Good Grief: Helping TCKs Navigate Their Unresolved Grief

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I grew up in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I only moved there when I was ten but had lived a few places before then.  So when we got there and stayed for almost eight years – all of middle and high school – it was home. The sprawling mess of corrugated tin structures and grand houses, the dusty, potholed streets brimming with people and sheep and donkeys, the clusters of embassy signs and clunking blue and white taxis all formed the most natural backdrop for me, just living my (so I thought) normal life as a teenager. I loved my small school and my eleven classmates and the compound I lived on where all us kids would pay ‘kick the can’ at night. By the end of high school, I loved hopping on minibus taxis and meeting up with friends for lunch or coffee or ice cream or whatever shenanigans we could find (there really wasn’t a lot to actually do in Addis).  And then, suddenly, before I was ready, graduation happened and I left. Not only that, but my parents also moved away that same summer.In the Fall, I found myself in a whole new, completely foreign world: college in America. Guys, it was a rough time. Not only did I not know what I was doing, but I had left such a close-knit community where I was so known and was now at a state university where I knew no one (except my sister, one year ahead). It was a lonely first semester as I stumbled through learning all the things, from how to keep up with reading for classes to how to navigate the question “where are you from?” to what daylight savings actually means experientially, not just as a concept. And as I slowly got to know people, I realized just how far my previous life was from anything that they could grasp or acknowledge and so I packed the history and stories and experiences of my other life away into a distant corner of my mind. It wasn’t a conscious choice, really – it just seemed like what I had to do in order to move forward and make friends and learn how to be in this new life.What I didn’t have words for at the time, and I didn’t even fully realize until several years later, was that what I was dealing with during that lonely season of transition was grief. And what I had been doing was not actually dealing with it, maybe because I just didn’t realize that that’s what was going on, or because I didn’t know how to or that I was allowed to. I knew I had moved, obviously, and knew I had left my home and wouldn’t even be going back at Christmas, but I didn’t really comprehend the full spectrum of all that I had lost.More than even just people and the place itself, I had lost things like the cultural and experiential knowledge I had (ie. jumping on minibus taxis like it was no big deal to get around the city by myself). I had lost not just my home, but the restaurants and coffee shops and friends’ houses that made up the landscape of my experience. I had lost a community who shared my history. As TCK expert Michele Phoenix puts it, “every move is the loss of a universe, and the person you were in that universe is lost too.”Although there are so many amazing things about being a TCK – so much strength and resilience built, so much adaptability learned, so many global experiences formed – one of the difficult realities that every TCK will face is loss. And while moving is probably the biggest source of this loss, it comes in other forms too: friends moving at the end of every school year, for example. Or the losses you don’t realize until later, such as when you go back to your passport culture and realize what life could have been like, growing up close to your grandparents and cousins. Loss is an ingrained part of being a TCK, and with loss comes grief – but TCKs don’t always know that they can and should grieve, because so often grief is associated with death, and this doesn’t quite fit that category (although, doesn’t it?).So, if you’re someone who knows and loves a TCK and wants to help them walk through this grief, what can you do? While there is probably not one right way to handle this, here are a few tips and perspectives to get you started.

  1. Start simply with recognizing – and helping them recognize – that they might have unresolved grief that they could be ‘stuffing.’ This could be because they aren’t even aware that what they are feeling is grief (as was my situation), or because they don’t feel like they have permission to grieve. It could be because they feel pressure to be resilient or not be a burden.  Maybe their reaction to the grief is coming out in unhealthy behaviors, such as anger, isolation, rebellion, or – more internally – blaming God or others, and you or they didn’t really recognize this as the source.
  2. Foster open and honest communication. As the adult, you could lead the way in prompting conversation relating to these topics (“Hey, you must really miss [place/friend who moved/specific activity they used to do], huh?”). Hopefully (and maybe over time!) you can become a safe place for your TCK to share their emotions and experiences.
  3. Acknowledge the validity of their pain. As mentioned above, a TCK may not know that they are allowed to feel the way they do. (This could particularly be the case in a faith-based non-profit family, where the TCK knows the importance of their parents' work and their supporters back in their passport country!) But these are genuinely hard things to walk through – especially as a kid or teenager who might not know how to navigate those kinds of emotions – and valid experiences and emotions that shouldn’t be pushed aside or ignored.
  4. Show them ways to grieve well. There are unhealthy ways to experience and respond to the kind of emotions that loss brings, but there are also healthy ways. In fact, working through grief is good – it’s what allows you to move through it and beyond it! I feel like often Christians are quick to use Bible verses like Band-Aids, or tell you that everything’s going to be okay – but sometimes it’s okay to instead just sit with the pain and feel your feelings before you try to “get over it.” Some things that might help a TCK explore their grief in a healthy way are journaling or drawing (maybe including making a list or a picture of the things they miss), talking with someone, walking or running or some other form of exercise, crying, and listening to or creating music.

Experiencing loss is never easy at any age, and TCKs walk through a disproportionate amount of it. My hope, however, is that they don’t have to drown in those emotions, but can learn the skills to engage with their grief and know how to handle it when they come up against it again in the future!