Third Culture Kids & Grief

I have been slowly reading this book, in between a few others for the past 6 months.  Before we started this process, I had a million questions, many of them I wrote about here.   Continuing to understand what happens to many Third Culture Kids (TCK) and Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCK) has been very eye-opening for me.  This book has made it around many of the expat circles, but before you are an expat, you don’t think much about it.


Sometimes we know we are going through something, we have changed, we have grown, we have experienced some heightened emotions, but there has been so much change to pinpoint just one thing.

I do not know for sure how long we will be here, I do not know where we are going next, I do not know if we will ever live overseas with our children again, but I do know that this experience has changed us all.  Understanding the emotions, the coping mechanisms, and the developmental differences in children who have lived in a host culture has been enlightening.

We have tried to adopt many of the Colombian customs, but I also have tried to keep hold of those really important ones from home.   It isn’t easy, it comes with failed attempts and mom guilt.  There are more uncomfortable moments than I could possibly count, but everyday feels like we “get it” a little bit more.   I don’t think my kids feel Colombian but I see how they understand the world from a changing point of view.   They have seen true poverty, they have learned to make friends without needing to speak the same language,  and most importantly, that no matter how far, the importance of keeping close relationships.

Something I read that surprised me.  Unresolved grief and losses.  

“TCK’s don’t lose one thing at a time; they lose everything at once.  And there’s no funeral.  Or, if they’re sad to leave friends and family in their passport country, they’ll soon be caught up in the busyness of adjusting to a new land…”

This topic is particularly interesting to me because my mind often tries to find these hidden buzz killers.  If I can identify the struggles, I can help work through them.  They categorize these losses into possessions, relationships, lifestyle and a few others.  Perhaps the one that haunts me is Loss of past that wasn’t.  I talked a lot about the sacrifices we made here but also what we hoped for when we made this decision. We couldn’t live in the same home forever and live out an adventure overseas at the same time.  We had to choose, and no matter which choice we made, there was going to be a loss.

“Though third culture kids have a wealth of tangible and intangible realities that give their lives meaning, many of the worlds they have known are far away.   Therefore, what they loved and lost in each transition remains invisible to others or unnamed by themselves.  Such losses create a special challenge.  Hidden or unnamed losses most often are unrecognized, and therefore the TCK’s grief for them is also unrecognized – and unresolved.   It’s hard to mourn appropriately without defining the loss.

These hidden losses also are recurring ones.  The exact loss may not repeat itself, but the same types of loss happen again and again, and the unresolved grief accumulates. These hidden losses vary from large to small….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 we all have of belonging, feeling significant to others and being understood.” 

Our children have had to learn how to process a lot of good-byes.  Not only did they say good-bye to their home, family and friends, some favorite foods and places when they moved overseas, but you forget there are plenty of good-byes when you get there as well.  Many overseas positions for families are 2-3 years, so depending on the friends you make in your new host country, there are still more good-byes all along the way.  I am one who hates good-byes, I avoid them until the very last-minute and then I cry my eyes out.   However, I do know that saying a proper good-bye really helps us move forward in a healthy way.

This post wasn’t necessarily meant to be a downer, but sometimes it’s easy to only see the glamour of living overseas: traveling to new places and exploring new restaurants and experiences.  However, there are a lot of emotions that come along with it.  Good days and bad ones and lots of both in the same days!  I believe it is important to discuss both sides of this coin, and while we love the wonderful opportunities we have been given, I remember that my children did not choose this, and while I hope they are glad we did, I feel very responsible for how they process this experience.


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