Many people don’t understand TCK grief.
TCK grief is unconventional. Rather than blatant and obvious losses, our losses can be hidden, ambiguous, and disguised. I haven’t lost a mother or father, or a sister or a brother. In many ways, my grief can never compare to the grief triggered by these major losses.
But I can resonate deeply.
When I became a missionary kid, I lost my world. It “died” when my family and I moved overseas. I lost the rhythm and routine of my daily life. I lost my friendships. I lost the comfort of conversing in my own language and functioning in my own culture. I said hundreds of goodbyes. I lost pieces of my identity. I lost the feeling of “rootedness.” I felt like I stood in an unfamiliar place, beneath the shadow of a mountain of losses. Some I could pinpoint. Others simply formed an ache in my heart—an indistinct, vague longing for what was.
I was in fourth grade. Staring up at this pile of losses, I felt overwhelmed. I couldn’t even truly recognize everything I lost, let alone know how to grieve them. Life as a TCK is beautiful, but I couldn’t see this side yet. My parents’ feelings mirrored my own. We needed to cross a bridge of grief—not between our two worlds or our past and present realities—but an emotional bridge within us. A process that would help us release what was and embrace what is. Although we each express our sadness differently, these five key steps helped us cross our bridges of grief:
#1 Write down what you lost.
The first time I began naming my losses after moving to Japan, I was embarrassed. They sounded so small.
I missed the smell of freshly-mowed grass. I missed the sound of ocean waves lapping on the Floridian shoreline. I missed Panera bagels, smeared with creamy butter and washed down with orange juice. I missed being able to fully express myself in my own language.
I was embarrassed because my neighbor had just lost her husband. How could I complain about missing grass? But this was an actual loss I felt every time I looked at our tiny, grey gravel parking spot bordering our new home in Japan.
Since then, I’ve learned to never discount losses. Grief can be hidden with multiple layers. I’ve learned to think small—it’s these seemingly insignificant things that can trigger sadness. So I write them all down. I’ve realized that the first step to grieving is to know what I need to grieve.
#2 Discover your safe spots (what feels familiar)
When grieving the loss of someone in their lives, many people tend to run, run, run. They don’t want to remember their loss, see the emptiness of their homes. But for TCKs, it’s the reverse. There is no safe place to run. With the loss of our worlds, we immediately enter new worlds. Everything is different and foreign. But while grieving, we desperately need to remember what we lost in a safe spot.
I remember the day my family found a tiny bagel stand in the basement of our train station. We each chose a bagel, returned home, and toasted them in our fish grill (we didn’t have a toaster. What can I say?). I bit into my cinnamon raisin bagel as warmth spread through me. For a moment, I was transported into what was. I needed to create these “safe spots” of familiarity while navigating my unfamiliar.
#3 Express your grief (let it OUT)
Expressing grief is the most vital part of grieving, and it’s the part many TCKs don’t do. We can stuff our grief because of hidden shame. How could we feel sad about what we left behind when we’ve gained so much good? Again…how could we complain?
As a missionary kid, I’ve mistakenly thought feeling sad about leaving the US was almost like sinning. How could I long for the past when God had called me to my present reality? I thought grieving meant that I wasn’t accepting God’s current will for my life.
This thinking resulted in years of unresolved grief, which eventually turned into anger. I learned that when I feel “ambushed” by grief, I need to allow myself to be caught. I can’t run from grief—I can just prolong it. I’ve learned that the only way to embrace my new reality is to allow myself to sit in my sadness and grieve what I lost.
#4 Talk about your grief.
My grandmother just lost her husband, my grandfather. Each week, she attends a “grief share” group. Together, widowers talk about their losses. They cry together and support one another. They listen and are listened to. They share memories with a group who understands.
This is what TCKs need.
Far too often, the TCK life style results in loneliness and disconnectedness. We can be fearful of being labelled or characterized by our grief. Or we have no one to process with. But our grief bridges aren’t supposed to be walked alone. We need to find someone with whom we can talk about our losses.
When I was ready, I processed with my mom. She listened without judgment. She cried with me. She understood. I’ve learned that processing my grief with someone who cares about me is a key step forward on my grief bridge.
#5 See your present reality through different eyes
Part of grief is identifying what was. After grieving these losses, I could then shift my gaze to my new reality. I hadn’t dismissed my past. I had released it.
The next part of grief is identifying what could be. Slowly, I found new “safe spots.” I transitioned from savoring bagels to savoring sushi. I could accept my new life because I had grieved my old life fully.
I recently read the story of Joseph in the Bible, after he had become second in command of Egypt and had married an Egyptian. Decades ago, he had been sold by his brothers, and he had never returned to his homeland. Joseph had two sons. I think the meaning of his sons’ names perfectly describe this step of grief…which Joseph was currently in.
He named his eldest son Manasseh, saying “God has made me forget what was…”
He named his second son Ephraim, saying “God has made me fruitful in the land of my grief.”
With God’s help, he had let go of his old life. He was flourishing in the land of his grief. He saw his current situation from a new perspective. He had crossed his grief bridge and embraced the other side.