Departures and Repatriations: Crossing the Great Divide

“Never die in Taiwan.”

That’s what the poor man at the American Institute in Taiwan said. AIT serves as a de facto US embassy in Taiwan, and I was there taking care of some routine matters. Others, like the student I met who had been so excited about navigating the city in a taxi by himself that he left his backpack and passport in the cab, had more pressing issues.

The man who turned away from the window in despair, who told us all, “Never die in Taiwan,” had just presented documentation concerning his recently deceased wife. He needed to prove that she had died to show that he wasn’t trying to remove his children from the country against her wishes. This was his second or third visit, and the person behind the window was sending him back for translated copies—from Chinese to English, or from English to Chinese—or for some other paperwork that seemed impossible to obtain. The man looked so defeated. The death of a loved one overseas must truly be a distressing experience, in so many ways. I can only imagine how hard it is.

Recently I was jumping around the Web and looked up repats just to see what was out there on the repatriation process, say, for returning cross-cultural workers. One of the top sites listed was repats.com. That seemed like just what I was looking for, but the text underneath wasn’t what I expected:

Funeral Repatriations – Rapatriements funéraire – Funeraire repatriëring

So repats.com is a funeral site. That means, I thought, that repatriation must refer to sending a person’s spirit back “home,” to heaven. What an interesting use of the word. But as it turns out (as most of you probably already knew), for funeral operators, repatriation means returning the deceased’s remains to the country of origin.

Obviously, there is a lot to take care of in this kind of repatriation process: There are laws to follow, the paperwork, the physical aspect of transporting the body, the expense, the disruption of normal day-to-day life overseas, the stress and grief, and the coordination of cultural and religious customs. Avalon Repatriation Services, located in the United Kingdom, gives the following overview of some of the varied practices around the world:

  • In France for example, a body must be embalmed and placed in a wooden coffin 24 hours after death.
  • In Islamic countries, it is the widely-held belief that the deceased should be buried before sundown or within 24 hours, without embalming.
  • In the United States, embalming is common practice. In many countries—when embalming does take place—it is a qualified embalmer’s job, whereas in some countries, for example Portugal and Spain, it is against the law for anyone but a qualified doctor to undertake this procedure.
  • Those of Jewish faith believe that the body should be returned to the earth it came from and are therefore against cremation.
  • Hindus cremate their dead, believing that the burning of a dead body signifies the release of the spirit and that the flames represent Brahma, the creator.

My misunderstanding the meaning of repatriation reminds me of the Japanese film Departures, winner of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It tells the story of an unemployed cellist, Daigo, who answers a newspaper ad titled “Departures.” He thinks he’s applying for a travel-agency job but instead ends up taking a job as a nokanshi, someone who ceremonially prepares bodies for burial. Daigo learns the trade from Sasaki, his boss, who becomes his mentor. And Daigo learns also to overcome opposition from his family and friends and to face his own fears, finding deep meaning in his new vocation.

This is a great film. It’s been one of my family’s favorites ever since my son brought home a copy. Just listening to the theme song in the trailer reminds me of the deep emotions that are explored in the story. I think it’s about time I watched it again.

(“Catering for Different Religions,” Avalon Repatriation Services)

[photo: “Go West,” by halfrain, used under a Creative Commons license]

Can Grief and Joy Coexist?

There is a phrase in Mandarin Chinese, bei xi jiao ji (悲喜交集), meaning “mixed feelings of grief and joy.” Grief and joy aren’t commonly thought of as partners, but when faced with loss, cross-cultural workers need to understand that one doesn’t necessarily cancel the other one out.

Expressing Grief

Dr. Steve Sweatman, president and CEO of Mission Training International (MTI), says that the call to take the gospel of Christ to another culture “inevitably is a call to sacrifice, to losses, to things that you will have to leave behind or give up.” This sacrifice takes many forms, and MTI has identified five categories of loss experienced by Christian cross-cultural workers. They are

  • a stable home
  • identity
  • competence
  • support systems
  • a sense of safety

In an audio presentation at Member Care Radio (entitled “Good Grief“), Sweatman also discusses the differences between concrete and abstract losses felt by cross-cultural workers, with the latter being such things as the loss of dreams or hopes. He tells the story of a Christian worker named John who came to him for counseling. While serving in central Asia, John had experienced both concrete and abstract losses. He had lost his status and effectiveness as a youth pastor in the US. His wife had had two miscarriages. And he and the rest of his team had been forced to evacuate their host country with little hope of returning.

With painful honesty, John revealed:

I know that all things work together for the good. I know that the joy of the Lord should be my strength, but it’s not. I know that I’m going to see my unborn children in heaven. I don’t want to commit suicide, but I . . . um . . . wish that I wasn’t alive.

Sweatman went on to talk with John about the way his family had taught him to deal with grief as he grew up, and then helped him learn how to grieve in a healthier way. Healthy sadness, says Dr. Sweatman, is the “antidote to depression.” It includes two important steps: acknowledging our losses to God and expressing grief publicly to allow others to “be the arms of God.”

“How we handle loss,” says Sweatman, “determines a number of things. It determines the longevity of you in cross-cultural work, the depth of joy you will experience in your life, the wisdom that you will gain, and especially your closeness to God and your need for him.”

If this summary strikes a chord with you, please listen to Dr. Sweatman’s talk in its entirety. That way you’ll get to hear all that he has to say on this topic, and you’ll get to hear his heart as well as his words.

Redefining Joy

When John said, “I know that the joy of the Lord should be my strength . . .” he’s referring to a verse from Nehemiah 8. But we’re most familiar with the phrase “The joy of the Lord is my strength [clap, clap, clap]” from the peppy song of the same name. What happens when we don’t feel the Lord’s joy? James says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2). Can we be sad or afraid or confused, and still have joy?

There’s another song about joy that is familiar to those who’ve grown up in the church. It repeats over and over the line “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart.” But what does that joy look like in the face of loss? Is it always a smile? What does that joy sound like in the midst of trials? It is always an upbeat song?

I’m so glad to have come across The Autumn Film’s rendition of “I’ve Got the Joy”/”Down in My Heart.” Tifah Phillips, the group’s vocalist writes on her blog how she wrote “Joy.” It happened the night of her father’s death, as she sat at the piano, “the only place that felt safe that night to me”:

I remembered my eyes were blurred with tears and I literally began to play the now familiar progression of Joy.  I kept cycling through the progression and then, as if it had already been written, I began to sing a different melody to a song I sang in VBS as a child, “I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy down in my heart. . . .” The truth is that I was terribly and profoundly sad.  The reality of grief had not even entirely hit me yet.  But at the same moment I had a deep sense of peace.  He was no longer in pain.  He was no longer sick.  He was free from all his ailments and restored. Although I still miss him, I know that God has weaved redemption through death into my father’s story.  That brings me great joy.  It was not until grief became a part of my story that I realized that joy is not simply an expression, but an attitude and acknowledgment of the deep peace of knowing a Savior.

Often when I’m grieving, my joy doesn’t show on the surface, even though I wish it did. But just because it’s not visible, doesn’t mean that I don’t have joy “down in my heart.” “Joy is not simply an expression, but an attitude and acknowledgment of the deep peace of knowing a Savior.” I like that. And I like the lines from the song that say,

I can’t understand
And I can’t pretend
That this will be all right in the end.
So I’ll try my best
And lift up my chest
To sing about this joy.

This really is a beautiful and meaningful song to me, heartbreaking and heartmending. I hope it speaks to you, too.

[photo by Blake Photoforia, used under a Creative Commons license]

Global Nomads—Loss, Grief, and Comfort

In November of 2007, I had the pleasure of hearing a presentation by Ruth Van Reken, co-author, with David Pollock, of the classic Third Culture Kids. One of her main points was that people who have changed countries often don’t acknowledge their losses, nor do they commonly grieve those losses in a healthy way. But because I didn’t take notes (or if I did, they’re packed away somewhere), I don’t remember a lot of specific details from what she said.

Recently I found a couple resources that have helped me fill in the blanks. One was an article in Columbia News from earlier in the same year, in which Van Reken told the reporter about the losses felt by Third Culture Kids and Adult Third Culture Kids:

Every time there’s transition, there is loss. So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, “What did you lose?” Because where there’s loss, there’s grief. And when there’s no language for it, it comes out at your boss or in your marriage.

And the other was an interview that Expat Women conducted with Van Reken, again in 2007, in which she expanded on this topic:

[T]he challenge that I see keeping some ATCKs from fully using the great gifts their life has offered them is the issue of unresolved grief. There are several key reasons for this.

First it’s the cycle of mobility itself that is inherent in this lifestyle. Although every person in this world suffers loss, the high mobility of the third culture experience increases the number of times significant loss happens. But beyond the obvious losses mobility brings, TCKs have many other unrecognized or hidden losses as well. They can lose an entire world with the closing of an airplane door but because the country isn’t “theirs,” too often no one seems to understand or honor all that is entailed with that loss.

Other times, TCKs do recognize their losses and try to tell their parents or others how sad they are feeling but people tell them they “shouldn’t” feel like that because they have such an interesting life. Or they may remind the TCK of the greater purposes for which they are in this place . . . God, country, or to make enough money to put the TCK through college. At that point, the permission to grieve openly is gone and the child has no way to process it. Oddly, it seems the very richness and benefits of this life create many of these responses which then take away the permission to grieve because we (or others) believe the grief is a sign of ingratitude for all we have received. In fact, the opposite is true . . . we are grieving because we have lost what we loved! It is an affirmation of our lives, not a negation

In addition, another reason many TCKs can’t work through their various losses is simply that well-meaning people (including parents!) often try to encourage TCKs before they comfort them. There is a proper place for encouragement (“you’ll do fine,” “just think about others who have so much less,” etc.) but when it happens too soon, it can also abort the grieving process. Comfort is simply acknowledging the loss, validating its reality, and giving the person space to grieve properly before pushing him or her to move on or past it.

This distinction between encouragement and comfort is another aspect of Van Reken’s presentation that stuck with me. It’s a lesson that applies to all of us as we deal with people going through difficult times. And it’s a point that I plan on visiting again here in the near future—especially since I’ve found another article online that shows how Van Reken uses a story from the life of Jesus to teach this point, just like she did when I heard her speak.

Three cheers for Google and Yahoo! As long as I have the Internet, I may never have to take notes again.

(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,'” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007; “Expat Women’s Interview with Ruth,” Expat Women, August 2007 [archived at Wayback Machine])

[photo: “Day 42,” by Amy Riddlei, used under a Creative Commons license]