There is loss in leaving, and adults come to know it quickly. Experienced overseas workers learn how to make immediate friendships, grieve good-byes, and move on to the next wave of arrivals. There is a cycle, and most of us are transient. You get used to it.
But children get their hearts broken.
As they get older they learn the system also. Third-culture kids grow resilient overseas. But that first wave is painful, especially when life abroad is all they ever knew.
We stayed in the Arab world longer than many. Our oldest daughter arrived at age three and was twelve when it came time to leave. Her last year was difficult. Friends returned to their home country. Her grandmother in America passed away. And when we departed, she said goodbye to two local friends she met in kindergarten.
Anticipating a year in the United States before relocating elsewhere in the Middle East, we feared the pangs of middle school. But all was well. Teachers were welcoming; students were kind. There was only one problem: Our daughter didn’t make any friends.
Classmates invited her to sit at their lunch table. She preferred to read. Grades were fine, and she joined activities. Her smile never faded, and her spirit never wavered. At home all was normal, and at school all was fine. But nothing of friendship, and little effort to find it.
She knew she was leaving again, come end of school year.
At first we encouraged her to engage. “If you sit by yourself and read, people will think you’re a snob. Just join in, and learn how Americans talk, laugh, and play.” But she did, and she didn’t like it. “They were inappropriate,” she said, “and crazy.” This was without malice or judgment, but the conservative Arab culture left its mark. She was uncomfortable.
But it would be wrong to blame things wholly on society. It was her.
And it was ok. Natural. We comforted her and spoke of adjustments. Having lost friends once while abroad, why lose them again back home? And which place was home to begin with? But she was faithful in her responsibilities, accepting of her circumstances. As a family we grieved, mourning the past and anticipating the future. But this could not be the end of the conversation.
“Your choices are understandable,” we told her. “They are ok. We won’t push you.”
“But they are not best.”
Life involves pain, and there’s no way around it. If we seal ourselves off for a time to recover, we can then reengage. But if we steel ourselves to the world as a posture, we stop living. And worse, we stop giving.
“Others need us,” we counseled. “And we need them. If you make new friends, yes, you will leave them, and it will hurt afresh. But they will fail to experience God’s goodness through you if you keep yourself from their friendship.”
“Take your time; there is no guilt,” we comforted. “Just do not let yourself forget there is a better ideal God calls us to. He is patient, but also maturing you. Use this time to grow deeper into his image, love, and mission.”
We are still in process, and she has friends now. Probably just in time to leave—and grieve—once more. But next time it will be easier, and soon she too will know the cycles of overseas friendship.
Our daughter’s life lesson is also one for adults. These life cycles can mask God’s ideal just as easily as our daughter’s reticence. Happiness comes in communion; life flourishes when we give of ourselves.
Empty yourself, as God did for you. Then enter into the joy of his fellowship—overseas, anywhere, and forever.
(This reflection was written with the approval of our daughter and after her review. It was first published at IDEAS.)