Posts Tagged ‘Grief’

We recently had our last week of meetings for Tarmac, the group we do at Covenant College. I always have mixed emotions about our final session. I’m proud and grateful for the growth that’s evident after a semester spent journeying together into deep places. Yet these conversations by their very nature forge heartfelt connection, and saying goodbye (never easy for TCKs) is sad. I’ve learned to embrace the bittersweet aspect of these endings, but I’ve also learned that I need to do something tangible to mark it for myself, to acknowledge the meaning and impact of these relationships.

As a lover of stories, writing is a vital way in which I honor these moments. A few months ago, Paul and I took some time to put into words what we wanted Covenant students to know as they left Tarmac. Inspired by Rachel Pieh Jones’s moving letter to her children, we compiled our own list of 15 things we would say to the global nomads in our lives. I revisited the list the other day and found solace in its words of affirmation and hope.

So, to the cross-cultural travelers in Tarmac this semester and to all of us who need encouragement on this journey between worlds, here are 15 things to remember:

1. You are courageous. You have faced a lifetime’s worth of loss, change, new cultures, life & death experiences, and emotional upheaval. You continue to bravely face each new experience and relationship. Most of all, you face yourself with courage and grace.

2. You are complex. Your life has not been straightforward. There aren’t easy answers to questions like “Where are you from?” and “Where’s home?” This complexity, while frustrating at times, is also rich and full.

3. You are unique. There is no one else exactly like you, with your particular blend of attributes, preferences, experiences, and emotions. These combine to create a beautiful mosaic of character and personality. You are amazing and a gift to the world.

4. You are valued. We love your complexity and uniqueness. We appreciate you. It is a joy and a privilege to know you.

5. You are a whole person. Your experiences as a TCK are as important a part of who you are today as they were when you were going through them. Yet they are not the only thing that defines you. Your current experiences matter too. These experiences, combined with your unique attributes, make you a fully-rounded person who remains constant no matter your context.

6. You are seen and heard. Your stories matter to us. We love hearing them. We see the pain and the joy they’ve caused, the questions with which you wrestle, the hopes for your future. It’s our honor to be a witness to your life story.

7. You are not alone. When it seems like no one understands, or cares, or as if everyone who knows you has left, remember that there are others who get it—others who see you, understand, and are with you. Even greater than that, God is with you. He has been with you from the start and He will never leave.

8. The pain of feeling like an outsider can still run deep. Creating community with other TCKs can be a vital part of being fully yourself.

9. Pay attention to the voice inside of you telling you how you’re feeling and what you need. You possess the resources to care for yourself, and the Holy Spirit will meet you there, if you make space to listen.

10. Relationships are risky and challenging, but they are worth it. Life is better when we share it with others. Draw on your courage and be willing to open yourself to others

11. Every person, including you, is at their own place on this journey. God can be trusted to walk through it with you.

12. You will have grief, but it will not overcome you. It will come in waves, often at the times you least expect it, and it will feel overwhelming. Yet, just like an ocean wave hits the shore and the ebbs back out, so your grief will not last forever. Feel it when it comes; talk about it; let it be; but also trust that it will recede. Going through the grief is worth it. Even when it feels easier to run away from it, bury it, get around it or blow it up, it is meaningful to face yourself and the grief and emerge richer.

13. The things you have lost have value. Your cultural knowledge and experience are treasured no matter what culture you’re currently in. Honor your losses and remember them. Look for the ways that your experience of loss can open the door to step into the stories of others, help you learn from them, and hone your character.

14. You cannot lose you. No matter where you go, what you do, or what you experience, you cannot lose who you are. The places you’ve been, the people you’ve met, the cultures you’ve experienced – all of these have shaped you, and they stay with you. Whether you travel the world or stay in the same place for the rest of your life, those memories and those experiences will always belong to you; they will always define you. No one can take them away from you.

15. You are strong and resilient. Life will continue to be hard; there will be transitions, losses, and unexpected hurdles, but you will be able to withstand them. With God’s help and the resources you’ve developed over a lifetime, you can face whatever comes with grace and courage.


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There are some very talented global nomads making films about the cross-cultural experience. Here are two:

So Where’s Home? A Film about Third Culture Kid Identity by Adrian Bautista

A thoughtful examination of how the highly mobile, multicultural lifestyle affects identity, sense of home, and connection to people and places.


Trailer for Les Passagers: A TCK Story by Aga Magdolen

Even though this is the trailer for a longer film it still highlights the benefits and challenges of the global nomad experience.




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I’ve been thinking a lot about goodbyes lately. In the US, May and June are the months when school ends, so there are graduation ceremonies, end-of-year parties, and various other ways to say goodbye to the year and the people in it. May and June are also popular wedding months. Weddings, while happy occasions, bring their own kind of goodbyes – leaving one’s respective families to create a new one together.

Like many global nomads, I shy away from goodbyes. Endings aren’t my strong suit; I’m much better at beginnings. Over the years, I’ve wondered: what’s the point of dwelling on an ending? Partings are inevitable. Why not just move on to the next new start?

Victor L. Hunter*, in his thoughtful and provocative essay “Closure and Commencement: The Stress of Finding Home”, challenges this typical TCK mentality. He writes,

“Goodbyes are important. Without a meaningful goodbye, an effective closure, there cannot be a creative hello, a new beginning, and hopeful commencement.”

Hunter’s thesis is that there cannot be a proper beginning until there has been a proper ending. In fact, beginnings become better because of effective goodbyes.

This may seem strange at first; it did to me. As a seasoned traveler, I was used to getting on planes and saying “see you later!” to friends, only to never return. I thought I was handling this lack of closure until I started to notice the pull within me to avoid starting new relationships. Much like we noted in our discussion on grief, I was in denial about what it had meant to leave. But my heart knew. The resistance bubbled to the surface and confronted me when placed in yet another situation where I had to make new friends, get to know a new place, create a new “home”.

Pollock and Van Reken** discuss the importance of leaving well. They say that taking the time for closure makes the inevitable transition that much more bearable. Not only that, but by being intentional about goodbye, we are able to highlight the meaning each person and place has held for us. Goodbyes are commemorations – they create a lasting place in our hearts and memories for those relationships and experiences which have shaped us. We mark them in time and space, and carry them as pieces of our stories.

Pollock and Van Reken suggest the acronym RAFT to help remember the aspects of a good goodbye:

Reconciliation: Leaving is the time to make amends; heal old wounds; resolve grievances. Global nomads are notoriously poor at conflict because they often aren’t in relationships long enough to work through conflict. Rather than leaving with disagreements still intact, take the opportunity to address any open conflict and resolve the relationship so that you don’t carry resentment and bitterness with you.

Affirmation: Seize the opportunity to tell people how much they mean to you. Savor time together and acknowledge the difference the person has made in your life. Reminisce about favorite experiences. Give gifts or write cards that express how they’ve influenced you. Make time to say out loud how you feel about loved ones while you’re still with them.

Farewells: Take time to say goodbye to people and places that you love. Hunter talks about walking through the city with his wife and stopping at their favorite places one last time. He writes, “Each place had its corner in our memory which we acknowledged with gratitude” (p. 184). In addition to saying goodbye to specific places, find sacred objects to carry with you to the next location. Give yourself space to begin to grieve leaving what you love.

Think destination: Begin to look forward to what’s ahead. As Hunter mentioned, closure allows for commencement. Even as you say goodbye, recognize that new hellos are coming too. It’s okay to be excited about these, and to begin preparing for them. Think ahead to where you’re going and what it will be like so that you’re prepared (or as prepared as you can be) for what you will face upon arrival.

Following these steps of building a RAFT allows for a smooth transition from one place to the next. Nothing about leaving one place and entering another is easy, but by actively acknowledging the change, you can give yourself the tools to face it more effectively.

I’ve begun trying to mark the significant events and endings in my life. I attend graduations and hug the students embarking on new adventures. I share a meal with friends moving out-of-town. I spend time in favorite places before my own moves. I write letters and give gifts to those who have impacted my life. These rituals are bittersweet, as any goodbye would be. I feel the weight of loss. But I also feel the fullness of connection, the warmth of love and friendship that supersede location. And to my surprise, there is greater joy in acknowledging the goodbye than ignoring it ever brought. Denial was empty and void; it left me numb. Acknowledgement, however painful, makes me more human, more alive. In this living, I have come to embrace goodbyes. I do not welcome them – I’d rather not be parted from those I love – but I have found a way through the inevitable partings, a way that leads to brighter, more hopeful beginnings.

* p. 179 in Hunter, V. L. (1986). “Closure and Commencement: The Stress of Finding Home.” In Austin C. E. (Ed.), Cross-Cultural Re-Entry: A Book of Readings. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press.

** Based on pp. 181-185 in Pollock, David C. and Van Reken, Ruth E. (2009) Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, Revised Edition. Boston: Nicholas Brealy Publishing.

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In our discussion on grief, we’ve talked about loss encompassing varying, sometimes opposite, emotions. It can be hard to feel caught in between, which is why grief is often unresolved; we don’t know how to embrace both the pain and joy that life contain. There is a fear that if we were to acknowledge the difficult, painful things in life we would diminish, or negate, the wonderful, joyous moments. The truth is that for all of us, life is paradoxical. We go through every day holding opposite realities in tension: laughter & tears, happiness & sorrow, courage & fear, strength & weakness.

Global nomads feel this tension keenly, as they traverse various cultures and try to piece the disparate parts of their experience into a coherent whole. Each person and place holds special meaning; each experience is significant in shaping the TCK’s identity. Yet, some of these people and places are no longer accessible. Thus, what on the one hand represents great joy and happiness, on the other hand is characterized by immense sorrow and loss. This makes the task of grieving that much more difficult.

Sara Groves’ song “Painting Pictures of Egypt” uniquely captures the bittersweet dynamic of cross-cultural living and grieving.

Paradox in loss is inescapable. Life on this earth is bittersweet. The highs and lows come side by side and we must learn how to make room for that tension, rather than be paralyzed by it. As with other aspects of grief, acknowledgment is the first step. Identifying the paradox allows us to understand it. Once we know it is there, we can expand our hearts and minds to allow the tension to exist as it is. In creating space for the paradox, we invite it to be a companion on our journey rather than an unwanted tag-a-long.

As we continue down the road, we may even find that there are times when paradox provides a place to rest; a place where questions don’t have to be answered and mysteries don’t have to be figured out. And in the resting there is comfort for our grieving hearts.

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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.)

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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!

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The Journey of Grief

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.

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