Honor the Grief, Honor the Goodbye

grief and goodbye

“Make sure you say goodbye” I text these words to my youngest son, followed by “It’s important to say your goodbyes.”

He is only leaving for the summer, he will be back on the same campus next year. But it is critical to me to say this to him. I want my children to be able to say goodbyes, to honor them. I want my children to be able to honor their grief, not suppress it as though it is unimportant, as though it will go away and not leave an imprint on their hearts.

I do the same for my youngest daughter. She is graduating from college, ending one stage and moving on to the next. “Say your goodbyes.” I tell her.

These kids of mine? They’ve moved so much. They’ve lived on different continents, in different countries, cities, and communities. And I am desperate for them to know how to honor the goodbye.

Most TCKs go through more grief experiences by the time they are 20 than monocultural individuals do in a lifetime.*

It’s June and for the transnational family or child, this is the month of goodbyes. This is the month where parties and packing fill all the days and worry and tears interrupt the nights. This is the month of graduations and school endings, job changes and home leaves; the month where lives are dictated by lists and deadlines, by leaving in peace or sometimes just leaving.

And in the midst of all of this it’s easy to forget that grief must be honored and goodbyes must be said. 

So I can’t shout these words loud enough. I can’t speak them clear enough. I can’t emphasize them strongly enough. Honor the goodbye. Honor the grief that comes with the goodbye.

My bookshelves are filled with books on cross-cultural living, on identity, on belonging, on growing roots in a global world. Every day I think about these things as I read about military brats and third culture kids, kids and their parents who live like bridges between worlds, gathering up their portable lives into suitcases full of mementoes as they move on to the next place. I interact with moms who are worried they are ruining their children, moms who fantasize that life in their birth countries is stable and perfect even as they try to plant roots in countries that are unfamiliar. I connect with third culture kids who never want to move again, who establish their bodies and souls in one place even as they decorate their homes with remnants of their past lives. I also connect with third culture kids who are itching for that next move, that next step – restless and longing in the small towns where they find themselves, unable to see the threads that begin to tie them to these towns. And every day I am more sure of the need to honor the grief, to honor the goodbye. 

And I think about what honoring the grief and honoring the goodbye means. We grieve because we are losing places and people that we love. Each goodbye is a little like death, it’s saying goodbye to permanence and the relationships as we know them. They will change, they have to change. Comfort and hope will have their place, and they are part of the process, but sometimes we need to just sit with the grief before being forced to move on. The global transnational family has developed an amazing capacity to adapt, to move forward, but sometimes we need to just stop where we are and honor that moment.

Years ago we moved from one part of the city of Cairo to another, a seemingly small move. But the move still came with loss of connection and community. The kids were leaving their school, we were leaving our neighborhood. We planned to move all our belongings before leaving for the U.S for a home leave. After we returned we would settle into our new space. Part of this move meant giving up our small, red Zastava car. The car was tiny and we barely fit in it but we loved that car. We would arrive places and pile out while others looked on in amazement that we could fit so many children in a car that is smaller than a Volkswagen Bug. The night that we watched another family drive away in our red car my son Joel was inconsolable. I remember walking with him that night, his small hand reaching up to my larger one, and hearing his tears, his sobs. The car was symbolic of this move. “Why do we have to sell our car?” he wailed. Walking beside him I remember part of my heart breaking as well. “I’m so sorry Joel. I’m so sorry.” There was nothing else I could say. I look back at that time and I’m glad that’s all I said. Because in truth, there were no other words.

I think that is what it is like to honor grief. It is sitting with it, not trying to push it away, not providing false reassurance, just sitting. I often think about Job from the Bible and his infamous friends who showed up and talked and talked and talked. They offered a lot of solutions, but no real comfort, pages of words, but nothing that honored the situation. What if they had just showed up and sat with him through his loss? That’s what I think it means to honor grief, to honor goodbye. I think it means to sit with it and let it flow, to sit quietly with ourselves or with others and not push an agenda of false happiness.

So if you are one of those people, one of those families that is saying goodbye this June, I offer this: Sit with your grief, let it flow, don’t try too hard to analyze, don’t push yourself or others to some ‘right’ response. Just sit with it. Because as the grief comes, so will the comfort.

And for your goodbyes? Say your goodbyes. The goodbyes will hurt, they will smart. Like a wound feels when the salty ocean water washes over it you will brace yourself. But just as the salt in the ocean provides healing so will goodbyes offer healing to your mobile soul.

Are you one who is saying goodbye this year? I would love to hear from you on what you think makes a ‘good’ goodbye. Others, what do you think about honoring grief and honoring goodbyes?

Blogger’s note: Elizabeth Trotter wrote an excellent post on goodbyes this past week at A Life Overseas. Click here to find it.

A great resource is the RAFT plan: Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, Think Destination. Take a look here for details on this.

Picture credit: http://pixabay.com/en/autumn-cemetery-grief-78825/

*Dave Pollock

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Third Culture Kid - Grew up in Pakistan, lived and worked in Pakistan and Egypt as an adult. Moved to the United States and learning to live away from curry, Urdu, Arabic and the Pyramids.

51 thoughts on “Honor the Grief, Honor the Goodbye

  1. Just finishing Lois Bushong’s “Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere, insights into counseling the globally mobile”. Lots of help for tck s who have not resolved these issues.

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  2. My mother moved and moved as her father built roads, because when 1 road is done you move to a new location. She hates change, absolutely hates it! I have wondered if it is because of all the moving. I have wondered if my children too will hate change because we move so much. I know that hate good byes and hellos are a close second.

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  3. Ooh auntie Polly. … you made me cry! I can so imagine that short ride to the train station and the sobbing little girl peeled off you. So much is written about the boarding school experience for the children (growing up too soon; separated from parents too early; the weight of grief and it’s effect on children) but is there enough written for the parents? You endured the trauma of separation from your babies. You lived with undistracted grief. I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m so sorry for my mom’s loss and my auntie Carol’s. I’m so very sorry.

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    1. I so get this. We didn’t even think that much about the goodbyes. And I had no idea how much would surface in my middle age. There are so many more resources now, yet still speaking with tcks I realize no matter how many resources, there is that reality that you have to walk this path partly by yourself. Thanks for linking the post. heading there right now!

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  4. Thanks for this amazing post! Something I am realizing more and more, we have to say goodbye and grief properly, this makes moving on and remembering a tiny little bit more bearable.
    And it doesn’t really matter how big or small the goodbyes are. Whatever matters to you, grieve over it. And say goodbye in a memorable way. I had a few bad or none at all goodbyes because I had rejected them. But when I left the US a year ago I wanted to do it the right way. I had made a list of everything I still wanted to do or see. This meant some “serious” things like going to a restaurant or visit a certain place. But there were also some crazy things like just cruising through the city at night or relieve a certain experience. I put this list as an event on facebook and invited friends to join me in these endeavors. Never had such an incredible goodbye before. What I learnt from it you can read here: http://thisiskatha.blogspot.de/2013/01/a-week-of-awesomenesseine-wunderbare.html

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    1. I love your reminder that it doesn’t matter how big or small the goodbyes are – as TCKs we tend to minimize goodbyes – if we aren’t moving across an ocean, they are less important when the reality is that all of them are important. The way you said goodbye this past time, creating events is amazing and I can’t wait to read about it. Thank you as always for adding so much to the conversation.

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      1. That is so true! Finally discovering to say goodbye and I feel a lot calmer. I find it great that there are these pages, blogs etc. Thanks for all your contributions! :) <3

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  5. Such a thought provoking piece, Marilyn. It brought back a flood of memories – at almost 86, I’ve said a lot of good-byes. There is no end to them in this life. Harder than saying good-bye, I think, is not being able to. When my Dad, your Grandpa Stanley, whom you never knew died in his early 50s in 1958, we were in Pakistan with three little ones. In those days we didn’t hop onto planes the way we do now. There was no way I could go, and the family didn”t expect me to come. That was a hard grieving.
    The good-byes when we left you all at MCS were all hard, but two of the hardest: the time we got in the car in Hyderabad to drive to the station, and you started to cry, and didn’t stop! When we arrived the train was already at the platform, and it wasn’t a long stop. You were still crying when I handed you off to Joy, your “big sister”. And the train left, with your sobs in my ears! (I heard much later that you had stopped crying before the train left the station. my tears were just beginning.) I held my tears until we walked into the house and saw your doll, all dressed to go with you forgotten in the rush. That did it, I lost it then. I don’t know how we did it, sending you all away so young. The next hardest was when we left all of you and drove away from the school, just Dad, me and the cat. The tears came then, and Dad reached over and patted my knee and said, “I’m still here, I’m not going to boarding!” You are so right, we have to acknowledge the grief of the goodbyes, honor it, as you have written.

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    1. After college graduation I had moved to New York City from NC. Three years later 1969 my paternal grandmother died. I did not return for her funeral. The same when my quite a bit younger maternal grandmother died in the 1970’s when she was only seventy-five. Currently I am 69. My own father died at age 72. In 2016 he would be turning age 100 on May 13. Only through writing would I be able to “say goodbye” to each of my grandmothers. I remember each as being alive / living, as always.

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    2. I love this mom. I often think about your dad dying, and how hard that must have been yet in a way it was in the era where people minimized stuff like that. I’d love to talk more in person about it. Love you.

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  6. This is such a great post Marilyn. As an over-talker, I’m on a journey of realizing that often silence or a few choice words are far better than many un-edited ones. I remember sitting in silence with a friend whose dad had died suddenly. Sitting there in the silent car I realized that if I said anything, it would be more about my insecurities. Wanting to have something to share, some wisdom to give, to not have awkward pauses.
    Hello! Her father went from speaking with her to Jesus in 2 minutes! Awkward pauses were the least of her concerns! And when a friend allows you to sit and grieve with her, that’s an honor indeed.

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    1. Oh me too! Overtalker I mean. I know exactly what you’re saying about awkward pauses as well. They feel awkward to us because we have this notion that it’s all about the words. I also appreciate you speaking of the honor of having someone else allow us into their grief. Through the years I have felt this acutely – partly as a nurse. As a nurse I’m really as stranger paid to care for people. Yet they let me into their pain and grief. It is such an honor. So here’s to more sitting and less talking. Thanks for sharing.

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  7. Thank you for this. For honoring all of grief by naming it and not trying to solve it. You have beautifully said so much that I have long tried to figure out how to express. As I graduated from college this year I struggled to find the space to say the goodbyes well and to find the people who were willing to acknowledge the struggle that it was. Thanks for giving me space in the reading of this to grieve that.

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    1. yes – you put this so well “find the space” because that’s what it is. One of the hardest things for the TCK is graduation. While their counterparts in the U.S. celebrate and know they will still hang out all summer before college, we usually leave our places. So hard. Thanks so much for sharing.

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  8. “Sit with your grief.” Amen, Marilyn. Here are a few lines from Joseph Digman’s poem, “The Sitting Time,” (which I quoted in Ended Beginnings):
    Don’t listen to the foolish unbelievers who say forget. Take up your armful of roses and remember them, the flower and the fragrance. When you go home to do your sitting and sip your rosethorn tea, it will warm your face and fingers. . . And when the sitting is done, you’ll find bitter grief could never poison the sweetness of her time.”

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  9. Said my goodbye when my age was 7,976 days. Eleven days earlier I had graduated from Wake Forest University. I am firstborn (of eight children) and I hugged my mother good-bye (she is still living, age 91). I left rural route one Graham, NC, to live in New York City.

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  10. When I was a child, my mother always wore dark glasses on the day I left for boarding school so that I would not see her cry. When I brought my own daughters back to the states for college, I did everything I could think of to make the goodbyes better, including letting them see me cry.. But honestly, I do not know that it helped. The hard part for me is that I am a teacher, and that means the repeated story of meeting new kids, learning to love them, and saying goodbye every year.

    Yesterday on Facebook a former student wrote about how sad he was to leave his home (Budapest) to come back to the states after a short visit. Old friends from all over the world quickly responded to his post, but most said either, “You will soon feel at home where you are going” or “Heaven is our only home.” Both of these are so dissatisfying to me. But I do not know that I have a better response. I told him to take the time to mourn the loss of home, but then to hold not back his heart from any joy. And I encouraged him to use his art to speak his grief and to make a home for his heart in the expression of who his rich life and his Hungarian experience have created him to be.

    I am a drama teacher, and I have an activity that I do with kids to practice the expression of emotion on stage. When I have a TCK cast, I always do this activity at the end of a rehearsal. I ask a volunteer to tell about a time they were happy or angry or excited or surprised, and as they speak, the rest of the cast watches their facial expressions and body language, then imitates that physical expression of emotion as they speak different lines from our play. I always leave the emotion of sorrow for last, because whenever a TCK student tells about a time they feel sad, they talk about always having to say goodbye. And that makes everyone else in the class weep. Even their teacher. It is a great tool for TCKs who want to express emotion on stage, but it means class is over, because we have to stop and mourn the loss of always having to say goodbye.

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    1. Wow, Cynthia, just reading this story about the TCK activity made me cry! And what you said about the usual responses (saying heaven is our only home, or that you will soon get used to it) being dissatisfying really struck me. They are! Of course I’m not sure there’s a good answer, either, but thank you for acknowledging those ways of “comforting” are not helpful.
      I’ve also heard people say, “all the goodbyes and change help our kids learn to hold things loosely,” and I was sort of like, um, they’re just kids, they don’t understand this whole sovereignty thing, it’s just plain hard on them! Anyway, I love that you encouraged your son to use art to process through this. That is beautiful advice. ~Elizabeth

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    2. I cried at this comment. The first line is like a line from a novel. Only it’s true. Thank you so so much for sharing these words. I so agree with you on the “Heaven is our only home” – that’s a crap response!

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  11. No moves in the future for us, but we are getting ready to move my mother-in-law out of the house she has lived in for more than 50 years into an assisted living place, much against her will. Since she can no longer take care of herself, we live hundreds of miles away and she won’t come to us, this is a necessity, but is still traumatic for her. In the midst of the busyness of moving, I hope we take her grief seriously. A move across town after 50 years isn’t just a change of house, it is a loss and I hope we will take it seriously, (which is harder to do when she complains about everything all the time and we have learned to tune her out).

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  12. Ah… *sigh* I am realllllly hating June right now. There’s too much to do and I am nowhere near getting done with all of it, no where near done packing…. something I loathe doing and contrary to all people who move a lot… am NOT really good at doing… I hold onto too much that has sentimental value. Just finished writing a blog about this a couple of weeks ago and haven’t had time to write again…. I’m moving continents this time, not just countries… from Asia to Africa. I made a calendar in iCal and printed it on orange paper. I put all the personal engagements in starting mid-May to now. I made lists of places to go, and I haven’t made it to all of them but I’m trying. I have three days from when school ends to when I fly. I pondered driving home from transferring the car registration that I left China in 2011 and yet I am still homesick for it as I leave S. Korea in 2014…. goodbyes are hard, much grace being needed for me lately!

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      1. Ohhhhh – may the God who is bigger than time slow life down for you :( So so much to do. It is the practical side of the blog post. How do you sit with grief when there is so much to do? That for another time.

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      2. Grief…That time is reserved for the airport. Somewhere between the transfer from Gimpo to Incheon (I’ll make it through the first flight from Jeju to Seoul). I’ve got a quick flight up to the mainland the night of the 12th and back down the 13th at six am so hopefully my tears don’t come three days early and just wait until I’m in the international terminal !

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      3. Prayers going with you – this is huge and yes, I know what it’s like to pray that the tears won’t come until the right time. Please let me know how things go.

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      4. Hi Marilyn. I’ve been lurking. Still reading, not commenting…. Not writing much but I think I am ready to begin a new season of writing. After starting year 2 in Tanzania with huge decisions and responsibilities, with some grief resolved and some still lingering… I didn’t write because I was afraid of incoherence and want as a TCK to try to bridge the gap of misunderstandings and differences, but as I work it out (all of it) I guess incoherence is a necessary part. I am sure you have plenty more eloquent blogs to read than a TCK girl in her early 30’s but I hope I can still come by and comment here on your blog more often. Cheers !

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  13. There are the goodbyes of families transitioning together, and then there are the goodbyes of families transitioning apart. Putting children on a plane to go visit the other parent can be torture. It is so important to honor all these goodbyes. Thanks, Marilyn.

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    1. Yes! Those are HUGE things. And finding words to describe them is really hard. Is that why so many of us don’t grieve til later in life? I ask myself this all the time. Thanks for ‘getting’ this so well.

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  14. Oh Marilyn, I am sitting here crying because it IS like a death, and thank you for acknowledging it. As a TCK I feel I have been looking my whole life for some stability, some roots, and I’m losing something right now that I can’t even talk about publicly. A death I can’t talk about. And I am ALL over that grief spectrum. The anger, the denial, the bargaining, the depression, sometimes almost in the same minute. It vacillates so fast I get confused.
    And I watch my precious little children play in the pool, have Nerf wars, and I think to myself, are they going to be searching for so long, just like me? I’m almost 33, and the loss of stable things or relationships still DESTROYS me. Something I thought was stable for so long can still crumble, and it kills me. And my husband says it’s ok to go through all these stages, and I know that in my head, but sometimes I just want to fast forward through it.
    Sometimes I think life can’t go on. Life won’t go on, here, without my friends. Life won’t go on back home, with all the changes happening there. Life just won’t go on. And yet I know it will, eventually somehow. It’s just not ok yet. I’m not ok yet. And sometimes the waiting-for-ok really hurts.

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    1. I was just thinking of you this morning. I have been reading through the book Unrooted Childhoods. It’s a set of essays and there are a couple by military kids. They are so poignant. I especially appreciate one of them – it’s written by the author of the Great Santini which was painful to watch. The Great Santini is partially autobiographical. But he talks about how military kids are sacrificed for the country. His word profoundly affected me this morning, one of the reasons for this post. And I so connect with what you are saying here. It is so irritating to me that I feel like I only began really thinking about all this 8 or 9 years ago. I wish we could sit and talk.

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      1. You write with such depth of feelings, and such insight, that I would think you have been thinking about these things your whole life. Thank you for saying you were thinking of me, that means a lot. Interesting — sacrificed for your country? Maybe. I don’t know. Was I? I’m not sure if it’s that, but I do know I wish for something stable. But everything always changes. . . .Someday, someday, in person I hope!

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    2. Reading your comment brought tears to my own eyes, but any words I could write seem shallow. I empathize though and hope you find a peaceful way through. So sorry for your losses.

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      1. Thanks, Marilyn. I just read the first essay. I can see why you love it. It made me think about talking with my clients at work and how often a longstanding hurt or loss lies beneath the surface. Getting to the human side of the story requires a lot of empathy and intuition. Thanks for the link. Fascinating stuff. I am off to read more!

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      2. Thank you for this comment, Jenny, it means a whole lot. My original comment was so raw! I don’t usually let myself write that way — tend to wait, control the words, control the feelings, control the outcome even. But you read the feelings in all their raw glory, and thank you for caring about them. Thank you.

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