I am a Third Culture Kid (TCK) who grew up amongst worlds: With my German passport, I am currently living in the US for the third time, spent the better half of my developmental years in China and also lived in France. My friends are even more international and multi-cultural than me. Life has brought me an incredible amount of riches and gifts, so wonderful I would not want to trade for anything.
A week ago, I met a girl during my travels in Stockholm, Hanna. Hanna was in complete awe of my story and said he could not believe all the things I have done. She pierced me with questions about my journey, how I felt having lived in so many places and where I was going next. I felt a little bit overwhelmed. The truth is that whilst my life is extremely colorful, there are also significant paradoxes to my experience: Unresolved grief is a very central and reoccurring part of my story. My lifestyle brings the greatest opportunities; nonetheless, unresolved grief has been one of my main challenges along the way.
Unresolved grief usually comes from recognized and unrecognized losses that have not been mourned in a healing way. Personally, this led to a lingering depression during my late teens and early twenties and I found myself building protective walls in relationships.
I went to eight different schools before graduating High School and I never lived in one place longer than four years; except for China. Even though I was in China for eight years and built a home there, I always considered myself a ‘stayer’- I was there permanently whilst every friend I made was there temporarily, even most locals. Saying goodbye to places, friends, homes, and pets this often matters, because it means having to go through chronic cycles of loss and separation.
Trying to not be sad and focusing on the new and exciting things ahead is easier said than done. With transition comes loss, with loss comes grief, conscious or unconscious. Even an anticipated change, like moving in with my Boyfriend, meant going through a life transition. In order to be together, I had to relocate from France to the US. After a too long long-distance relationship, I also felt the losses that come with yet another intercontinental move. In addition to that, the loss of freedom and independence was also a big adjustment. Despite the great joy of being together with the love of my life, I experienced some small grief.
The more you love something that it lost, the greater the loss and grief. Sometimes you are even unaware of your own grief because the excitements of the new place are so distracting…
Hidden losses cause unresolved grief
The greatest cause for unresolved grief probably comes through hidden losses. As I got older it got much easier to deal with the range of tangible and intangible losses that come with every transition. These losses are exactly the things that make a home. It is not just the roof over your head, that’s for sure. Therefore, I sometimes struggle to express myself when people ask me about my home in China. What I loved in China remains invisible and sometimes unimaginable to the person who asks, so it is mostly unnamed. On top of that, it was tough to juggle my mother’s sadness every time we said goodbye. Admitting how sad I was that my parents could not be a part of my life hurt and feels like a denial of how happy I was to return ‘home’ to my life in China. So, I simply focused somewhere else.
These hidden losses happen time and again. They may differ in degree, but usually, it’s the same type of loss. Often the unresolved grief piles up, and I am sure that every TCK will agree on this list:
1. Loss of their world:
After just a single flight the whole world as you have known it can die. Everything that makes your home so familiar vanishes. Your house, your neighborhood, your favorite ice cream spot, virtually all friends, language, the smell of the market and your pets perish. When you make an international move you don’t lose one thing at a time, you lose everything at once. Internationally I moved seven times. Including all national moves, my count is up to nineteen. Clearly, this type of loss occurs over and over for TCK's.
2. Loss of lifestyle:
This is a big one for me. Especially when moving internationally, all familiar habits disappear. This can be small habits such as (not) tipping the waitress or insisting to bargain any purchase you make- even a gym membership. When that dissolves overnight it feels like someone pulled a rug under your feet. When comfortable patterns of living fade, we lose a sense of cultural balance and security. This became very painful for me when I also experienced a certain loss of status. In China, I was the blonde girl who spoke Chinese, in France, I was just another blonde girl who didn’t speak French. Life just got a lot rougher.
3. Loss of sentimental Items:
Sentimental items are very personal. Losing things that have a lot of sentimental value also means losing connection to one’s past and security. Before a big move, we throw old things out, and weight limits on airplanes mean we can only take necessities. I definitely left a lot behind. This is a big challenge because you have no personal items to decorate your new home with and add a sense of connectedness to the place. Coping with the loss of sentimental items can be traumatizing and is a tough process.
4. Loss of relationships:
It is normal in the TCK’s life, that people come and go. But worse is that every single core relationship in my life also got chronically disrupted. Parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins were always an ocean away. It hurts to admit that I grew up a stranger to my brother who stayed with my parents. Every child who has attended boarding school will relate to this. The day I left my family to move overseas was also the day my family – as I had known it – ‘died’. With that, another important aspect that gets lost is the concept of role models; You simply don’t get the chance to watch people older than you and how they navigate through what lies ahead.
5. Loss of the past:
Sometimes I feel a forlorn sadness about missing out on growing up with my brother, or other aspects of my childhood. On other days, I feel just as desperate and sad about the world I once knew. It will never be accessible again. Even when I returned to China to visit my old home, I felt like a stranger. All my friends had moved on and shop owners so familiar to me did not recognize me anymore. I had no key to my old apartment felt I had no place in that city anymore. This is a great loss and broke my heart.
The tangible and intangible are so interlinked, that sometimes it is not totally clear to what the grief hangs on to specifically. The real issue with this list of hidden losses is essentially not the grief alone. Rather, that there are no recognized ways to mourn these hidden losses- especially because most people don’t see them. Yet all of the hidden losses play an important role in having a sense of belonging, feeling significant to others and being understood – all of which are human needs. I wish I would have been younger before I realized the depth of my grief and found ways to properly mourn after every time I moved to a new place.
Jezabel May is a German writer who grew up in Asia, North America and Europe. She writes about experiences growing up globally to display common ground in the emotions behind the TCK lifestyle. You can find more about her in her blog: www.jezmeralda.com