Posts Tagged ‘Loss’

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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