One thing all TCKs have in common? Grief.
What is the most common reason adult TCKs seek counseling? “Unresolved loss and grief,” writes expat counselor Kay Bruner in her article “Ask a Counselor: How do we Process Loss and Grief?”
You see, TCKs attend many funerals. Hidden, heart-level funerals felt in the depths of our hearts. With each transition in our lives, we experience the “death” of friendships, houses, lifestyles, routines, and traditions.
Some of these losses are significant. Others don’t appear grief-worthy. Who knew I would cry tears of longing over smells? Sights? Sounds? Tastes?
“But eventually, all of these little things pile up,” one ATCK in her mid-twenties told me over coffee one recent rainy afternoon, “until you feel huge, heavy loss that you don’t know what to do with.” When the loss is great, most TCKs search for a hasty escape from this burden of sadness.
In an effort to appear as though everything is “just fine,” they deal with their grief in one (or many!) of these seven ways:
#1 The Stuffer
The Stuffer’s primary thought is “I don’t go there.” They refuse to deal with the emotions in their hearts that emerge from loss and grief.
End Result: Their grief manifests itself through anger until they can’t contain it anymore. They eventually reach an “exploding point.”
#2 The Denier
The Denier’s primary thought is “That didn’t happen to me.” They refuse to acknowledge or talk about their losses.
End Result: They eventually become caught in unprocessed experiences and unspoken sorrow. They also tend to hide their TCK upbringings from non-TCKs.
#3 The Numb (er)
End Result: Because emotions are numbed collectively, they can’t just numb their grief. In their efforts to quench their sorrow, they also numb their joy.
#4 The Dweller
The Dweller’s primary thought is “I’m stuck. I can’t move forward.” They become too attached to their losses. They refuse to acknowledge them, grieve them, and then move on.
End Result: Always looking back, they can’t grow new roots in new locations. They tend to talk incessantly about their TCK struggles. Accepting their current circumstances can be extremely difficult.
#5 The Forgetter
The Forgetter’s primary thought is “I’m excited. Forget the past and dive into the future.” Throwing their energy and focus into their changing circumstances, they’re too busy to grieve.
End Result: About six months to a year after this transition, they are typically overwhelmed with massive amounts of unexpected grief and regret.
#6 The Faker
The Faker’s primary thought is “I’m not supposed to be sad.” Usually, they feel as though they don’t have permission to grieve.
End Result: As their grief piles high, they hide behind a false façade of enthusiasm. But they soon grow accustomed to shoving hurt or pain behind this always-ready façade instead of expressing and processing sorrow.
#7 The Tougher
The Tougher’s primary thought is “I have to be strong. I don’t want to be an annoyance.” They choose to ‘suck it up,’ refusing to show their grief for fear of appearing weak, too sensitive, or bothersome to others.
End Result: Their unresolved grief becomes stifling. They soon build a wall of bitterness around their hearts, showing irritation or impatience towards those who openly express their grief.
TCKs have become experts at not grieving. We’ve forgotten that the act of grieving keeps us connected to the things we’ve lost. We’ve become accustomed to banning grief. We treat it like a game of Hot Potatoes—tossing it up and away from us for fear of getting burned.
“Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are 20 than mono-cultural individuals do in a lifetime,” said David Pollock, a pioneer in TCK research.
And deep inside us, beyond the fear of being misunderstood or of appearing weak, we fear that if we open our hearts to this grief within, we will be overwhelmed by it.
But healing doesn’t come when we ban grief.
Healing doesn’t come when we stuff, numb, deny, dwell, forget, fake, or tough our losses.
Healing comes when we choose to feel grief.
Which of these ways do you deal with losses? Do you find yourself banning grief?
Illustrations by Sydney Murray