Good Grief!

Our family’s time overseas was overwhelmingly positive and fruitful.  It was a difficult decision to leave Peru but we had a calm and planned return to Australia.  Deputation went smoothly; it was a valuable time saying goodbye to our supporters.”   Ross* enthusiastically spoke to Liz*, his member care worker. 

Ross and his family had just landed back ‘home’ in Sydney, after ten years and he was eagerly anticipating starting an exciting new job.  Despite their auspicious start, Ross found coming back to Australia discombobulating, especially for the first year.  The following couple of years were also difficult. 

Ross spoke with great feeling about the grief he felt at leaving dear friends behind in Peru.  As well as losing those wonderful relationships, he expressed grief about the loss of the fruitful ministry he and his family had been involved in.

Ross found it really difficult adjusting to Australian culture. He recalled,

For my work orientation, a colleague seemed to have barely started the conversation when he finished and walked away.  I was left feeling really perplexed.  In Peru, a work orientation would have been given hours!  Peruvian culture is much more relationship orientated than task orientated.   Spending such a short amount of time orientating someone to a new job would be considered extremely rude.

Another day, I was walking down a street when some guys behind me started speaking really aggressively.  I thought they were about to get into a physical fight, so I turned around, bracing myself, only to see that they were just horsing around!  In Peru, people would only speak that aggressively when very angry.

I also found it really difficult to know how to greet people.  In Peru, I knew when to shake hands and when to kiss, and who to do what with.  However, in Australia I just didn’t know what to do.  I felt like I didn’t fit in.  This cultural dislocation was hard.

After two years, Ross was really thrilled to be invited back to Peru for a fortnight to speak at a conference and visit friends.  He jumped at the chance to return, to join old work colleagues and friends there.  After he returned to Australia, he said, 

I felt so much more at home in Peru.  This was really unsettling and it rocked me a bit, particularly how much more at ease I was in relationships there.

What would you do or say in this situation?



Ross and his family are in the thick of re-entry, with many adjustments to make during their transition to life back in Sydney.  Re-entry refers to the time when we leave a place where we have been serving cross-culturally and return to the place we were originally from, our ‘home’ country.  It is a form of culture shock, but in reverse.

As part of culture shock, cross-cultural workers commonly experience a feeling of alienation when they first arrive in another culture, and this is repeated during re-entry.  Feeling alien in our own culture is the essence of re-entry stress. Cross-cultural returnees often say, “We look and sound like everyone else, but inside we feel different.”  This sense of alienation is often not expected.  

When missionaries enter [a cross-cultural location], they expect to have difficulty with language, religions of the host culture, attitudes of national Christians, nostalgia for [‘home’], and maintaining their own spiritual adjustment. Who would ever expect to feel like a stranger in his own country? 

The groundwork for this obstacle is often laid during the initial phases of culture shock. When difficulties with culture shock arise, expatriates tend to “glorify” institutions and traditions of their home country. However, when [cross-cultural workers] return, they do not experience [‘home’] as they had remembered it… The psychological discomfort resulting from this conflict can be harsh.

Austin (1983)

 Re-entry is typically more challenging than the culture shock experienced when first moving into another culture, and is often underestimated.  In anticipation of their return, cross-cultural returnees commonly say, 

It won’t be that challenging!  After all, we’re Australians, aren’t we?  It should be easy coming home. Isn’t it?”  

Neither cross-cultural returnees, nor their home churches, expect the returnees’ adjustment to life back ‘home’ after cross-cultural service to be more difficult than their initial adjustment to their cross-cultural location (Pirolo, 2012).  Sometimes even their sending organisation aren’t expecting this, particularly when staffed by those with little relevant experience.  

As well as the shock of re-entry being enhanced by these disappointed expectations of the home country, they are also enhanced by bereavement reactions  (Foyle, 1987).  


I’m grieving.  There’s been a lot of change, a lot of saying goodbye.  It feels like I left part of me in a different place, and I’ll never be the same again.  So, if it seems like I’m crying for no reason over little things, it’s because I have to walk through the process of mourning things I’ve lost.  I know I said goodbye in my last country, but I’m finding there is still grieving to do…  I’m saying goodbye to people, places, foods, routines, careers…  

Ruthie (2015)

Ross’ description of his grief is similar to many cross-cultural workers’ during re-entry.  Grief is ‘a natural reaction to loss or change of any kind’ (NA, 2020).   In a study of 288 returned cross-cultural workers, the second most challenging problem identified was ‘nostalgia and homesickness’ for their previous cross-cultural location (Austin, 1983). It is not surprising that grief is a significant part of reentry since so much has been left behind.  Often, significant relationships, roles, routines and rituals have been lost.  In fact, it would be a sad reflection on the investment made in the cross-cultural location, if cross-cultural workers were not grieving after leaving.   

Wide ranging symptoms are experienced during grief.  People are affected physically, emotionally, cognitively, behaviourally and spiritually.  Grief is expressed in various phenomena including headaches, mood fluctuations, poor memory and insomnia (Smith, 2003).  Ross suffered significant migraines and lowered concentration for his first few years back in Australia⁠1.


It helps me grieve when you’re willing to listen… to what I’ve lost, to what I miss, to what is hard.  As I talk about it, I find I’m able to grieve it and move on…

Ruthie (2015)

At the risk of stating the obvious, listening is a vital part of a Member Care Worker’s role. Many returnees report that most people aren’t interested in listening to them talk about their former location. Some say, ‘others eyes glaze over very quickly‘. The cross-cultural returnee’s experience of being listened to is greatly enhanced within a relationship of trust, particularly with a non-judgemental person.

Mutual care 

A problem shared is a problem halved.

Traditional saying

As well as listening provided one-to-one by Member Care Workers and others, much benefit may be derived by Member Care Workers organising events which encourage mutual care between cross-cultural workers on home assignment, in re-entry and in location. Mutual care refers to the ‘support, encouragement, correction, and accountability that we give and receive from others’ (O’Donnell, 2002). Connections between cross-cultural workers often facilitates fruitful opportunities for listening, companionship, normalisation,⁠2 and in this way can significantly increase an organisation’s member care capacity.   

If the role of an organisation’s Member Care Worker, or team, is expanded to include the encouragement and facilitation of mutual care, the organisation’s member care provision can be significantly increased.   Former cross-cultural workers, who have been back ‘home’ for a while, as well as those who are going through re-entry at the same time, can be great supports for those in re-entry.  Hearing from others who are going through, or have been through similar experiences, can be a great comfort.  Fellowship with such people can normalise feelings of alienation and grief.

The importance of mutual care is emphasised in International Models of Best-Practice for Member Care, which set out recognised principles and performance standards for the management and support of cross-cultural workers (O’Donnell, 2002).  

A Best-Practice Model for Member Care by Kelly O’Donnell and David Pollock  O’Donnell (2002)

One Code of Best Practice in Member Care recommends that for organisations:

Opportunity is given for member interaction and mutual caring.

Mutual care is planned for, clearly defined, and its importance communicated.

Responsibility for self-care, in community, is modelled and encouraged by leadership.

Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (2002)

Research has confirmed the importance of mutual care as opportunities for self-expression and learning.

A support group can serve as a forum for exchange of information and expression of feelings… Returned missionaries claim that the following individuals, groups, and/or activities were most helpful to them upon reentry, in descending order: spouse, friends, relatives, former missionaries, church members, college missions department personnel, reading materials, personal counseling, church leaders, debriefing with overseeing church personnel, psychological testing and evaluation, reorientation program, and family counseling. 

Austin (1983)

While Member Care Workers, sending organisation staff, home churches, family, friends and professionals can all provide listening, companionship and normalisation, all are limited in various ways.  Member Care Workers, and staff from sending organisations, are a finite resource.   Home churches, family and friends are also important sources of member care but may be limited in specialised areas.  Typically, they may not have sufficient expertise regarding re-entry and Third Culture Kids (TCK), for the purposes of normalisation.  They may also know insufficient about when and who to refer returnees to, when appropriate professional help is required.  Professional debriefs and followup counselling are vital but are also limited by cost and the availability of appropriate professionals.  

Member Care Workers can encourage returnee cross-cultural workers to connect with other returnees for mutual care in a variety of ways.  They can facilitate connection through running events for the returnee community, as well as encourage cross-cultural workers to organise their own events.  Initially, returnees may lack the energy required to organise events themselves.  Typically, they are stretched by a plethora of speaking engagements, travel commitments, family reunions and the usual fatigue associated with any transition.  Member Care Workers can organise various types of community events including Bible study and prayer groups, social events, Third Culture Kid events and retreats for men and women.  

Recruiting and training a team of volunteer Member Care Workers can increase an organisation’s member care provision.  These volunteers can assist in running community events, as well as with pastoral visitation.  Volunteer Member Care Workers who are returnees and have walked the journey themselves, have a significant advantage over those who have not.

A story to consider

It is important that we continue to let the Bible interrogate our understanding.  These blog posts consult the Bible as part of a theological reflection cycle.⁠3

There was a time when Israel didn’t have kings to rule over them. But they had leaders to help them. This is a story about some things that happened during that time.

There wasn’t enough food in the land of Judah. So a man went to live for a while in the country of Moab. He was from Bethlehem in Judah. His wife and two sons went with him. The man’s name was Elimelek. His wife’s name was Naomi. The names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion. They were from the tribe of Ephraim. Their home had been in Bethlehem in Judah. They went to Moab and lived there.

Naomi’s husband Elimelek died. So she was left with her two sons. They married women from Moab. One was named Orpah. The other was named Ruth. Naomi’s family lived in Moab for about ten years. Then Mahlon and Kilion also died. So Naomi was left without her two sons and her husband.

While Naomi was in Moab, she heard that the Lord had helped his people. He had begun to provide food for them again. So Naomi and her two daughters-in-law prepared to go from Moab back to her home. She left the place where she had been living.  Her daughters-in-law went with her.  They started out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.

Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Both of you go back. Each of you go to your own mother’s home. You were kind to your husbands, who have died. You have also been kind to me. So may the Lord be just as kind to you. May the Lord help each of you find rest in the home of another husband.”

Then she kissed them goodbye. They broke down and wept loudly. They said to her, “We’ll go back to your people with you.”

But Naomi said, “Go home, my daughters. Why would you want to come with me? Am I going to have any more sons who could become your husbands? Go home, my daughters. I’m too old to have another husband. Suppose I thought there was still some hope for me. Suppose I married a man tonight. And later I had sons by him. Would you wait until they grew up? Would you stay single until you could marry them? No, my daughters. My life is more bitter than yours. The Lord’s power has turned against me!”

When they heard that, they broke down and wept again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye. But Ruth held on to her.

“Look,” said Naomi. “Your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

But Ruth replied, “Don’t try to make me leave you and go back. Where you go I’ll go. Where you stay I’ll stay. Your people will be my people. Your God will be my God. Where you die I’ll die. And there my body will be buried. I won’t let even death separate you from me. If I do, may the Lord punish me greatly.” Naomi realized that Ruth had made up her mind to go with her. So she stopped trying to make her go back.

The two women continued on their way. At last they arrived in Bethlehem.

Ruth 1:1-19a

Ruth was a faithful companion to Naomi during her transition back into her home country and as she experienced profound grief at the loss of her husband and sons. Naomi’s grief was multifaceted, including particular challenges for Ruth and Naomi in the culture of the day.  Ruth chose to stay with Naomi despite the significant cost to her which Naomi clearly pointed out.  

What happened? How was this cross-cultural worker cared for?

Liz*, their member care worker, listened to Ross and his family talk about what they were missing from Peru.  Ross and his family reconnected with family, friends and were embraced by their local church, providing many listening opportunities, as well as companionship.  Liz also walked alongside them, providing normalisation when opportunities arose.  Further, she encouraged them to make time to connect with other returned cross-cultural workers, particularly those who had served in a similar cultural context.  Ross reported that these connections were a positive experience for both him and his family.  Liz organised other opportunities for mutual care within the community of cross-cultural workers, both past and present.  These included Bible Study and prayer groups, as well as social gatherings.  

Ten years later Ross reflected:

“It was a very stressful period for the first couple of years after we returned to Australia, and particularly the first twelve months.  After three years I started to feel more settled.  

I still feel like I could happily hop on a plane tomorrow and return to Peru long-term.  

I found 1 Peter 1:1–9 a wonderful comfort in grief, particularly re-entry grief, because of its focus on our eternal home. The positive flipside of cultural dislocation for Christians is being reminded that we are looking forward to our true home. I carried one of those TSA locks on my keyring for years as a reminder.”

You can read more about Ross’ re-entry experience in the blog post ‘Brain Fog’.

* Names of people and places in this blog have been changed to preserve anonymity.

Author’s note

Some practical examples:

During ten years as a sending organisation’s Member Care Worker, I organised a variety of events to facilitate member care for both returnees and cross-cultural workers on home assignment.  The most popular was a monthly gathering for Bible study, fellowship, prayer and an informal meal.  Cross-cultural workers often said, “It feels safer to share more deeply in this setting than in churches or with friends, since this group has so much shared experience.”  Often, organisation staff led the Bible study, since cross-cultural workers were often very stretched.  

Women’s and men’s retreats were beneficial for some.  These provided opportunities for cross-cultural workers to share their stories at greater length, followed by prayer for them.  God used this experience within a safe setting as a powerful healing experience for some.  I outsourced the running of men’s retreats to volunteers [This was part of my organisation’s strategy to expand our Member Care provision by building a member care team].   

I also organised a variety of annual social events using the resources that God provided me, including a number of wonderful volunteers.  These events included sailing days for returnees (all ages), and 10-pin bowling or trampolining events for returned TCKs.  

All of these events encouraged connections throughout the organisation’s returnee community and those cross-cultural workers on home assignment.


Thankyou to Ross for granting permission for me to write this blog post and also for his input, providing additional strength.  

Thankyou to Megan Withers for her editorial assistance.

Recommended Reading

Knell, M. (2006) Burn Up or Splash Down: surviving the culture shock of re-entry. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Ruthie (2015) ‘For Friends & Family of those Moving Back “Home”’, Rocky Re-entry, 11 February.


Austin, C. (1983) ‘Re-entry Stress: the Pain of Coming Home’, Evangelical Missions Quarterly, 19(4).

Chaplin, M. (2015) Returning Well: Your Guide to Thriving BAck ‘Home’ After Serving Cross-Culturally. Newton Publishers.

Clark, S. E. (2003) Loss and grief in general practice: the development and evaluation of two instruments to detect and measure grief in general practice patients. University of Adelaide.

Culture Shock (2020) Collins Dictionary. Available at:

Ennis, L. and Brian, L. (2017) Receiving Them Well: a guide on how to support your loved one returning from humanitarian aid or missionary work.

Foyle, M. F. (1987) Honorably Wounded. Europe: MARC.

Knell, M. (2006) Burn Up or Splash Down: surviving the culture shock of re-entry. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Managing Lockdown Fatigue (2020) Australian Psychological Society. Available at:

O’Donnell, K. (ed.) (2002) in Doing Member Care Well: Perspectives and Practices From Around the World. Pasadena, CA: William Carey.

Pirolo, N. (2012) Serving As Senders – Today. Emmaus Road International. Available at:

Rabe, M. (1997) Culture Shock! Living and Working Abroad. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers.

Ruthie (2015) ‘For Friends & Family of those Moving Back “Home”’, Rocky Re-entry, 11 February.

Ward, C., Bochner, S. and Furnham, A. (2001) The Psychology of Culture Shock.


1 Read more about Ross’s re-entry experience in the ‘Brain Fog’ blog post –

2 Read more about normalisation in the ‘The New Normal’ blog post –

3 Read more about our use of the Bible in the ‘Theological Reflection Cycle’ blog post –

One thought on “Good Grief!

  1. Pingback: Dried up? | Member Caring

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