Leading an international life is exciting: you get to live in other countries, dive into other cultures and languages, and you have friends in many different places. The world is your oyster.
What most people who embark on this kind of journey tend to forget, is that this is only one side of the medal. On the other side of the medal, there is the unexpected, the surprises, the things we didn’t sign up for, the challenges, and the tangible and intangible losses we have to deal with regularly.
Tangible losses are easily recognizable. These are the houses, pets, friends, possessions, places we leave behind, and the foods, languages, schools etc.. What is more difficult to foresee are the hidden losses.
With a goodbye, we lose way more than our possessions and the everyday life with our dear ones. We lose the “world, lifestyle, our status and reputation, the sights, sounds and smells, events and celebrations, a history and so much more” (Tina Quick, The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition, p.41). Every family member experiences these hidden losses in his or her very personal way and we all go through change at our very own pace.
Every family member experiences these hidden losses in his or her very personal way and we all go through change at our very own pace.
Although living internationally implies being good at managing change, adapting and re-adapting to different circumstances on a regular basis: we still need to belong, we need recognition and connection. But these needs are those who are ripped away with each move, each change, and what is worse: these losses are often not acknowledged, they remain hidden inside of us.
According to Ruth van Reken, unresolved grief is common among internationally living children – and I may add: adults too. “Transition always involves loss, no matter how good the next phase will be” (Ruth van Reken) and:
TCK’s (Third Culture Kids) or children who grow up internationally, i.e. “spend most of their childhood in different countries face more change in form of losses and separations before the end of their adolescence than the average adult in a lifetime” (David Pollock & Ruth van Reken, Third Culture Kids. Growing Up Among Worlds).
The grief of these children is often invisible. Parents assume their kids will adapt “in no time”, “they will find friends easily”, “they are resilient”… They tell their children that they will get over missing their friends, they’ll get a nicer room, another pet.
What many parents don’t understand is that these bereavements, these losses need to be mourned.
If losses are not resolved, if they are denied, they will submerge later in life. It is essential for children who grow up like this to learn from a very early stage on how to process these losses in a healthy way.
The most common reason adult TCKs seek counseling is unresolved loss and grief (e.g., expat counselor Kay Bruner, Ask a Counselor: How do we process loss and grief?)
With every move, we experience multiple losses. Some are more significant than others, but they all need to be dealt with.*
We lose our world, and with our world, we lose our status, our role in society. Our children lose their role in their class and school, their role among friends.
This means that we need to re-find our role in the new place and setting. For many of us, it feels like re-inventing ourselves, re-writing our story from scratch.
Part of this world that we leave behind are the details from our everyday life: the smells, sounds, sights, tastes. I personally have very strong smell and taste memories that can bring me back to a specific time and place in the past, like the Madeleine de Proust.
What I always recommend is to make sure to pack bedlinen, detergents, soaps and some of our favorite food to keep a sensory connection with our previous world.
For some of us, losing this world can also have a cathartic effect. Especially when we weren’t that happy in the previous place: the change is a chance for us to start afresh, turn the page. But even then, it is comforting to have some items that remind us of that phase of our life…
What items would make you feel comfortable and “at home” in the new place?
We lose our lifestyle, our daily routine, the way we structure our everyday life, the way we live – in a house, a flat, in the countryside, in a city… –, the way we travel etc..
If we try to maintain some of the routines – like having breakfast all together regularly, having a special day with the traditional meal from the place we just left etc. – we will adjust easier to the new lifestyle.
What are the routines you can keep in the new place?
What will stay the same in the new place?
We lose relationships, whether we are those who leave or those who are left behind, we routinely lose friends and may have disrupted relationships even with extended family – and sometimes our nuclear family, when siblings go to boarding school or University for example. I also count pets that we have to leave behind among the relationships we lose because they were part of our family, and losing a pet can be as painful as losing a person.
It is not only our friends we should say proper goodbyes to, but also those we had an issue with.
This is part of the R.A.F.T. we should build during a transition:
R stands for Reconciliation. We might think that once we move our issues will just disappear, but unresolved business will stick with us like a mental baggage. “Avoiding reconciliation is an unhealthy habit because it can cause bitterness and our discontent can affect our future relationships”.
The same way we want to reconcile with people we didn’t get on well, we want to make sure that those who meant very much to us know it.
In fact, the A in R.A.F.T. stands for this Affirmation: “focus on the positive moments we have shared together” and let the other one know how he/she made our life better.
Parents often ask me: “Will our children be able to have long-lasting relationships when they are adult, if they experience this kind of disruptive friendships during their childhood?”. I think that children who have a solid bond with their family during all these transitions, who learn how to keep relationships alive even if they are not living close, shouldn’t have big issues with this.
Fatigue from starting over and over again
What I observe more and more though, is that internationals – adults and children – get what I call the friendship fatigue. If we have many friends leaving year after year, or we are the ones leaving them, we will reach a point where we don’t want to engage in a friendship anymore.
We feel tired of re-starting over and over again. We don’t want to invest time to get to know someone if in a few months they will be gone.
This is, in my opinion, the most difficult part in leading this kind of life.
How can we keep on investing in relationships that are probably going to be short term?
An example of investing in friendships
When my daughter showed signs of this fatigue, I asked her what being a friend meant to her. She said “someone you can trust, someone who likes you the way you are, someone to share happy and sad moments with, someone who is there for you”…
What she didn’t mention was “someone who is always geographically close“. We talked about our friendships and that they always change over time, whether we live close or not.
We need to invest in friendships to keep them alive and healthy, no matter if our friends are living close by or not, if we see them every day or only now and then. The quality of a good friendship is what we can focus on.
I then asked her what she would have missed if she wouldn’t have invested in her friendship with G.: She would have missed many memorable moments and the beautiful feeling of a loving friend.
Internationals have a very special way to start friendships within a short time and to keep them over years.
For expats, friendships are the pillars of their life abroad, their village. They become their family abroad. Therefore, expat friends need to be solid, reliable and flexible at the same time. – No fuss, no long discussions. (What you need to know before embarking on an expat journey)
How can you make sure you stay in contact with your friends (Skype, regular get togethers…)?
We lose our possessions. In the R.A.F.T. possessions are one of the p’s we say goodbye to among the Farewells – that’s what the F stands for (the other ones are people pets and places, mentioned here under world and relationships) . We have to leave some of our possessions behind: furniture, books, toys, and even dear objects that we associate with seasons, celebrations, our life in the other place (e.g., dishes, beddings etc.).
I always recommend to take pictures of details, it can be tiles, a window, our rooms… those possessions that we can’t take with us… Collect them and make a keepsake to look at when you want to go down memory lane.
What do you want to keep as a memory from the places you lived before?
The past that wasn’t
We don’t only lose possessions, people, and a lifestyle, we also lose our past that wasn’t, i.e. the celebrations we missed, the not attending special events with extended family and friends living far away.
The missed chances are those we will always regret. If we can’t be there in person, we can find other ways to make people know we care.
The guilt that originates from not being present can be very intense. When we analyze the origin of this guilt, in most of the cases it is not ours, but the guilt is the consequence of other peoples’ expectations who weren’t met.
Therefore, it is not our fault and not our problem.
What are the moments, situations you feel guilty about the past that wasn’t?
Would you really do it differently if you had the chance?
Did it depend on you that you couldn’t…didn’t…?
The past that was
We also lose the past that was, because we can’t go back to the past as we remember it. Everyone moves on and everyone remembers past moments in his or her very own and personal way. There is a Portuguese term for this kind of feeling: saudade (or hiraeth in Welsh), a combination of sadness and happiness at the same time.
In the many years that I support families during their life abroad, one thing always helped to make sure they embrace all the phases of it, the good and the bad ones: keeping journals, writing down the memories, taking pictures, making videos and talking about what is going on, what was, how every single member of the family experiences it.
“The real issue is that in these types of invisible losses, where the tangible and intangible are so inextricably intertwined, no one actually died or was divorced, and nothing was physically stolen. They were all surrounded with so much good.” (Third Culture Kids, 3rd Edition) – but we feel the pain of each and every one of them.
Ways to cope in the best possible way:
- embrace all phases of life abroad as mentioned above
- address the losses individually
- give ourselves and our family time to grieve them in an open way
- talk about them and acknowledge everyone’s need to process them in his/her very own way
- and Think destination (the T in the R.A.F.T)
Grief validates all the good in our lives
* The following list is taken from the 3rd Ed. of “Third Culture Kids” by David C. Pollock, Ruth E. Van Reken, and Michael V. Pollock.
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