by Robyn Priest
When families back home face difficulty, missionaries overseas want to know.
I don’t remember now exactly when or how I learned that my 60-year-old mother had a mastectomy. I only know it was after the fact. I was not aware that she’d been diagnosed with breast cancer. By the time I heard about it, I was more concerned about her chances for survival than I was about not being told. Later on, I wondered: Why didn’t anyone tell me about Mom?
For 10 years, I lived in remote areas of Africa without electricity, door-to-door mail service, or a telephone. Communication took a lot of time and trouble. Letters weren’t easy to write. But at the time of my mother’s bout with cancer, I was in Singapore, with a phone and a fax machine in my home. So, it wasn’t the difficulty or even the expense of an international call that kept me in prayerless ignorance of the trauma my mother, father, and sisters were experiencing. What could possibly keep them from including me in the family struggle?
Did they do it intentionally? Had I done something to offend someone in my family? Not as far as I knew, so it couldn’t be a deliberate slight for some past offense. Nor was it likely due to thoughtlessness. My family was thoughtful and supportive of my work.
Couldn’t they find an opportunity to call? Had the discovery of cancer and the surgery been so sudden that it prevented them from telling me? No, this was not the case either.
Did they think I would rather not know, rather not share their difficulty and pain? Or could they somehow believe that, for me, the importance of what I was doing somehow eclipsed "lesser" concerns? That possibility hurt me too much to even consider.
Am I being oversensitive? Is it just me? No.
A COMMON CONCERN
When this issue came up in a group of missionaries, many shared their own versions of the same story. One missionary, preparing for furlough, heard what she would have soon discovered: Her sister had divorced, become pregnant, remarried, and gave birth. Another, unaware that her brother’s marriage was in trouble, received a letter just before her departure to America telling her of his divorce after his wife took the kids and left him. Others found out about the death of a relative after the funeral, or an illness after the relative’s death. Obviously, this is not a rare experience among missionaries. What keeps their families from telling bad news in a timely manner?
Overwhelmingly, family members wish to protect the missionary serving in a difficult and stressful situation far away. "We shouldn’t worry them. They have burdens enough with their work. They’ll just feel terrible that they can’t be here to help."
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER
While such thinking seems to anticipate the situation and needs of the missionary, it is short-sighted. Families facing a crisis need to consider the following questions before they decide to "protect" their absent members.
1. How will they feel about our silence when they find out weeks, months, or even years later? Won’t they feel cut off from the family, alienated after being left out of the loop? As one missionary wondered, "Did they think I’d died?"
2. What will it be like for them to go through the grief process late and alone, instead of sharing it with the rest of the family? Could that make the grief more complicated and difficult to deal with? Won’t the missionary family members feel that they cannot even offer their sympathy or express their own belated pain because the rest of us have already dealt with ours?
3. Is it true that there is nothing they can do? In fact, they may be able to do something. Not telling them ensures they cannot. At the very least, the missionary family members can send condolences, offer advice, or commiserate. Not telling them robs them of the opportunity to choose any action at all. Most crucially, it prevents them from interceding for the people and the situation, denying them the privilege, the contribution, and the comfort of prayer for those they love who are in the midst of a struggle. Later on when they find out, it may lead to guilt or anger because they realize that someone they care for needed them, and they were unable to respond.
In some cases, family members overseas may be able to take time off for an important or final visit. Fortunately, this was my experience. A few years after my mother beat breast cancer, she became sick and went into the hospital. It was another type of cancer. The doctors told my father to expect the worst. My entire family was in shock. This had developed in a matter of two to three weeks. Yet, they did not hesitate to make that very difficult telephone call to inform me.
I was stunned, but not immobilized. I knew what I could do. There were only a few months until furlough. Before then, my husband planned to go to the States for meetings. I took our children out of school and was on a plane to California within 24 hours. My husband followed later, after he packed and attended to the paperwork that precedes furlough.
All the way, I prayed that my mother would live until we could see her. I continue to thank God for those few weeks with my mother and the rest of my family, helping to care for her and going through her illness and death together.
4. How will avoiding telling unpleasant news affect your relationship in the future? Will it force those in the know into the awkward position of covering up or committing further deception? Will the missionary family members say things in ignorance that they will later regret or be embarrassed about?
As the missionary said about her brother, "I just wrote him and said, ‘Give my love to your wife and kids’ and his family had already been gone for weeks! He must feel terrible! I feel so stupid!"
In the long run, keeping bad news from absent family members won’t keep them from worrying. Once they know there are things you haven’t told them, they may wonder if you are being totally honest. "Don’t worry; it’s nothing" becomes a suspicious-sounding evasion, even when it isn’t.
The fear that missionaries will be left alone to cope with the bad news they receive is often unfounded. Missionaries usually have a community of people around them who would willingly share their concerns, pray with them, and help them consider options for further action. They receive good support in times of trouble, even far from home, which is one of the wonderful compensations of missionary life.
The missionary family members probably won’t have to bear the burden alone. However, consider the best way to tell them difficult news, and allow time for them to ask questions and give everyone a chance to discuss their concerns. Ask missionaries if they have the support they need to work through the decisions and grief.
Supporting churches and mission agencies can be very helpful. Just as churches routinely visit ill or distressed people and help in all kinds of practical ways, individuals from a supporting church can offer their services when their missionaries are unable to be present themselves. Pastors and friends of missionaries on assignment overseas can also remind stateside family members to inform the missionary family members when situations arise that they should know about. Firsthand news of an ill or hurting family member will be greatly appreciated. Missionaries will be forever grateful to their supporting church or agency for such interventions.
BRIDGING THE COMMUNICATION GAP
At times, missionaries contribute to this communication gap themselves. They get sick and don’t let the family back home know for the very same reasons their families give: "They worry enough about us living here. I don’t want them to think malaria means I’m dying." Missionaries need to be open about the challenges of living in their particular area, include family in their prayer letter lists, and educate them about things that are outside their experience and thus seem more dangerous than they are.
Encouraging family members in America to visit is a good way to free communication from the exotic realms and to help them build a realistic view of life overseas. However, sometimes it works the other way. My parents felt so satisfied after seeing our living conditions in rural Kenya their letters became much less frequent!
Missionaries need to discuss with their families how they will disclose news about illnesses or trouble before they leave for the field, or at the earliest opportunity. Long-distance relationships may be new to everyone involved. You cannot assume that people will automatically convey important information.
The missionary must bring up these issues. Explore your means of communication together. The variety of new technologies available makes communication faster and less expensive than ever before.
The number of missionaries living incommunicado in remote villages accessible only after hours of arduous driving on muddy tracks are fewer than in the past. Fax machines and electronic mail make it much easier to keep in touch across continents. Less-developed countries are extending phone lines into new areas, which allows them to catch up, not only with telephone service but with the newer communication technology as well.
Many churches and families use faxes and e-mail to keep in touch with international family members. However, for missionaries in areas without telephone lines, it can still take a month, or longer, to get regular mail. In a true emergency, there are usually faster ways to get in touch. Check with the mission office or representative for the best way to get your message to a remote place.
Today, the distance between family members living on different continents need only be geographical. Given current technology and the awareness of missionaries’ desire to stay connected to those at home, there is no need to hesitate to communicate difficult news. A commitment to share the difficulties as well as delights of life with each other is important for families with missionaries overseas.
Robyn Priest is a missionary with Christian Missionary Fellowship and has served in East Africa, Singapore, and the U.S.
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