In their book, Third Culture Kids, Pollock & Van Reken describe the Unresolved Grief in the life of TCKs. As they explain it, repeated cycles of mobility in the life of TCKs are leading to repetitive losses. Over relocations the children often lose a place, a community, or a possession they loved. As the cycles of change and loss are repeated, the normal grief they generate intensifies. And yet, for many TCKs, this grief is never fully expressed. One of the best ways to help TCKs cope with their unresolved grief is to acknowledge its existence by naming the losses, telling the story of what was left behind, and mourning for what was missed. For more on the subject, read the blog “Notes from the Tarmac”.
In our home, large spaces are dedicated to memories. Albums hang on a wall, while more of them fill a cluttered cabinet, savoring years of marriage, infancy, growth and countless transitions. Another wall is dedicated to our home culture – the Israel-Judaism wall. A ‘Hamsa’ hangs there together with an embroidered blessing for the house. On our beds, we keep pillows with pictures of our loved ones, and on the shelf tiny memorabilia remind us of the places that left their mark on us. A seashell we found at the beach over one summer vacation in Israel. A burnt Pine cone from the big 2010 fire on the Carmel mountain. A small kangaroo reminding us of a little curly girl back in our Aussie days- approaching, patting, and even hugging little wallabies. Alongside the kangaroo, a small bag with coffee beans, not quite the real “Kopi Luwak” but symbolic nonetheless, reminds us of a family trip to Indonesia. Cruising between orchards in buggies and ending the day with a beautiful sunset at the top of the mountain. Near the coffee bag stand side by side a small Chinese figurine, a Merlion, a Singaporean lunchbox and a red flag. All representing the Asian experience in which we’ve been living for the past four years. Shelves over shelves of small souvenirs, each carrying a life story with it, an experience, and a moment that has passed.
One of the challenges faced by Third Culture Kids is unresolved grief- a repeated sense of loss, which has not been processed through the stages of grief and therefore remains open. Like typical TCKs, our own teenagers are experiencing frequent transitions and a myriad of changes. In every relocation, in a matter of a few hours’ flight they are required to say goodbye, overcome the sadness, and begin to build a new social and emotional world. The way my own teenagers are dealing with this task reminds me of opening and closing drawers. Each relocation opens one drawer while closing another. This closing locks a collection of feelings and relations away. At the same time it allows for the opening of a new drawer- one which will now become their new world. Closing past drawers allows my teenagers to avoid dealing with hard feelings. Sadness, memories, lost friendships, all are kept tight and closed until the next time the drawer will open. And indeed, time and again I am surprised to see how as they return to their familiar places drawers are opened and in a short time my kids glide back right into their old roles and relationships.
However, closing their drawers hermetically makes it difficult for my teenagers to deal with the grief over the losses that are hidden in them. Grieving the loss of social bonds, the loss of a joint present, the termination (even if temporarily) of the experiences they shared with friends and family who are now left behind.
Our memory collections are one of the ways in which we try to ventilate, even for a bit, those closed drawers. A glimpse over the memorabilia brings back a story. Opening an album reassures us that the fading memories are real, and that this unusual past is part of our life and of our children’s lives. From time to time we share our memories with them; sharing our feelings, talking about how much we miss our friends. We invite our teenagers to share with us
those moments of memory ventilation, the moments when drawers are being opened and sadness over the loss is
experienced once again. Not always are they willing to share those moments with us. At times they seem to pose a threat to their happy life image, and yet, our familiarity with the concept of Unresolved Grief seems to help. We understand the significance of talking and sharing the feelings of loss. We avoid our tendency to encourage instead of comfort, to try to wipe the pain away instead of working through and letting them express it. We introduce the terms, find ways to discuss it with our TCKs, listen to their experiences and needs, and by that try to help them cope with one of the less pleasant implications of our relocation task.
By Dr Taly Goren, a long time traveler between nations and continents,
relocation specialist, parents groups facilitator, mother of two adolescent TCKs,
and the wife of a Hi-Tech Expat frequent flyer.