Coping with Loss

The Downside of Being a Missionary Kid

Ruth van Reken

Most missionary children experience repeating cycles of separation. How does this affect them long-term?



What do all these initials stand for?

An MK is the common abbreviation for 'missionary kid': one whose parents are missionaries. Generally MKs spend much of their formative years outside their parents' home culture, as well as home country. An AMK is simply an adult who grew up as an MK.

TCK - or Third Culture Kid - is the term commonly used for all children growing up outside their parents' home culture. They include children of international business people, diplomatic corps, military families, as well as missionaries. An ATCK is an adult third culture kid - one who grew up as a TCK.

The term 'Third Culture Kid' was coined in the early 1960s by Dr Ruth Hill Useem, a sociologist from Michigan State University. She found that her American students raised in countries outside the United States were distinctively different from her American students born and raised in the USA. In some ways these foreign raised students appeared more mature than those who had never left the country - they exhibited greater ease in relationships with adults, for example. In other ways, however, they seemed immature and lacked social skills.

To better understand the reasons for these differences, Dr Useem visited sixteen countries to study American expatriate communities living overseas. She discovered that each of these communities had developed a subculture which was rooted in the home (or first) culture and being lived out in the host (or second) culture. In the end, however, it was neither one. It had become its own culture. She called this expatriate culture the 'third culture', and the children who were being raised in it 'third culture kids'.

While Dr Useem was making these discoveries on the academic front, Dave Pollock went as a missionary to Kenya in the early 1970s and worked near Rift Valley Academy. He, too, noticed recurring characteristics among the mostly expatriate students he met from that school. They shared very definite strengths, but had common struggles.

Returning to America Dave co-founded Inter-action Inc - an organisation aimed at helping inter-national organisations (including churches and missions) better care for their families. Dave used Dr Useem's term, 'Third Culture Kid', but in a broader way. It became a more generic term to refer to the common experiences generally shared by all who have been raised in a culture outside their parental culture. Missionary kids, or MKs, are one subset of that larger Third Culture Kid world.

Shared Experiences Common to all TCKs

Before looking at the specific issues that impact MKs and AMKs, it is important to have a general overview of TCKs and what they share in common with one another regardless of which organisation sponsored their parents. Virtually every TCK has a life which is filled with cultural diversity and which is highly mobile.

Cross-Cultural Upbringing

All TCKs have been reared in more than one culture. Learning that there is more than one way of doing things, gaining linguistic skills, being a bridge of communication between people of various cultures, and acquiring a large worldview are some of the great strengths and joys from this background. But this gift of cultural diversity also carries some hidden challen-ges.

When a child grows up where one set of rules is in operation (for many TCKs it may be the rules of their subset expatriate subculture as well as the rules operative in the host culture), and suddenly moves to a place where completely different cultural rules are in place, there can be a great sense of internal dissonance. Children who have known exactly where they fit and felt secure, loved, protected and knowledge-able, suddenly find themselves odd people out. They are the only ones who don't get the jokes, or know how to drive somewhere. They don't understand the local culture's rules of dressing and continually find themselves inappropriately attired for any particular occasion, no matter how hard they try.

It is the task of childhood to absorb the cultural practices of the surrounding community and then internalise those rules and practices during adolescence. When TCKs change worlds as teenagers, they are suddenly faced with learning completely new cultural rules while their peers are comfortably internalising the ones they already know. TCKs often find themselves quite out of phase developmentally with their peers in their new world.

This is particularly difficult when TCKs return to their supposedly 'home' culture at this critical time and 'look' just the same as those around them. The presumption is they will automatically know the rules as others do.

All of this can lead to a great sense of insecurity as well as an identity crisis. In Africa I knew I wasn't African and I thought it was because I was American. When I got to America I found out I'm not really like the Americans either. Who am I?

When children live among many cultures before their own internal sense of identity has been firmly established, they may develop a chronic feeling that home is somewhere else. TCKs who didn't have help re-entering their home cultures (or in understanding the dynamics of their lifestyle) may conclude that something is intrinsically wrong with them because they can never seem to fit in anywhere. They may adopt a chameleon-like personality - one that adapts to whatever surrounding the TCK is in - to cover a deep sense of inferiority. Ultimately the TCK may take on a permanent identity of 'being different'; but in their very efforts to prove they don't care what others think, TCKs can feel alienated and alone.

High Mobility

Some TCKs live on one mission station their entire lives, but even if they themselves aren't constantly moving, someone in their lives is always coming or going. It may be a short termer, the relatives left in the home country, a best friend whose parents were recently transferred, or leaving their national caretaker during furlough periods.

Mobility has many benefits - flexibility, a 3-D view of the world and independence, to name a few - but it leads to a chronic cycle of separation and loss. As psychologist Dr. Frances White writes (in this case specifically about the missionary community, but it applies to all TCK communities) "Separation is a universal phenomenon . . . (but) missionaries, because of the nature of their work, are particularly vulnerable to separations. They experience not only the normal developmental phases that entail separations and the usual share of situational separations faced by the world at large, but also a number of partings idiosyncratic to their profession."

One of the main problems for TCKs is the hidden losses. Because they are hidden the resulting grief is often not dealt with appropriately.

We tend to think of grief in terms of death, divorce, or terminal illness, but one of the most profound moments of grief for TCKs can be when they lose their whole world with the closing of an aeroplane door. Every pet, every friend, every tree they climbed, every secret place they hid, every sense of home they have known, are all gone - but there is no funeral, no formal closure.

For many, it is an irretrievable loss. They will never come back. If they do, that world is so changed, it is not the same.

High mobility can also result in an altered family structure for a TCK. Because of schooling needs, some siblings may be in boarding school or back in their home countries while younger siblings remain with the parents in the host country. Siblings who go to boarding school together are often not allowed to room together, even when they are the same gender. For those AMKs who spent twelve of their first eighteen years in boarding schools, or were separated for four year stretches at a time in secondary school years (as was normal practice) there is often a lack of strong parenting or family role models. They simply haven't lived in a single family unit for most of their developmental years.

A deep sense of rootlessness is another result of high mobility. Where do I belong? Here? There? Anywhere? Ask a TCK "Where are you from?" and he will stop to think, or ask, "At what time in my life do you mean?"

The unresolved grief for any of these hidden losses can result in anger, defensiveness, depression, withdrawal, or a person whose outwardly extroverted persona hides a place inside where no one will ever be trusted ("Because no one ever stays forever I mustn't let someone into that deepest place or the pain will be unbearable when she leaves"). When the depression, or anger, or paralysing perfectionism, finally results in the TCK seeking help, his counsellor often doesn't understand some of the underlying reasons for the behaviour.

The MK Struggle With Faith and Denial

While the above issues affect TCKs of every background, for those who are also MKs there is a further factor. It is that of faith - the questions that arise from dealing with the paradox of faith and pain in the same situations. For AMKs, most of their losses are directly tied to God. Who asked their parents to be missionaries in the first place? Pain issues, therefore, are intricately related to faith issues. To question the pain is to question God.

Particularly for older AMKs, among the rules of the missionary subculture of the early days was the idea of "being a good soldier for Jesus". Acknowledging pain (outside of someone dying) was seen as spiritual weakness. Families who left missions 'for their kids' sake' were talked about in hushed whispers. "Isn't that too bad? Their kids just couldn't make it."

I know that one of the driving forces for me to be successful in high school in Chicago was so my parents would not have to return from Africa for me. The shame of being that much of a failure was more than I was willing to bear, and kept me in denial that I missed them at all.

For some AMKs who want to keep their faith, it is virtually impossible to look at any pain in their experience because it would be a negation of God and their acceptance of his will for them or their parents. Perhaps because of this message that pain and faith cannot mix, AMKs may have learned as children to deny their true feelings.

To quote from some respondents of my survey:

"In my younger years, say before I was 11, I would weep for not having my parents with me as the loss felt like a death and I was incapable - helpless - to change things to get them back."

"The first few years I would miss my parents desperately for days to weeks. Eventually I became numbed/inured - no missing at all - out of sight, out of mind."

This denial of pain from the separations is another important issue. The ironic thing is that if the AMK truly felt no pain when leaving his parents at age six (or whenever), we must ask "Why not?" To grieve at separations from those we love is completely normal and healthy.

It is at the point when the hidden pain finally surfaces that AMKs are left with a difficult choice. Do they once again deny and stuff the pain back inside, or do they now reject the faith and the whole system which seems to have caused so much pain?

How could a loving God require the price of family separations? How could their parents have considered such a thing? How could a mission board have been so insensitive?

Family and friends watch the bitterness and rage growing in the AMK and are dismayed as he/she withdraws in hurt and rage. In their efforts to be helpful, these well-meaning friends and family admonish the AMK to forget the past, trust Jesus more, and push on.

But do you trust the one who caused the pain? This is what one AMK wrote.

"I suspect that I am not typical for an MK, but I also suspect there are a number of others like me, and all of us are perhaps a little ashamed to admit how difficult some parts of our life have been. Being an MK was supposed to be 'special', but it never worked for me.

"I think that if someone had been open with me - able to accept my questions about why I felt so rotten that God wanted my parents to do what they did - instead of speaking platitudes about God taking care of everything if you trust him, I might have found an easier way through those years. Instead I ended up feeling I'd been conned, fed a line that was an easy way out for the adults around me. I suspect I had questions that they couldn't really answer.

"So easy to say that my pain was a consequence of my failure to trust in God - but I didn't know how to trust any more. And the pain didn't go away. So the second lesson I learned was you couldn't count on God either. That is a very lonely and scary place to be - not able to trust people or to trust God."

This is the experience of countless AMKs. When no one helps them see what is behind their pain, when people too quickly rush to spiritualise it, the AMKs finally feel they have no recourse but to leave family, friends, the mission system, even God and look somewhere, anywhere else to find healing.

Other AMKs build new denials on the old ones. They may return to the mission field and send their own six year olds proudly off to boarding school - loudly proclaiming that "It never bothered me and it doesn't bother Susie. She loves it as much as I did." The problem is that the hidden anger and hurt come out in difficult relationships with either those in authority, other missionaries, or the nationals.

I am often told that things are different now. There is not as much separation as before. This is true. Things have changed dramatically. The number of AMKs who had lost a parent or sibling to death was significantly higher in the pre-1946 AMKs than the younger group. 24% of the older AMKS had lost a family member to death compared to 7% of the younger group.

9% of the older AMKs had been separated from their parents for a significant amount of time in their first six years of life. (Some MKs were left for up to four years at a time in group homes or with relatives at early ages during the war years when children were not allowed on ships because of the danger of them being attacked at sea.) Only 2% of the younger group said they had been separated during those years.

To the question "What was the longest period of time you went without seeing your parents even once during your first eighteen years of life?" older AMKs answered 3.6 years. For the younger group, it was eleven months.

With more schools available in the countries of service, travel made easier, and new awareness of family needs, there are undoubtedly major changes in how separations occur. But to say because things have changed there are no problems is to ignore the hurt these older AMKs suffered. Those who experienced excessively long separations, or all twelve school age years apart from home, or the impact of the war years, need to deal with the pain of those losses.

Cycles of Separation

Interestingly, my survey of AMKs shows that the specific length of time or reason for the separation is not the only factor which determines whether or not it has a strong impact on the MK.

In spite of the vast differences in the patterns of separation, the percentage of those who responded saying the separations had an essentially negative impact on their lives was virtually the same in both groups - 40% in the older AMKS, 39% in the younger. (This did not include any who had what I called a 'Both/and' response such as, "Well, it took a lot of years for me to trust someone to be my friend, but now I realise it also makes me more sympathetic to those who are lonely".)

I was surprised to see the effects of separation were so similar when the patterns of separation between the age groups had been so different. I concluded that the actual length of time for separations may not ultimately be as significant as the number of cycles, or times separations take place.

While I did not see my parents once during my four years in high school, I was in a very stable situation. I lived with my grandmother and aunt, stayed in the same church with the same friends all four years, and for the first time in my life was not chronically saying goodbye to everyone.

I'd said a major goodbye to my family, it had been extremely painful, but it only happened once. After that, it became something similar to a death experience. The missing was there at times, but the option to change things seemed non-existent, so I accepted the situation and life moved on in the present with no great interruptions.

In today's MK world, many go home from boarding school every three months for one month. While it is healthier for children to see their parents more often, every time they go home, they know another leaving is only a few weeks away.

This can lead to an unrealistic family life. Parents don't want to deal with painful or conflictual matters because no one wants to rock the boat when separation is so close again. The pain of the farewell and the pulling away from each other are experienced so repetitively that the cycle itself becomes destructive. The MKs begin to live with a chronic inner guard around their feelings, knowing another leaving is always just around the corner. It is wiser not to become too emotionally invested in a current situation than to risk deep attachment.

What's the Answer?

For healing of past grief, or better processing of current grief, it's essential to face the pain, mourn the loss, forgive when that is needed, ask forgiveness when that is required, be comforted and then, as with any grief, move through it and on to the next part of life. Once counsellors recognise the reasons for the unresolved grief of AMKs, they are well equipped to help them as they would any other clients.

For the specific pain vs faith conflict, however, I believe we must take a deeper step - that is to look at a basic theology of grief. Do we have permission from God to have it, or is it unspiritual? Can God's will still be painful? Does he ever ask parents and children to separate?

In the June/July issue we will examine some of these questions with Ruth.


Ruth Van Reken is a second generation MK with three MKs of her own. She was born in Nigeria, and lived there until her return to the United States at age thirteen. After her marriage she served as a missionary in Liberia for nine years, then in Kenya for one. Her three adult daughters spent nine of their childhood years in Liberia. Ruth's exploration of the cycles of separation and loss that marked her childhood led to the publication of her book, Letters Never Sent. Her new book on TCKs is due out later this year.

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