An American who had been to the US Embassy in Lagos and was coming to Benin City, hand carried a note from the Consulate. The Consulate didn’t want to just courier the message, but have someone hand carry it. The note was to inform my husband that his mother had passed away a few days earlier. What to do? What was expected of him by his sister and family? What would our board say he should do?
If we stay overseas long enough, all of us will be faced with this dilemma. Grieving over the death of a loved one at anytime and in any place is difficult even as it is absolutely normal and expected. Living and working cross culturally usually means we find ourselves physically away from immediate family, relatives, our closest friends, and our faith community when a loved one dies.
This month’s article is drawn from Grieving From a Literal Distance by N. Ohanian. Ms Ohanian served overseas for many years and is currently in a doctoral program for Missionary Member Care. She provides practical helps for those who experience grief while living and working overseas and describes how to evaluate if a trip home or professional help is in order.
Diane, Peter’s Wife editorOne of the most important truths about grief is that it must not be denied or ignored. Pastor and author Doris Moreland Jones poignantly writes, “Loss is not the end of us. While there is no life without loss, and no loss without pain, no pain can defeat us unless we refuse to deal with it… If we deny grief over any loss, it does not go away, but returns at most inopportune times and keeps coming until we face and work through our pain.” (And Not One Bird Stopped Singing, 1997, pp.9, 83) So no matter how physically distant, busy, or preoccupied one may be, grief must be observed.
Grief is the psychological process of adjusting, over time, to the acute sorrow of a loss. Grieving allows us to accept the finality of a loss, to experience a full range of feelings as a result of a loss, and to adjust to our changed lives. The end of grieving does not entail forgetting; rather, it usually comes with the acceptance of our loss. Though grief is normal, it is different for everyone. How one experiences grief can be complicated by many factors. Consider who died and what their relationship was to the one left. Was there a sense of closure or not? Was the loss expected or occurred with no warnings? What were the circumstances leading to the death? Also there is a need to consider the griever’s current responsibilities and whether there is time and energy to grieve. What financial, physical, and spiritual supports are available?
The challenge for physically distant or cross cultural residents is determining if they have adequate support structures to help them grieve. First, they need to identify their resources in the current culture. Is there any immediate family or local friends to turn to? Will colleagues and employers understand? Is there a faith community or persons of similar religious beliefs to give encouragement? Is there a grief or pastoral counseling program or support group nearby to join? Is there a quiet peaceful place to go for rest? Are there necessary funds if time away is necessary to grieve?
Next, what can the mourner do practically when living away? As the above questions suggest, they need to have a two-fold strategy. First, to find supportive people around them to speak to and process the death, funeral, and memories of the one who died. Second, either before or after speaking with others, they need to carve out time alone for reflection and meditation.
This alone time can be quite diverse and can include several of the following possibilities:
- Napping and resting of the soul
- Day dreaming and recalling special times with the one who died
- Looking over photographs, and reading letters/e-mails from the person
- Writing a good-bye letter to the departed one
- Journaling one’s current feelings
- Writing a list of fond memories or lessons learned from the departed person
- Writing a letter to God about one’s spiritual and grief journey
- Praying and meditating
- Singing hymns of comfort or listening to recorded worship music
- Studying scriptures on sorrow and joy or reading favorite scripture passages of the departed person or one’s personal favorite passages
In times alone, reflect and consider some key questions: What do I feel I am missing by not being at home at the moment? What do I wish I could be part of in this grieving season with my family and friends? What do I wish I could change? Then deal openly with God about these answers and with your community locally and back home.
Some possible specific creative and communal grieving helps for someone at a distance are:
- Create a physical scrapbook about the person including the prayers, memories or lists you recently wrote during the alone reflection times. Include photographs, scriptures, drawings, cards or magazine clippings of things that remind you of the person, places they liked, activities they enjoyed, etc.
- Create a collage to hang on a wall with similar items to that of the scrapbook.
- Start an email correspondence with family and friends back home. Write one favorite memory of the person who died, then forward to one name on the list. Have each person on your list, write a memory and then forward to the next person, until you receive the full record of memories. (This can be saved in the scrapbook).
- Personal sharing via email. Select three to five close, safe friends or family members whom you feel comfortable sharing with. Inform them that for the next six months, at one month intervals, you will send a short letter about how you are coping, processing, and feeling. Ask them to respond to your feelings or to share their own feelings of grieving if they so desire.
- Start a digital photo correspondence with family, friends. Have each person add one photo of or with the person who died and create a digital photo album.
Finally, the cross cultural or distant griever needs to assess their own strength to determine whether they can grieve locally or need to return to the safer confines of home. Are they physically healthy; able to eat well, sleep sufficiently, and return to exercise? Are they emotionally able to manage moods, express feelings, receive kindness and support, communicate honestly and find perspective in the loss? Are they regaining productivity in their work or service? Are they spiritually able to experience God, ask questions, connect with others in their faith community, and slowly discover some spiritual peace and renewal?
It is difficult to fix a time line for dealing with grief, but if after eight weeks the griever is still unraveling physically, emotionally, and spiritually, it is best to return to the home culture for a period. Good communication with pastors, friends, and extended family back home can also help assess and determine if the grieving person needs to stay local or return home. For some grievers, remaining in the place of the experienced loss initially is best and least stressful. If the negative emotions of disbelief, anger, or depression continue beyond six months after the loss, further psychological evaluation and help should be sought.
In closing we turn to some reassuring Scriptures from the prophet Jeremiah declaring, “I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for His compassions never fail…Though He brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.” (Lamentations 3:19-22, 32-33, NIV)
(The full text of Grieving From a Literal Distance by N. Ohanian, May, 2009 is archived on Peter’s Wife.)