3 Blessings of Being a Missionary Kid

Life as a third-culture kid has its price—lost relationships, hard transitions—but the silver lining outweighs the cost.

It’s summer here in Portugal, but it is still colder than my winters back in Tanzania.

People keep telling me, “Oh trust me, it’ll get warm soon!” I don’t believe them. Even at the beach you have to wear a sweatshirt to stay warm.

After growing up in Africa, the weather here was just one of many differences that I had to get used to—and I’m not quite there yet. Moving is hard enough, but changing cultures, countries, and continents adds a whole new dimension to the struggle of transition. Third-culture kids (TCKs) and missionary kids (MKs) who move to a new field have to reinvent their entire way of thinking, living, and even speaking.

I’ll be the first one to say that TCKs go through more than most kids their age. But that doesn’t mean we have a horrible childhood. Not by a long shot. There is always a silver lining; it’s not visible at first, but it’s there nonetheless.

1. Experiencing the World

Missionary kids get to see the world. I’ve seen 13 countries so far, with four more planned in the next year. My sisters and I have amazing experiences and memories all over the world. I never would have been able to travel this frequently if I wasn’t a TCK.

We have…

  • ridden bikes along the canals of Amsterdam,
  • hiked to the top of the second-highest waterfall in the world,
  • danced across medieval castle walls,
  • danced with a South Sudanese tribe during their church service,
  • seen every African savannah animal possible,
  • played pretend bakery in the ruins of Pompeii,
  • swam in a desert oasis,
  • slid down the stair rails in Notre Dame,
  • pet cheetahs and baby black rhinos,
  • visited a Franciscan chapel of bones, and even
  • walked down an Initiation Well for the Knights Templar.

When we talk about our travels and experiences, I promise: we’re not trying to boast. Travel is simply our childhood—to the point where we have to mentally sort our memories by country.

2. Global Friendships

Not only have we made memories all over the world, but as missionary kids we also have family and friends across the globe. People in four different countries have become family to me, whether they are the generous grandparents in South Africa, the crazy cousins in Tanzania, the unruly uncles in Portugal, or the amazing aunts in America. We have friends we talk to in the morning before school, ones we message during school hours, and others who would wake us up at night if our ringers were on (dealing with time zone differences is a daily part of our lives).

Meeting people all around the world leads to an inevitable understanding of cultures, which can only be gained through experience—something that TCKs are not lacking in. We grow up immersed in different cultures, learning from a young age how to navigate between religions, customs, and traditions. It is a skill highly sought-after in global companies, which gives TCKs a rare advantage in the international business world.

All of this does come with a price, however. To say hello to all those new friends, we first had to say goodbye to old ones. Missing people is also a recurring theme, albeit a worthwhile price to pay for having a global family. To experience all those incredible things around the world, we first had to give up our old way of living. To adapt in different cultures, we first had to leave the culture that was dearest to us.

Which leads to my last glimpse of silver lining: the blessings found in our grief.

3. The Joy of Grief

Our grief fades into homesickness, restlessness, and the dull ache of loss as we say goodbye to people, cultures, and countries. Our grief teaches us how to adapt; it teaches us how to accept change and loss, without crumbling under the weight of it. In an ever-changing world, we’ve mastered the art of accepting change.

The grief that TCKs experience is discussed all the time, yet the silver lining isn’t mentioned nearly as much. But it’s there.

In the words of author Bill Bryson: “When you move from one country to another, you have to accept that there are some things that are better and some things that are worse, and there is nothing you can do about it.”

I have given up three homes, soon to be four as I head off to college. I’ve said more goodbyes than I’m willing to count, and I still have days where I wake up feeling like I am in the wrong country. But God has given me a life that I wouldn’t trade for anything. From our hardest obstacle, comes our brightest silver lining.

Abby Farran

Sometimes they are a simple “see you tomorrow,” while other times they are forever. Many times, those “forever goodbyes” are associated with hugging friends before airport security or kissing our pets one last time. David Pollock, a pioneer in TCK research, wrote, “Most TCKs [Third Culture Kids] go through more grief by the time they are 20, than mono-cultural individuals do in a lifetime.”

Unfortunately, for Missionary Kids (MKs) and TCKs, the goodbyes go deeper than that. We must give up our favorite foods, the culture we adapted to, and sometimes even a language. My family moved to South Africa when I was four. Fast forward 13 years: I’ve given up three countries, and each one has brought different heartaches with the goodbye.  Instead of simply saying goodbye to people, we must give up every single familiar aspect in our lives. To say “goodbye” means the loss of a world to an MK, and I want to help people understand the blend of pain and beauty that we are left with. “MKs just learn to love and leave,” in the words of Linda Kelley, a mother of MKs.

No one really talks about what happens afterward. No one shares about the months they cried themselves to sleep. No one mentions the heartbreaking feeling they got when something so precious to them was no longer in their life. No one wants to come to grips with how much those goodbyes broke them.

I’m here to tell you that they broke me—that they broke us.

Even though MKs struggle with this grief daily, we never talk about it. It feels trivial to bring up how we cried that morning because the air smelled different, or because there weren’t any birds outside our window. We don’t want to complain or seem ungrateful, especially when our families are in the middle of transitioning to a new field. Our entire world has changed—with a new language, culture or atmosphere—and every single encounter we have reminds us of our loss. And yet, we don't want to make our parents feel guilty about the move. Instead, we stay quiet and push those feelings aside.

“I learned to squelch the grief over the loss of that person in my daily life, with their warm smile, hearty laughter, and comforting hug,” said Debbie Warren, MK from Nigeria. “A phrase I heard often—‘We’ll see them in heaven’—told me to stuff the ache and stop complaining.”

In one sense, this is true—we will see some of those people again. But our tears aren’t just for the people. They’re for the colors of the native fabrics, the taste of our favorite foods, and the smell of sea salt in the air. I don’t go a day here in Portugal without longing for my old home in Tanzania, even though I moved over a year ago. MKs don’t simply mourn the loss of people; we mourn the loss of a country.

The pain and loss continue to build as the grief begins to overwhelm us. Unfortunately, most MKs are never taught how to properly handle grief. Instead, it grows in secret until it starts to affect every part of us. Some of us never move on and simply choose to numb the pain. We cut ties with our old lives, but we never attempt to build a new one. Others develop a constant fear of loneliness and loss, throwing themselves too quickly into friendships and relationships in the hope that they won’t ever have to say goodbye again.

The fear of goodbyes is very real. It’s a natural tendency to try and avoid the same type of pain in the future. While some MKs have no problem saying goodbye, others struggle with the concept. They find different ways to word it, or they avoid goodbyes altogether.

Another MK from India, Joy Ziemann, said, “I have a hard time saying goodbye. It is easier to say ‘see you’ and pretend it is not really goodbye.”

I’m trying my very hardest to show churches, family members, and supporters what being an MK truly means. I want you to know that, while we may seem strong, or emotionally detached from the moves, we struggle with the loss of countries, cultures, and customs. It’s not as simple as moving states or school districts. We feel the grief from these moves for years.

However, I can say that over the years the pain fades. It gradually shifts to a dull ache that comes and goes. And you know what? I wouldn't trade those memories for the world. I wouldn’t change a single second of my past, even if it would’ve made the goodbye less painful.

Goodbyes never get any easier, but they eventually turn into bittersweet memories that remain with us forever—a closing point in that part of our lives which ended a wonderful chapter. These goodbyes slowly morph from painful experiences to melancholy memories that are never forgotten.

This is the beautiful art of goodbyes.