Global Nomads—Loss, Grief, and Comfort

In November of 2007, I had the pleasure of hearing a presentation by Ruth Van Reken, co-author, with David Pollock, of the classic Third Culture Kids. One of her main points was that people who have changed countries often don’t acknowledge their losses, nor do they commonly grieve those losses in a healthy way. But because I didn’t take notes (or if I did, they’re packed away somewhere), I don’t remember a lot of specific details from what she said.

Recently I found a couple resources that have helped me fill in the blanks. One was an article in Columbia News from earlier in the same year, in which Van Reken told the reporter about the losses felt by Third Culture Kids and Adult Third Culture Kids:

Every time there’s transition, there is loss. So when people are feeling strange about their situation I ask them, “What did you lose?” Because where there’s loss, there’s grief. And when there’s no language for it, it comes out at your boss or in your marriage.

And the other was an interview that Expat Women conducted with Van Reken, again in 2007, in which she expanded on this topic:

[T]he challenge that I see keeping some ATCKs from fully using the great gifts their life has offered them is the issue of unresolved grief. There are several key reasons for this.

First it’s the cycle of mobility itself that is inherent in this lifestyle. Although every person in this world suffers loss, the high mobility of the third culture experience increases the number of times significant loss happens. But beyond the obvious losses mobility brings, TCKs have many other unrecognized or hidden losses as well. They can lose an entire world with the closing of an airplane door but because the country isn’t “theirs,” too often no one seems to understand or honor all that is entailed with that loss.

Other times, TCKs do recognize their losses and try to tell their parents or others how sad they are feeling but people tell them they “shouldn’t” feel like that because they have such an interesting life. Or they may remind the TCK of the greater purposes for which they are in this place . . . God, country, or to make enough money to put the TCK through college. At that point, the permission to grieve openly is gone and the child has no way to process it. Oddly, it seems the very richness and benefits of this life create many of these responses which then take away the permission to grieve because we (or others) believe the grief is a sign of ingratitude for all we have received. In fact, the opposite is true . . . we are grieving because we have lost what we loved! It is an affirmation of our lives, not a negation

In addition, another reason many TCKs can’t work through their various losses is simply that well-meaning people (including parents!) often try to encourage TCKs before they comfort them. There is a proper place for encouragement (“you’ll do fine,” “just think about others who have so much less,” etc.) but when it happens too soon, it can also abort the grieving process. Comfort is simply acknowledging the loss, validating its reality, and giving the person space to grieve properly before pushing him or her to move on or past it.

This distinction between encouragement and comfort is another aspect of Van Reken’s presentation that stuck with me. It’s a lesson that applies to all of us as we deal with people going through difficult times. And it’s a point that I plan on visiting again here in the near future—especially since I’ve found another article online that shows how Van Reken uses a story from the life of Jesus to teach this point, just like she did when I heard her speak.

Three cheers for Google and Yahoo! As long as I have the Internet, I may never have to take notes again.

(Peter Katona, “More and More Americans Consider Themselves ‘Hidden Immigrants,'” Columbia News Service, February 27, 2007; “Expat Women’s Interview with Ruth,” Expat Women, August 2007 [archived at Wayback Machine])

[photo: “Day 42,” by Amy Riddlei, used under a Creative Commons license]


12 thoughts on “Global Nomads—Loss, Grief, and Comfort

  1. I really liked your post. My last newsletter evoke change & transition. I actually mention how people respond to the loss felt during any transition or change. As soon as people are aware of the loss, they can move on to the next step. :)


  2. Just finished readying “Home Keeps Moving” by Heidi Sand-Hart. I plan to write a review for it next week, but she speaks about loss and grief as well. Another good resource if you are looking for one. FYI, she was an MK from India.


  3. Thanks for writing about this. I am a (Dutch) TCK, I grew up in Africa. I am a little concerned that parents sometimes think well kids are flexible and the multiple moves all seem to go well but what about the identity challenges, the issues that have to be worked through, the multiple losses? Have you read Ruth van Reken her book: “Letters Never Sent”: One Woman’s Journey from Hurt to Wholeness. It’s all about this topic too.
    I’ve read Heidi her book and could identify with her story.


  4. As a TCK parent, I am so guilty of encouraging before comforting. Even though they are now all ATCKs they still need that comforting.


  5. Interesting perspective. My husband and I are both retired military and the same thing could apply to military families moving so often, especially those who bounce around overseas. I remember when we were heading off to Morocco, our daughter’s 2nd grade teacher took us aside and told us that we would be responsible for “ruining her life” if we kept moving her around. Talk about guilt. She’s now a very successful biochemist who can handle just about anything that life throws her way. Our son is a missionary. My heart goes out to TCK parents and kids. It’s tough. I can sure see the upsides to moving around and also the disadvantages. Lots of prayer and pulling together as a family sure helps.


    1. Thanks for sharing a success story without denying how tough it is. I agree with you on the importance of prayer and family.


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