Naming Your Grief and Finding an Answer [—at A Life Overseas]

January 31, 2018 § Leave a comment

Over at A Life Overseas, I’ve taken two of my previous posts, Disenfranchised Grief and the Cross-cultural Worker and Empathy: A Ladder into Dark Places, and adapted them into one. You can start reading the new post below.

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I don’t think I’d ever heard the phrase “disenfranchised grief” before I came back from living overseas. Maybe it was during debriefing that it came up. Or maybe it was later, when I attended a series of grief-support meetings offered by a local hospice. Everyone else in the group had experienced the recent death of a loved one. I came because of the losses I’d had from my return.

Regardless, I didn’t immediately have a label for what I was feeling—sadness that was difficult to accept or express, sadness that easily led to shame and anger. But being able to name it is important. Kenneth Doka, who came up with the term “disenfranchised grief,” and who, in 1989, wrote the book Disenfranchised Grief: Recognizing Hidden Sorrow, says in an interview with Spring Publishing,

This concept has really resonated with people. And people constantly write and say, “You’ve named my grief. I never really recognized my grief until you talked about it in that way.”

Doka defines disenfranchised grief as “grief that is experienced when a loss cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned, or publicly mourned.” Grief is disenfranchised when losses are not typical to the population at large, so others often discount those losses or don’t understand them. It is difficult to have compassion for people when you don’t recognize why they are sad.

Continue reading at A Life Overseas. . . .

(Kenneth Doka, “Disenfranchised Grief,” Living with Grief: Loss in Later Life, Kenneth Doka, ed., Hospice Foundation of America, 2002; Kenneth Doka, “Disenfranchised Grief,” Springer Publishing Company, YouTube, October 4, 2013)

[photo: “Hiding,” by Kristin Schmit, used under a Creative Commons license]

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When Your Parents Wish You Weren’t Far Away: An Interview with Diane Stortz [—at A Life Overseas]

May 29, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Diane Stortz knows firsthand what it’s like to have children serving overseas, to want them to follow God’s calling, but also to want them close by. In 2008, she, along with Cheryl Savageau, wrote Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected when Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally (InterVarsity Press). Since joining the ranks of parents of missionaries (POMs), she has ministered to and heard from hundreds of parents walking the same path.

Tell us a little about your personal story as a parent of a missionary.

My husband and I never expected to be parents of a missionary, and becoming POMs was hard. Our daughter and son-in-law married while still in college. She was training as a vocalist, and he planned to be a youth minister. But they spent their first anniversary as missionary interns in Bosnia. Over the next two years, they made the decision to serve as missionaries after graduation. Our heads and hearts were reeling! We really hadn’t been prepared to “lose” our daughter to marriage so soon . . . and now we felt we were losing her all over again.

Making it feel worse, our church was their sending organization, they would be joining a team already in place, and our congregation was excited and thrilled. We heard “You must be so proud” a lot. Yes, we were proud and very supportive, but we were also hurting.

Book person that I am, I went looking for something to read to help me adjust, and found nothing. About the same time, Cheryl Savageau (counseling director at our church) and Judy Johnson (missions minister) were talking about ways to help us and the other POMs in the congregation (all of us were struggling). That’s how our ministry to POMs eventually was born. Cheryl and I wrote a book and, for about ten years, we led groups and workshops for POMs and for college students and missions recruits too.

Head over to A Life Overseas for the rest of this interview.


[photo: “Atardecer en el Palmar” by Carlos Calamar, used under a Creative Commons license]

Parents of Missionaries, Another Group with Hidden Sorrow

September 19, 2012 § 23 Comments

POMbookEarly on in their book Parents of Missionaries, Cheryl Savageau and Diane Stortz address the topic of disenfranchised grief. Not only is unaccepted grief an issue for cross-cultural workers when they return but also for those they leave behind when they go to serve.

The authors write that disenfranchised grief “results when we deny or condemn our feelings or believe God doesn’t care about our pain. It also occurs when others criticize our feelings or consider us too strong to need support.”

Grief for the parents of missionaries (POMs) should not be minimized or ignored, nor should parents feel guilty for this normal emotion. It is very real, as is the loss that is experienced. For some it is a loss of physical or emotional closeness to their children and grandchildren. For some it is a loss of dreams for the family. For some it is a loss of confidence in discerning God’s will.

At times the grief can feel overwhelming. One mother quoted in Parents of Missionaries says, “My prayers turned from asking God to keep you safe and bless you . . . to please take my life away because surely I was not created to live with pain that . . . hurts more than childbirth.”

As I was making my way through Savageau and Stortz’s great book on this often neglected part of the missionary team—parents—I focused on this topic of disenfranchised grief, making note of instances where healthy grieving over the absence of missionary children was stifled. Following are those examples, quoted directly from Parents of Missionaries. Each one is followed by its page number, in part to demonstrate how they show up throughout the work.

I hope this list will be an encouragement to POMs who are grieving, letting them know they are not alone. I hope it will also help us all be better companions in grief to those who are letting their children go without letting go of them. May we not repeat these discouraging words or represent these unhealthy attitudes, to others or to ourselves:

[One mother] experienced profound self-doubt and feared others would take a critical view if they knew of her inner struggle. She believed having an adult child enter missions would not upset a real Christian. (24)

One workshop attendee asked, “What’s the big deal? It’s not like they’re dead,” while another said, “Having a child enter missions isn’t as bad as having a child outside the faith.” A few missions-minded people have . . . argued that only joy should abound when young people choose a career in missions. (28)

[Some] have honestly asked how POM grief differs from whining. (28)

“We’re not supposed to have needs of our own since we’re in the ministry.” (32)

Men often mask their grief. They typically cope with conscious grief privately, downplay their feelings, intellectualize about loss, and focus on solving loss-related problems. (34)

Our culture’s lack of patience with grief causes many of us to feel ashamed of our feelings and hide our grief. (35)

The assertion that “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) does not qualify as a rationale for running away from our feelings. (80)

“I feel like a whiner and complainer after typing up what I wrote in my journal. Maybe you can use it as a bad example of a missionary mom.” (94)

“I miss [my daughter] more than ever before—and I feel really guilty about it.” (94)

“I know I should be excited and thankful that my daughter and her husband will leave for the mission field in August, but I’m having a hard time with my emotions!” (120)

Other POMs who cry easily are not as willing to be seen as vulnerable. One missionary observed about his mom, “Talk of kids, vacation, future plans, how long before we see you again can make her cry instantly. We pretty much can’t talk to her about anything. That was her request, and my dad’s. I think it’s not healthy, and she agrees.” (130)

We sometimes erroneously assume everyone else feels happy amid the holiday bustle and blame ourselves for feeling down or blame others for stealing our joy. Our culture conditions us to expect happiness during the holidays, making normal life problems (that don’t magically disappear on command) seem particularly hard to accept on festive occasions. (216)

Some POMs hesitate to cast their cares upon God because they feel ashamed of their own emotions. This keeps them from enjoying the relief and freedom He wants to offer. (262)

Of course, Parents of Missionaries isn’t just about grief. In fact, Savageau and Stortz write that the need for parent’s to grieve is “only half the story”:

You need to both grieve and change what you can in your life. Make decisions that move you toward fullness of life even though your missionary lives far away. What does God want to do with the rest of your life? . . . If you’re a POM, please look in the mirror and see yourself through our eyes as someone who has made a blessed sacrifice for the kingdom and someone God wants to use in unforeseen ways in days to come. You struggle because you love. Accept your feelings. Ask for and accept help. . . . And do all you can to help yourself.

So if you are a POM, read the whole book to learn how to better understand your loss and grief, how to seek out and receive help, from God and from others, and how to be the best support and teammate for your family members overseas. There can be joy even in the midst of grieving.

(Cheryl Savageau and Diane Stortz, Parents of Missionaries: How to Thrive and Stay Connected when Your Children and Grandchildren Serve Cross-Culturally, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008)

Disenfranchised Grief and the Returning Cross-Cultural Worker

July 5, 2012 § 17 Comments

Disenfranchised grief, also called “hidden sorrow,” is caused by “a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned or socially supported.”  This definition comes from an article I recently came across from Australian Family Physician, discussing the response of general practitioners (family physicians) to repatriated cross-cultural workers affected by grief.

What makes their grief disenfranchised is that their losses are not typical to the population at large, so others often discount those losses or don’t understand them. It is difficult to have compassion for a person when you don’t recognize why he is grieving. Others with disenfranchised grief include “ex-spouses, caregivers, nursing home staff, pet owners, children, adoptees, individuals with developmental disabilities, . . . those who may be grieving suicide or AIDs victims or other forms of stigmatised death, . . . victims of sexual abuse, indigenous people and prisoners re-entering their original subcultures.” While this seems to be a list made up of disparate groups, their commonality is that the losses they suffer are often easy to ignore or downplay.

The part of the article that most helped me understand the concept was the authors’ explanation of six types of disenfranchised grief. I am presenting the list here, but I’ve taken the liberty of providing my own examples of how they might apply to repatriated cross-cultural workers:

  • The griever’s relationships are unacknowledged
    [“You can enjoy yourself now that you’re back with your own people.”]
  • Lack of acknowledgment of the griever’s loss
    [“People move all the time. It’s not like somebody died.”]
  • Exclusion of the griever as not being capable of grieving
    [“She’s just a child. She’ll make new friends.”]
  • Exclusion of the griever due to the circumstances of the loss
    [“You knew what you were getting into when you decided to go overseas.”]
  • Exclusion of the griever due to their way of grieving which is not deemed appropriate by the community
    [“The Bible says ‘Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds.'”]
  • Self initiated disenfranchised grief where shame plays a significant role
    [“Why don’t I trust God more?”]

The authors go on to stress how important it is that general practitioners understand disenfranchised grief and take steps to deal with it. Not only may family doctors be asked to treat physical symptoms that are a result of grief, but they may also be the only affordable and “safe” help that is available to the re-entering worker.

I wish that we could all understand and acknowledge others’ grief, whatever the source, so that we could “mourn with those who mourn,” giving them the community they need so they don’t have to grieve alone.

(Susan Selby, et al, “Disenfranchised Grievers: The GP’s Role in Management,” Australian Family Physician, Vol. 36, No. 9, September 2007)

[photo: “grief,” by Tomek.pl, used under a Creative Commons license]

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