So far in our discussions on grief, we’ve looked at how transition impacts loss and the typical cycle of grief.This next installment will focus on particular features of grief for the global nomad.

As we’ve discussed previously, with every change comes loss, and with every loss, there is grief. In the life of a global nomad, transition is almost constant. That means loss is almost constant too. Often these losses are multiple and simultaneous: in an instant, a TCK can lose a place, community, and possessions that she loves. As the cycle of change and loss are repeated, and sometimes intensified, the accompanying grief becomes greater and greater. For many global nomads, however, this grief is never fully expressed. There are several reasons for this:

No Time – There is often no time to grieve, because one’s whole world is changing immediately. Whisked to another location, thrust into the arduous task of adjusting to another culture, the global nomad doesn’t have time to think of what was left behind.

Lack of Context – It is difficult to grieve what has been lost when the context itself has disappeared. Without the reminders of what is no longer there, or the familiar surroundings with which to contrast the before & after, grief is not as easily confronted.

Unacknowledged Loss – It is very typical in most cross-cultural families for the loss to go unacknowledged as well. Sometimes this is purely due to survival; the family cannot afford to grieve what was left behind when trying to cope with their present reality in a new place. Sometimes it is a way to deny the grief is even there: putting on a “brave face” as protection against the pain.

Another significant reason for unresolved grief is that many of the losses are hidden. Poet & TCK Alex Graham James explains it:

Mock Funeral

There was no funeral.

No flowers.

No ceremony.

No one had died.

No weeping or wailing.

Just in my heart.

I can’t…

But I did anyway,

and nobody knew I couldn’t.

I don’t want to…

But nobody else said they didn’t.

So I put down my panic

and picked up my luggage

and got on the plane.

There was no funeral.

(From p. 159 in Pollock, David C. and Van Reken, Ruth E. (2009) Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition. Boston: Nicholas Brealy Publishing.)

When someone dies, the loss is obvious: that person is no longer living. When one is injured, the grief is understandable: one’s bodily health has been impaired. When one loses one’s entire world by moving to another, there aren’t always obvious markers to point out what has been lost, or to explain the grief one feels.

Pollock & Van Reken explain:

The problem is that in these types of losses, no one actually dies or is injured, nothing physical is stolen.  Contrary to obvious losses, there are no markers, no rites of passage recognizing them as they occur, no recognized way to mourn.  Yet, each hidden loss relates to the major human needs of belonging, of feeling we are significant to others, and of being understood.

All sorts of things can be hidden losses, but here are a few that are most commonly experienced by global nomads:

–       Context: a familiar world where one knows where things are, how things work, and how to operate in it
–       Status: a sense of identity in a group, a place of belonging and being known and recognized for who you are and what you contribute to a community
–       Lifestyle: patterns of daily living that provide a sense of security & competency, which include navigating transportation, shopping for food & other necessities, understanding how to access utilities like electricity & water, operating in school systems, sports teams, & recreation activities
–       Possessions:  the things that connect one to the past, and provide security and a sense of family history. This can include favorite toys, childhood books, household furnishings or other family possessions.
–       Relationships: these include friendships as well as core familial relationships. Relationships between parent and child, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins are often disrupted. Domestic workers often become a very important part of a child’s life.
–       Role models:  the people in upcoming stages of life who provide examples of how to act in those stages. It can be common to not have access to certain age groups (e.g. college students) due to high mobility and a changing community.
–       System Identity:  for those in particular sending organizations (e.g. missions organizations, the military), leaving the organization often means losing the sense of belonging and personal identity that came with being part of it for many years.
–       Missed Experiences:  leaving one place for another means missing significant life events that happen for friends & family who do not travel along, e.g. siblings’ weddings, births of nieces/nephews, funerals, family reunions of extended family, graduations, birthdays, etc.
–       Access to Place: often there are significant barriers to revisiting important places like old homes, schools, churches, or playgrounds. Sometimes very important places will be spread over several countries.

While hidden losses and unresolved grief are common elements of the cross-cultural traveler’s experience, they do not have to be unwanted baggage. One of the best ways to respond is to acknowledge that the grief exists. Name the losses. Tell the story of what was left behind. Mourn for what was missed, the things that were and that never could be. When sorrow is hidden, it cannot be faced and it grows to be big and overwhelming. Yet, when we bring the pain into the light, it loses its power. Through acknowledging the hidden losses we honor their place in our lives and their meaning to us. Working through our grief allows us to move forward, carrying our memories as precious treasures that enrich our future rather than keep us stuck in the past.


(Information in this post was adapted from Pollock, David C. and Van Reken, Ruth E. (2009) Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition. Boston: Nicholas Brealy Publishing and notes compiled by Brenda Keck, 2008.)


The grief of what was lost at re-entry is a process. Loss is painful. Grief is long. The process is difficult. But it is do-able. May you stick with it, sit in it and come out on the other side able to creatively envision a new future full of hope and blessing and purpose and meaning. – Lindsay Cade

In previous posts we’ve discussed how transition is linked with loss and what the grief process looks like. Today I would like to direct you to the writings of fellow traveler Lindsay Cade. Lindsay is passionate about helping individuals on their cross-cultural journeys. She has a great blog, Care611, with many useful posts on subjects relevant to cross-cultural life. One of these is a thoughtful post on grief that includes some helpful graphics illustrating the grief cycle. Be sure to check it out!

January is, for many, a positive month. It’s the start of a new year. The slate is wiped clean and new projects, adventures, and relationships begin. For me, January is tinged with sadness. Eleven years ago, on a January day, I left my African home to go to college in the States. Other, more recent Januaries, have brought with them losses of a different kind: beloved family members, economic strain, vocational change. Every January, I am reminded of loss. While the world around me celebrates new beginnings, I remember what has passed. Different emotions accompany these memories; sometimes I am deeply sad, other times I am moved to laughter by fond memories. One thing is constant, regardless of my mood: grief is there, mingled in with the memories, echoed in the losses.

Grief is not an event that one experiences and then moves on from, but rather a cycle that is repeated throughout one’s life. Each time it comes, it looks a little different from the last – certain losses are no longer as fresh, while others seem sharper – but it is nonetheless recognizable. Grief engages the whole person: mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Certain stages or phases of emotion are common to most grief experiences:

First, there is shock, numbness & denial, a sense of “this can’t be happening; it isn’t real.”

After the initial shock has worn off, the first feelings of anger and confusion emerge. This is the stage of wondering why the loss had to happen and fighting against oneself, the loss, and God.

This can be followed by bargaining, a phase of wondering, “what if?” or “if only?” It can even look like trying to strike a deal to postpone the loss, e.g. “If I’m good, do I have to leave?

After the anger and bargaining don’t result in change, the reality of the loss sinks in, leading to depression. This is an experience of the depth of sorrow, when the weight of the loss is real and unavoidable.

As the pain, anger, and sorrow are felt, there begins to be a sense of acceptance. This is not a denial of the loss or a moving past it, but rather a way of making peace with reality. It is a time of incorporating meaning and finding ways to carry the essence of that which was lost with one into the future.

The grief process does not happen in straight line; these stages are often experienced simultaneously and repeatedly. As grief reappears, some stages last longer than others, or take different forms. There is no right way to grieve; each person’s process will be different. The only thing that doesn’t help is avoiding grief altogether. When grief is ignored, it grows and grows until it forces itself to be noticed. At that point, the grief has grown so much it seems insurmountable. Working through grief is not pleasant, but it is far easier to be honest and face it as it comes, rather than pushing it aside.

I now know that every January brings a reappearance of grief for me. I could try to ignore it or rush past it, but that only results in facing the grief further down the road. Instead, I have chosen to embrace each January as a time to mourn, and to remember. Often, in the process, I find myself filled with gratitude for the places I’ve lived, the people I’ve loved, and the experiences I’ve had. Losing them was painful, but by carrying their memories, I take with me all of the good things I gained from having these people & places in my life.

How have you approached losses in your life? What strategies have you used to deal with grief? In what ways have you been changed by the process? Share your stories in the comment section.

Sacred Objects

If you were to look at my desk, you’d probably wonder at the eclectic mix of objects it contains. There’s the mug with “St. Louis” emblazoned across it that serves as a pencil cup, the small rose-and-violet-colored soapstone elephant that I use as a paperweight, and the woven basket that’s a catchall for paperclips and other miscellaneous items. Oh and don’t forget the ebony letter opener topped with a carved head. Each of these items represents somewhere I’ve lived, objects I’ve collected over my lifetime and carried with me from place to place.

In the article “My Well-Worn Blankie,” Amy Casteel writes of an item—a yellow patchwork quilt—that she took with her on her family’s travels. As Casteel explains, this quilt represented home:

But my yellow blankie always reminded me that home was made up of people, love, food and things that are not changed by moving. While I had an insatiable sense of adventure, I had the same need to know and be known that all humans carry within them. We nomads are not the only ones with this need, nor the only ones who find it goes unmet. That gives us a great sense of empathy with people in all manner of situations. When my own need could be met by a person, I suppose that I turned to the quilt. It became a sacred object. It represents more to me than its composition of fibers. It is connected to a whole series of memories, ideas, and emotions. And it has been present in every single place that I have lived. Rather than my childhood memories residing inside the borders of a particular town, they are scattered across states and continents. The quilt was there. It was a constant” (p. 10, Among Worlds December 2010 issue).

Like Casteel, I longed for home, for a place to “know and be known.” And, like her yellow blankie, I found things to help create this sense of home. I collected my “sacred objects,” each item representing a piece of my experience, carried from place to place as tangible evidence of my life. Side by side, they seem incongruous, but together they make up a map of my history, my own patchwork quilt of memories. Whenever I sit at my desk to work, they are there, reminding me of where I have been, and anchoring me as I move forward.

As fellow world-travelers, what have you found has helped you in the transition between places? It doesn’t have to be a literal object; family rituals, traditions, or customs carried from place to place can also help to ease the way. We all need a way to connect the past to the present. How do you do that? Share your stories in the comment section.

Alexandra Fuller, who I mentioned in an earlier post, wrote a book about her “travels with an African solider” in the book Scribbling the Cat. In one passage, she reflects on the abrupt nature of cross-cultural transition in our highly mobile & technological world:

In late December I went home to my husband and to my children and to the post-Christmas chaos of a resort town, but instead of feeling glad to be back, I was dislocated and depressed. It should not be physically possible to get from the banks of the Pepani River to Wyoming in less than two days, because mentally and emotionally it is impossible. The shock is too much, the contrast too raw. We should sail or swim or walk from Africa, letting bits of her drop out of us, and gradually, in this way, assimilate the excesses and liberties of the States in tiny, incremental sips, maybe touring up through South America and Mexico before trying to stomach the land of the Free and the Brave” (p. 72).

I remember all too well disembarking from a plane after a grueling 18-hour ride and being bombarded by the sounds and sights of American culture. Compared to the less-developed African country from which I had just come, the bustle and noise were overwhelming. “Culture shock” is aptly named; there is something truly stunning about finding oneself in an entirely different environment in such a short time.

Like many global nomads, I learned to take it all in stride. Transition became an everyday occurrence, something to move through and quickly adapt to. Yet, even if these changes seemed run-of-the-mill, their impact remained significant. With every transition came loss. Something was different, whether in my surroundings, myself, or both. While I often did not have time to process those losses, they were there, under the surface, waiting to emerge when I least expected.

Fuller, also a global nomad, goes on to describe her experience of this after awaking one night and being unable to go back to sleep:

“I went through to the kitchen—feeling exiled by who I was—and made some tea and sat on the sofa with a blanket over my knees. It was the time of night that precedes dawn and is without perspective or reason. It was the hour when regret and fear overwhelm hope and courage and when all that is ugly in us is magnified and when we are most panic-stricken by what we have lost, and what have almost lost, and what we fear we might lose” (p. 74).

Loss in transition is inevitable. The question is: what do you do with it? When the fears rise in the dark, when the memories of people and places now gone wash over you, how do you respond?

The first step is to be honest about it. Voice the fears; name the losses; tell the stories of your experience. Silence gives power to the darker parts of ourselves: doubt, regret, and panic seem much bigger inside our heads than when they are spoken. Start by admitting to yourself, whether in writing or aloud, that the grief and fear exists.

Once you’ve admitted it to yourself, it can be helpful to tell someone else. Find at least one safe, trustworthy person with whom to share your story. It can be incredibly healing to have another person bear witness to your experience, honor your memories, cry with you, fight off the anxiety, and offer support and understanding. We all need someone in our lives who can validate our feelings and remind us we aren’t alone.

Processing transition, grieving losses, confronting fears – these are complicated processes that can seem overwhelming at times. Yet they are also important processes that need to be engaged in. They begin with acknowledgment, the recognition that they exist and need to be addressed.

We’ll explore what comes next in the process as we continue this discussion in future weeks. In the meantime, how have you handled loss in transition? Share your stories in the comment section.

As if it weren’t hard enough to deal with the question, “Where are you from?” most global nomads find relating to people across cultures to be a complex thing. In particular, forming relationships with monocultural individuals (i.e. individuals who have lived in only one culture) is a challenge. How much do you share? How do you get past the small talk? Why is it easier to engage in conversation with those who are older or younger, rather than peers?

One of the keys to explaining why living & relating in a monocultural environment is difficult for the cross-cultural individual is the idea of cultural balance.

Understanding cultural balance starts with understanding how we develop a cultural identity. Culture is a system of shared assumptions, beliefs and values. It is the framework from which we interpret and make sense of life and the world around us. Culture is learned; the surrounding environment teaches us how to think and act.

Culture has 2 parts as illustrated by Dr. Kohl’s cultural iceberg*:

Surface culture is the behaviors, language and customs of a particular place. Deep culture is its worldview and value system. Surface culture can be picked up over a short period of time in a new place. Deep culture takes much longer to learn, and it is the part of culture that makes us feel as though we belong.

As you moved through cultures, you were constantly trying to achieve cultural balance, or the knowledge of how things are and work in a particular community. Cultural balance is important because it makes us feel “in the know,” which gives us stability, security, and a sense of belonging. This was harder for you because you had to begin the process all over again every time you encountered a new culture. This made understanding who you were in relationship to the culture around you very challenging.

Not only that, but understanding how to communicate with those from another culture—those who had achieved cultural balance—was difficult because you were each operating from a different perspective on the way that relationships develop.

The following diagram depicts the typical progression for relationships**:

For those who grow up in a monocultural environment, relationships develop over long periods of time in a shared environment. Thus staying on level 1, sharing experiences and small talk, makes perfect sense. For the multicultural individual who is used to a highly mobile world, there isn’t time to share experiences and discussions about the weather, because one or the other of you might leave at any point. So the third-culture individual jumps in at level 2 or 3, and might even go as far as level 4. Yet level 5 is never attained, because the global nomad can’t risk the pain and loss that would come with such an experience of intimacy. Because separation is inevitable, due to their ever-changing world, they have to guard some part of their heart.

Thus, when a monocultural individual comes into contact with a multicultural one, developing a friendship becomes an obstacle course of missed signals, confusion, and frustration. Neither individual understands how the other approaches relationships, and these misunderstandings can often lead to isolation or dissatisfaction. The key, for the multicultural person, is to understand the way that culture is absorbed and how relationships are formed, and then to take the courageous leap to explain this to their monocultural peers. Mutual understanding leads to greater intimacy. Relationships across cultures can be successful, if one is willing to try a different way.


*Diagram reproduced from Pollock, David C. & Van Reken, Ruth E. (2001) Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing Up Among Worlds Boston: Nicholas Brealy Publishing.

**Courtesy of Brenda Keck, based on information provided by Interaction International, adapted from Why Am I Afraid to Tell You Who I Am by John Powell.

“Where are you from?” are the four most-dreaded words a global nomad will ever hear.

Alexandra Fuller, in her memoir Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, illustrates it well:

“‘But what are you?’ I am asked over and over again.
‘Where are you from originally?’
I began then, embarking from a hot, dry boat.
Blinking bewildered from the sausage-gut of a train. Arriving in Rhodesia, Africa. From Derbyshire, England. I was two years old, startled and speaking toddler English. Lungs shocked by thick, hot, humid air. Senses crushed under the weight of so many stimuli.
I say, ‘I’m African.’ But not black.
And I say, ‘I was born in England,’ by mistake.
But, ‘I have lived in Rhodesia (which is now Zimbabwe) and in Malawi (which used to be Nyasaland) and in Zambia (which used to be Northern Rhodesia)’.
And I add, ‘Now I live in America,’ through marriage.
And (full disclosure), ‘But my parents were born of Scottish and English parents.’
What does that make me?”

We all have our ways of dealing with the question. Some of us quickly name a place and turn the conversation back around to the questioner. Others decide to bravely venture a short list of residences and hope the subject drops there. My tactic has been to make the topic present tense, saying, “I live here right now.” However we handle the question, it’s one that every traveler continues to ask herself, deep inside, long after the conversation is over.

“Where are you from?” The questioner wants to know where to place you, where to identify you with. For him, it’s part of belonging – a connection to soil and history and family roots. It’s a way of saying, “I am this place and this place is me.” For those who have lived in one spot most of their lives, there’s a lifetime of information to be gained from this question. It’s a source of pride, comfort, and security. They love where they’re from and they want the world to know. Some people wear their hometowns like a badge of honor – Boston, Vienna, Santiago, Nairobi, Tokyo, Perth – these places define them. They hold worlds within them and the individual is proud to affiliate with them.

For the global nomad, place holds meaning, but there have been so many places that to choose just one with which to identify feels like deciding which feature to dominate one’s appearance. Should you be the blue-eyed boy today? Or the red-haired girl? How about the tall one? Or the one with the crooked smile? What if you wanted to have freckles and brown eyes; would that be okay? Is it even possible to hold all of those in one body? Can one person contain the many languages, cultures, customs, and unique aspects of the world? It seems too difficult to try, so some days we just resort to being Jane from Ourtown, USA.

Yet within every one of us is a longing for home, a place where we can say, “I belong here.” It’s part of our DNA. We were made to connect, to be rooted in places and people who know us.

I was talking to a fellow traveler one day who said, “I wish in real life we had a ‘Home button’ we could push, like on a web browser, so that no matter where we were in the world, we’d immediately go to the place where we feel most at home.” In our highly connected, technological world, such an invention seems like a brilliant idea. Whenever teleportation becomes fact rather than fiction, global nomads will be first in line to take advantage of it! Until that day, we’ll keep doing the best we can to make our current place of residence feel more like home.