Over the last few months, I’ve written three posts that chronicle how we have been coping with all the unwanted changes in our life brought on by the war in Ukraine. While these months have been difficult, the overall tone of my writing is positive. In fact, my husband thinks that the second of those three posts is the most inspiring thing I’ve ever written. But today I want to start to tell the other side of the story. Yes, I firmly believe we are going to make it, and I know we have a future and a hope, but that doesn’t mean the here and now isn’t agonizing.
Some of the time I feel normal, and my days certainly look normal. I read the Bible and journal. I do laundry. I get dressed and do my makeup. I homeschool my kids. I mediate sibling squabbles. I go grocery shopping. I prepare food for my family. Once every week or so, I take the time to wash and style my waist-length hair. And almost every evening, my husband and I walk the dog together and talk.
But behind all this normalcy, there’s a deep well of pain. I find myself getting teary-eyed at odd moments and with very little provocation. Last spring, I actually started crying in a store when one of the clerks told me that her dog had died the day before. She wasn’t acting emotional about it, but I couldn’t help myself. My fount of sad emotions lies much nearer to the surface these days, spilling over regularly and with little warning. It must be disconcerting to anyone watching me, but I’m comfortable with it. It’s part of the grieving process.
Recently I had an opportunity to visit my sister in the United States. I attended her church with her, and they were doing a family-style brunch that day, with everyone sitting in smaller groups at separate tables. To encourage conversation, a facilitator asked a totally innocuous question that everyone was supposed to answer with the people at their table.
“What was the best thing about 2022?”
Trying to find a best thing about the worst year of my life wrecked me. As I felt the tears rising, I stared at the opposite wall, wondering if these strangers were ready to hear me share my story and my pain. I was ready, but I quickly decided that they probably were not. I admit that it’s possible I misjudged them. After living abroad for two decades, it’s easy for me to make mistakes when trying to navigate American culture. Maybe they would have instantly responded with interest, empathy, and compassion, but I decided not to put these untested strangers on the spot. It didn’t seem a fair thing to spring on them when I was just visiting for a week.
So I slowly willed the tears back down. My sensitive sister noticed my distress and distracted everyone by telling a joke, and then in the midst the laughter, I finally found my best thing. Starting homeschool. So I shared that. I said that we had never done it before, but we loved it, and our kids had said that even if we move back to Ukraine, they don’t want to go back to the schools they were attending before. And everyone nodded, and one lady made a comment about her experience with homeschool, and the conversation moved on. No one asked me why we had started homeschooling or about my reference to Ukraine, which I had included deliberately to invite further conversation. Maybe they just didn’t want to pry, but I felt it was confirmation that I had read my audience correctly. They weren’t ready to hear a total stranger open her heart and share her pain in the middle of a cheerful Sunday brunch.
It made me feel isolated, and I wept during the time of singing that followed. My pain is as real and present as a physical wound, but a physical wound would be easier to carry. I need just as much care as someone with a gash across her forehead, but no one can see the source of my suffering, and so I pass by, unnoticed. Sometimes I wish I could wear a name tag or a sandwich board with the pertinent details of my recent experience:
I am a refugee* from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
My family and I fled to Hungary last February.
We don’t know when or if we will ever return.
It might make people uncomfortable, but at least the truth would be visible. Some people might choose to avoid me, but at least I could feel comfortable being open with those who did engage me, because they would know what they were getting into.
I have been surprised at how well-meaning people have tried to get me to tell them that I’m okay. I share what has happened to our family, and after a brief moment of silence, they say something like, “But you’re okay, right?” Maybe I invite this response because I look like I have it all together. I’m homeschooling six kids, studying a new language, and apparently navigating life in a new country. But unless we drastically lower the bar for what “okay” means, I don’t feel okay. However, despite the high value that I place on honesty, sometimes I almost find myself agreeing with these people who suggest to me that I’m okay, because the cultural expectation that we all be fine is so deeply ingrained. It’s even embedded in the standard American greeting:
“Hi, how are you?”
“Hi! I’m fine, thanks. How are you?”
What would it be like if we really sought out an honest answer when we asked someone, “How are you?” Or if we decided always to answer that question honestly? It might cause awkward moments, and it might necessitate changing plans to spend time with someone who needed a listening ear, but I know it would be life-giving. We were created to live in community, but too often we settle for just being in proximity.
If you live this way, you will hear sad stories. If you’ve never experienced crushing loss, it might be intimidating to encounter someone in enormous emotional pain. You might feel the need to move the conversation to more shallow waters, because you have no idea how to navigate these depths—but I want to encourage you not to worry if you don’t know what to say. It’s unlikely that they expect you to say anything profound. If they are talking about their pain, they probably just want someone compassionate who will take the time to stop and listen and be a safe place where they can process their grief.
If you really feel the need to say something, ask a gentle open-ended question (one that cannot be answered with yes or no). It will reassure the other person that you’re interested in their story and will give them an opportunity to share more, if they want. Resist the urge to try to relate by talking about how you went through something similar. There is a time and place for that, but if you do it too soon, you can shut the other person down by making the conversation all about you. Instead, give them the opportunity to share as much as they are comfortable, and then express heartfelt sympathy. If you’re not sure how to do that, try:
“That must have been really difficult.”
“I’m so sorry that happened to you.”
“How can I help?”
“How can I pray for you?”
“Can I give you a hug?”
They might start crying, because compassion has the power to release pent-up grief. But that release is good, and if they seem embarrassed by their tears, reassure them that it’s okay to cry, that what they are feeling is a normal and perfectly understandable response to their abnormal situation. And then just be with them. You might feel awkward observing their grief, but if my experience has told me anything, they will feel grateful and relieved not to be alone with it.
* I know our experience has been really easy compared to some others. And so I often hesitate to call ourselves refugees, because it seems unfair to those who saw the violence of war first-hand or who truly lost everything, but when I try to come up with a different label, it gets too complicated. “Displaced American expats who have no other home in the world besides the one they left in Ukraine”? I realize we are in a different category than Ukrainians because we hold passports to a country that is not at war and have the option of going there. However, we also don’t maintain a home in the U.S. So in that sense, our experience was similar to the classic refugee experience. We were forced to flee our only home and are trying to rebuild our lives wherever we can. In our case, that has meant navigating the process of applying for residency in a foreign country, trying to learn a new language, etc., much like all our friends who are “real” refugees.
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