Lately, every time I turn around it seems someone I know is experiencing a major challenge in life. Some are fighting life-threatening illnesses or the loss of loved ones and others are facing major life transitions. The rest of us who are not currently at the battle front are having to search our hearts and souls as the world seems especially chaotic as of late, and the constant change is forcing us to confront our core values, beliefs, and ability to show love and grace without losing our integrity. Whether we know it or not, we’re all experiencing loss in one way or another.
The short article that follows is one I originally wrote for a publication targeted at Third Culture Kids (TCKs), but I never submitted it. One characteristic of TCKs is that they often experience loss at a higher rate than normal because of their family’s nomadic lifestyle. But no matter our upbringing, we all experience loss. I hope that you find these thoughts helpful and even hopeful, wherever you may find yourself on the journey today.
May sunshine poured onto the rural church, and people spilled out and around it—not because they were leaving but because they couldn’t get in. An unexpected death had brought us together that day; my college suitemate had lost her father. The call had come on one of the last days of the semester, and my other suitemates and I made the journey to support our friend at the funeral.
We found ourselves unable to get into the sanctuary, so we tucked ourselves away on an out-of-the-way staircase along with other mourners. Even as loved ones exhaled their grief, the spring breeze breathed back bits and pieces of the loving goodbyes going on in the heart of the church.
I could not see what was happening, and I could not hear much. I had only met my suitemate’s father once or twice in passing. Physically and emotionally, I was disconnected from the goings on, so I was unprepared for a wave a grief that made me weep during the service. Later, when my suitemate came and found us, it happened again. I felt weak. I wanted to be the one comforting her, not the other way around. But she pointed out that her father’s death still hadn’t sunk in for her, and it hadn’t been that long since the death of my younger brother. Maybe I was still grieving that.
She was right. I had not fully grieved my brother’s death, but I would come to the realization many years later that even if my brother’s death were the taproot of that outpouring of grief, hundreds of secondary roots contributed as well. I just did not know it at the time.
Though my parents are missionaries, my experience was different from many Missionary Kids (MKs). My parents’ roles as consultants and trainers kept us on the move throughout my elementary years in which I attended nine schools and visited fifteen countries. For the remainder of my school years, we were based in the United States. So when I compared myself to other MKs who spent most of their lives in one country with occasional trips back to the States, I came to the conclusion that I was not really an MK in the classical sense.
Throughout high school and college, I chose to try and blend in with the monocultural majority, avoiding the subject of my upbringing with all but my closest friends. As a young adult, I began to see how rich my childhood had been, and I chose to focus on the opportunities that my parents had given me. It would take most of a decade and a bout of major depression for me to fully accept that I was a Third Culture Kid and to understand just how much loss I had experienced in my early years.
When I was working through depression in my early 30s, a counselor who worked primarily with TCK’s recommended that I make a list of all of my losses—not just deaths, but the loss of homes, friends, experiences, and possessions. The list was long, and I felt guilty making it. Yet, there was also a sense of release.
Naming the losses helped me continue the process of grieving that I had subconsciously been going through all along. I began to understand why movies about the search for home fascinated me, and why the funeral of someone I didn’t know made me weep. I began to understand why I carried around a box of letters from my childhood friends, even if I never read them.
When we initially face a loss, shock allows us to pack our bags, say our goodbyes, and get on with the necessities of life. At some point, however, we have to give ourselves the time and place to grieve. Otherwise, when losses accumulate unexamined and unacknowledged, the pent up grief will catch us unaware, and we cannot understand why we are grieving a grief that was not ours to grieve. But if we take a peek at the flotsam left behind after the force of the flood, we see so many leavings and losings have been dislodged by the seemingly unrelated event.
It can seem that intentionally focusing on losses is an exercise in complaint or pessimism and will increase the pain. But like a dammed up river that has swollen past its capacity, grieving can be a flood gate that releases the feelings that accompany any loss and lets them mingle and find their place within the river of life rather than being a flash flood that drowns us.