In the tearful process of leaving South Korea after graduating from high school, I can distinctly remember a good friend of mine saying, “Ohhh… it feels like we’re at a funeral!” In many ways, we were.
Whether from my own life growing up among worlds or from working with hundreds of TCKs over the past decade at Interaction International, it’s becoming increasingly clear to me how central grief and loss are to the TCK lifestyle.
Grief is a very human experience and one that many TCKs begin to know from a young age. The kinds of feelings that come with grief, which is an emotional response to loss, require much care from both self and others, especially considering TCKs often undergo “complex grief,” a phenomenon that can happen when multiple kinds of loss occur all at the same time.
Since grief for TCKs can be multifaceted, many find it helpful to spend time intentionally identifying the various and specific losses that have been suffered. Contemplating these losses and allowing the time and space to feel any accompanying feelings without judgment can be very beneficial.
These feelings are often messy, and though it may be tempting to run or hide from them, that behavior can be destructive. Avoiding these feelings can lead to becoming emotionally stuck, and that can have long lasting, harmful consequences. Instead, it can be helpful to gently lean into the loss. That being said, this kind of intentionality can be exhausting, and it is important to seek rest from the grieving process by planning for soothing, healthy, and pleasurable activities along the way.
Given the range of emotions that commonly accompany grief, many TCKs find that questions about depression also begin to emerge. Because of this, it is important to note key distinctions between the symptoms of grief and major depression.
Succinctly, grief may include a wide range of emotions that come at different intensity levels over various periods of time, while major depression falls under the category of a medical illness and is characterized by a period of at least two weeks of time during which specific symptoms are experienced consistently and without relief.
Since depression has a biological component, a TCK with major depression will often experience the most successful treatment with a combination of prescribed medication and mental health counseling. While seeking help for mental health continues to be stigmatized negatively in some parts of the world, the danger of leaving major depression untreated is that it can lead to extreme crisis, even death.
If you or someone you know find yourself contemplating suicide, it is important to seek immediate help. For TCKs, knowing where to turn can become complicated, as suicidal feelings may emerge after moving to a new and unfamiliar location. In such cases, I would encourage you to consult this online resource that contains international emergency helpline information.
Whether in relation to grief, depression, or other concerns, I am often asked by TCKs if I know of a mental health therapist in a certain part of the world who really understands the TCK experience. Because it is natural to seek out a counselor who is culturally sensitive and has insight into the inherent complexity of TCK grief, I have begun an online resource called the International Therapist Directory, which lists professional mental health therapists around the globe who self-identify as being familiar with the TCK and international expatriate experience. It is my hope that this directory will become an increasingly helpful resource over the months and years to come.
No matter where you are, whether you have known intense grief or experienced major depression, your story is powerful and worthwhile. It deserves to be told, both to yourself and to caring people in your life. Your TCK experience has depth and complexity with many unique joys, sorrows, delights, pains, and struggles.
I wish you much care along your journey.
— Josh Sandoz, MA, LMHC
Issues with grief and loss, abandonment, broken family ties, or ties to whatever we call *home* are severe, pervasive and hidden!
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Thanks for writing about this topic. I agree with Vivian, many MKs are suffering severely and in isolation. Many will not even reach out for help or counseling. The Mission and often other MKs discourage talk about depression, grief or suffering. They would rather it was kept quiet.
I grew up for five years in South Korea. I moved “back” to the states when I was 11. At 28, I still cry every time I really talk about that move. It has impacted me in ways I’m just starting to understand, and there is a lot of unresolved grief and feelings of powerlessness in my life that is finally coming to surface through months and months of individual and marriage counseling. But I would not change a thing, still. Those memories and years in that beautiful country were worth it. I think going back to visit 15 years later helped.
The hardest part of TCK grief is the fact that no one around you understands it. Mourning the loss of a love one or a pet who has died is of course ab an acceptable thing to grieve about, as well it should be. But the same courtesy is never extended to a TCK. No one has died, but it still feels like a funeral to us.
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It took me years to realise that what I was feeling was actually grief, a nostalgia for a life that was whisked away from me and to which I can never return. As Bill Bryson says, you can never go home.
Thank you for this article, which makes so much sense.
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All my siblings and I are now grieving as adults, years later after growing up in Guatemala, Australia, Argentina and now the USA. I found myself in the deepest of agony every time I have a relationship that became close that is torn from me. Now that I am living on my own with no family nearby I feel like I’m floating in a sea with my stability floating off into the distance. I have found myself very wary to make friends because I have so many walls up because I’m grieving all the relational loss. This grief hit after moving from school to my first job in a new state. I had no idea that I was not okay until I started crying uncontrollably the last few months because I had no desire to build new friendships. I always was a strong stable person and suddenly I was crumbling. I sought my sinking out to find out if I was the only one and I learned that they too were grieving. We are all now separately seeking counseling and helping each other through this difficult time.
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