably not everyone would understand or behave graciously toward me when those moments came. I was counting the cost of my life choice and getting a small taste of one reality of international work.
I made my choice. My husband and I have been in our work around fifteen years. We love it. Of course I have grief and regrets— everyone does, but the regrets are not related to choosing a life abroad. Given the choice again, I would make the same one.
I Lost a Friend This Week
I’m pondering how international workers experience grief and loss because someone I love passed away this week. Our friendship cultivated healthy change in me— I’m braver, kinder, more genuine, and a little more unafraid to focus on what matters most to me. My friend was a beautiful, vivacious person who lived without apology for what mattered most to her. When I think of her I think of brightness, like brush strokes in a vivid painting or a boldly colored bouquet of flowers, giving inspiration to everyone who sees them. Some of her brightness rubbed off on me. Her kind of charisma and spark of life flowed from her Creator and infused His love into the lives of others. I saw so much of Him in her. Hers was a life well tended with endurance, growth, and perseverance in knowing Jesus.
This is the amazing person I am grieving from a distance. I will miss the opportunity to pay respect in person and to celebrate her life with other people I love. How strange to know this is all happening and I am not there. For a day or two after hearing the news I felt disbelief. I’ve cried several times.
Yet even with all this sadness, I do not regret being where I am.
My friend wholeheartedly supported my family’s decision to serve God in Asia. I know that by following Jesus, even when it means being far away, I am honoring her life and wishes for me. She and I both wanted people to know the story of Jesus’ life and mission on earth—especially people who have had little opportunity to hear it.
When I hugged her goodbye over one year ago, my heart was breaking because I did not know when I would see her again. As with all goodbyes, I knew there was the possibility I would not see her again on earth. When my husband and I first committed to work in Asia, we knew difficult things would happen. Now we have experienced several times what it feels like when they actually do happen.
While I have no regrets for choosing to serve in Asia, I do have grief and longing to be with those I love during this time. Everything feels surreal. While I know my friend’s passing is a fact, I am not there to see the memorial service, hug people, or talk with them in person. When I visit again, the loss may feel fresh for me as I will be seeing the reality of it much later than everyone else. In addition, it feels isolating that aside from my husband, no one else here has ever met my friend or has any memories of her life. Not being able to share the loss with a common group of people makes me feel very alone sometimes.
Feeling this way does not mean I’ve done something wrong by choosing to live in Asia. It means choosing life outside of my passport country comes with unique challenges, especially after losing someone. This kind of work comes with blessings, but it isn’t always easy. Sometimes it goes against the grain of what feels comfortable and traditional. Each person and each family must decide what following Jesus will look like for them. No matter what path someone chooses in life, loss happens and unforeseen events arise.
What Has Helped So Far
We’ve lost several family members and friends during our time in Asia. Sometimes we were already in our home country when tragedy happened, but sometimes we could not return to the USA depending on finances, events in our host country, or events in our immediate family’s life. During those times we learned something important for our marriage: we needed to know we had been united in the decision to begin working internationally. We needed to know that we both still believed it was the best choice for us. It helped to have that nailed down. Better to walk into adversity on the same team—especially when you are not exactly sure of everything you’ll be facing.
As much as possible, it can help to plan ahead for decisions about travel. When will you go and when will you stay in the event of losing a family member or loved one? Will your whole family go or just you? If you’re married, talk with your spouse. If you’re single, talk with the people who are closest to you. Keep these conversations to wise planning and don’t let them escalate into fear or worry for the future. No one can thrive that way. Your plans might have to change a little when something happens, but that’s okay. It will be helpful to have already discussed the big things and prepared to some degree beforehand so you can make level headed decisions in the midst of loss, despite fluctuating emotions.
I also want to share specific ways I am finding comfort.
- I have talked with my husband, who knew my friend. It is helpful to have another person to talk with who knew her.
- I have also discovered it is possible to find a degree of comfort in talking with a friend here in Asia. I’ve been choosy about who I open up to, but in talking with a person I trust, I’ve found the connection I need. While she never knew my friend in the USA, telling her what my friend meant to me gave her the opportunity to listen, then share similar experiences. I have been reminded through her companionship I am not alone.
- I’ve taken time to reminisce by reading notes from my friend, looking at pictures, and thinking through our conversations together.
- Though I have not wanted to share deeply personal feelings on social media, it has been good to look and see what people have posted in honor of my friend. It highlights the meaningful impact her life had.
- I plan on having a video chat with a close friend in the USA who knew her well. While this friend won’t be sitting in my living room, I think talking to her and listening to how she is feeling will bring a sense of community and togetherness.
These conversations and times of reflection are helping me grieve the loss, accept what has happened, and celebrate the life of my beautiful friend. Everyone works through grief differently, so I pray you discover what helps you most.
Thanks for reading!
©2019 Chrissy Winslow – All Rights Reserved
How to Cope With Grief Away from Home
Dr. Lucy Fuks
This short article seems to summarize well what I’ve been feeling and thinking this week. I was finished writing my blog entry when I discovered what Dr. Fuks had written. It was interesting to notice I had already been using some of her suggestions. I think it must feel natural to do these things while dealing with loss. When I read this article I felt she had seen much of what is going on in my heart. She also used the word surreal, which I’ve said several times this week. Surreal is a big part of how it feels to grieve from far away. Reading what she has written made me feel understood and grateful for counselors, encouragers, and mentors who have not only lived abroad themselves, but also devote their time to helping expats deal with life’s issues.