Death, Loss, and TCK Grief

Yesterday I unexpectedly found myself by a lone bench on an empty ocean front. A boat was just off the shore, solitary but securely anchored in the sea. I ached with the unexpected beauty, the symbolic solitude of the boat. I felt like this boat. Alone, but securely anchored. As I stood there, a scarf wrapped around my neck shielding me from a chill wind, I thought about the last couple of weeks.

Loss is a curious thing. You lose someone, and suddenly all the unrelated losses in your life seem to merge together and attack you like a virus. Grief is similar. When you open your heart to grief instead of pushing it to the back of your heart until a convenient time, you open yourself to other seemingly non-related grief.

Many of you know that I recently lost my dad. As I’ve allowed myself to feel, I have opened the door to memories of other times of grieving and other grief patterns that are seemingly unrelated.

But grief is grief, and loss is loss. They connect together like a dot to dot child’s book, creating a picture that represents something much bigger than just one dot.

About 11 years ago in Phoenix, we sold our house. The house was not that special in terms of its design and build, but there was something about it that grabbed my heart. There was something about the large yard that swept out to the open sky, nothing but the Gila River Indian Reservation behind us. There were sunsets every night that bathed the sky with unimaginable colors – red, fuchsia, orange, yellow, chartreuse – and so many that I couldn’t possibly name them. An archway at the back of the yard led to a seating area and a bee-hive shaped fireplace. We could sit for hours in that area, just talking, listening to one of our kids play guitar, relaxing under the desert sky.

I would sit with morning coffee on the patio watching humming birds, marveling at the energy that their tiny bodies could produce.

While the sale of the house was still pending, we had some work being done. I would go over to the house while contractors worked their magic to repair and update doors, floors, and counters.

At this point, we were moved in to our new house – a lovely home less than two miles away. There was no logical reason to feel sad, no logical reason to grieve.

But sitting in that house under a whirring fan, listening to the rhythmic hammer of skilled workmen; sitting on the patio and looking out to the desert plants, I began to grieve in a way that I had never grieved before. Seemingly unrelated events and losses of people attached themselves to this thing called grief. It could have become a monster that controlled me, but instead, in that desert home, where citrus trees and Bougainvillea brought brilliant color to dusty brown, I let it go.

I grieved like I’ve never grieved before.

I grieved leaving home and going to boarding for the first time. I grieved saying goodbye to best friends. I grieved the end of first love, a childhood grief made more poignant by the unresolved grief before. I grieved leaving Pakistan, with an ache in my throat and stomach, with tears caught in that place where they can’t be released. I grieved leaving Egypt, my ‘adult love.’ And added to that grief, I grieved the loss of the Middle East studies program my husband had sweated blood to begin. I grieved the realization that I may never live overseas again, an ache in my bones.

And in that house in Phoenix, that nothing-special-track-home with its beautiful yard, all these griefs flowed together, wave upon wave, memory upon memory, feeling upon feeling, stirred up and churned up like a dust storm that must run its course. And when the storm has passed, dust leaves behind its grit and its taste on every surface.

I don’t know why it surfaced at that time in that way. It seemed to make no sense. Perhaps I was allowing myself to grieve in a way that I had previously been unable. I’ll never know. I stopped trying to analyze. I let the grief flow. Like allowing nausea to run its course without interference from pills and cures, I found that with the grief came comfort. No human caught my tears. No flesh and blood comforted me, only God, in the sounds of a whirring fan and in words committed to memory:

Oh my God you search and you know me,

you know when I sit, you know where I rise;

you perceive my thoughts from afar…

My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,

when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.

Your eyes saw my unformed body;

all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.*

Then the work was over. The house sold. It belonged to someone else. Too soon, I thought. I had more griefs to name, more sadness to resolve.

According to the conventional wisdom, third culture kids suffer from unresolved grief. Hidden grief, the experts say, is a significant struggle for us. I don’t know. I have done no research. I only have my own experience.

But I did find, alone in an empty track home, solace in naming my grief, and comfort in verses that had rooted their way into my heart. And God, whispering comfort in the sound of a whirring fan, met me.**

The grief and loss dots are connecting again with my dad’s death. The picture is bigger than his death, it encompasses far more loss. But I’m not afraid to face it, because the monster created by unresolved grief is far worse than grieving.  And next to the grief is life in all its joy and sadness, waiting to be lived.

In the words of Frederick Buechner: ”

“What’s lost is nothing to what’s found, and all the death that ever was, set next to life, would scarcely fill a cup.”


*Psalm 139

**Short excerpt from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

It’s Not the Way it’s Supposed to Be

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Friends, my youngest cousin tragically lost her husband just a day ago. My heart is breaking for her and her two littles. It’s not the way it’s supposed to be. They are a young family and my heart hurts thinking of the grief and loss that they are experiencing. He leaves behind so many who will mourn his death.

One of the ways I can best show love to people is through writing. So today, I dedicate this to Jayna, my beautiful cousin and her sweet girls.

If you are one who prays, can you pray for this family? I have included more information here. 


“It’s not the way it’s supposed to be” – the cry of the mother whose child has been shot in a kindergarten class on a seemingly normal Friday in December, presents already purchased, hidden in a closet in anticipation of a Christmas morning. The “hurry up! we’re going to be late” already a memory of the day. The “make sure you tie your shoe laces, don’t forget your lunch, honey you can’t wear that shirt, it’s dirty” now poignant reminders of a life that was, that is no longer.

It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

The cry of the husband burying his wife and little one – deaths from a complicated childbirth; the cry of the husband who buried his 28-year old wife, dead from a brain tumor; the cry of the young woman who watched her husband die on their honeymoon; the cry of the mother of a soldier – killed during the war on terror; the cry of thousands of mothers in Afghanistan and Syria – all of whom have watched a child die.

It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

And the cries echo toward the Heavens, in agony, in fear, in anger, in the deepest grief imaginable to man. And the throat catches, and the grief is wordless and boundless and rips the soul, the Whys and the Hows echoing all around. Hearts broken with grief, words of “how can we go one? how will we heal?” whispered through sleepless nights.

And on this day I look up and shout toward Heaven “It’s not the way it’s supposed to be.” And in the quiet, still of the morning, He whispers in my heart “I know child, I know.”

And so “I lay my ‘whys’ before your cross — In worship kneeling. My mind too numb for thought. My heart beyond all feeling. And worshiping realize that I – in knowing You, don’t need a ‘why’. “*

poem by Ruth Bell Graham, wife of Billy Graham.

Series on Suffering #4 – Loneliness, A Type of Suffering

Urban - Loneliness

Loneliness – A Type of Suffering* by Robynn

Over the years I’ve been graced with some very precious friends. This past summer I said good-bye to two of them. One is a friend with whom I share a great deal of history. We’ve been through deep suffering together. We’ve laughed a lot and cried even more over the years. The other is a newer friend but we’ve walked miles together and logged many conversations of significance.

Both are good friends. And I miss them.

Saying goodbye again reminds me of the sting of loneliness. As everyone has, I’ve endured seasons of deep loneliness. I’ve felt misunderstood, empty, alone. I used to dread loneliness. It felt dark and claustrophobic. I felt isolated. I felt sadness and pain. I hated loneliness. But lately I’ve come to recognize Loneliness as a generous benefactor. Loneliness greets me in the morning with strange and unusual mercies. She lingers in the afternoon and sits with me on the sofa and she offers me presents.

Loneliness comforts me with the reality that she cannot destroy me. I live on, even in her company. That’s reassuring—because I used to feel that she would be my undoing, my destruction, my soul’s demise. Now I know differently.

Loneliness is a type of suffering and suffering has the capacity to transform me. It produces character. It gives way to endurance. It yields to faith. Those are sweet and generous gifts.

Loneliness highlights my need. She gives me my emptiness. This is a good thing. I recognize my empty spaces and I have the opportunity to turn to God with my soul in my hands, my heart on my sleeve. This helps me see that God can really be my True Soul Friend. I can experience His Presence. Loneliness gave me that.

She gives me my humanity. She connects me to millions of others around the globe who are displaced, afraid, betrayed, abandoned. Loneliness whispers, “see you are not alone”. The pain that she brings also reminds me that I’m still alive. And I’m more fully human for having encountered her.

Loneliness shows me her ability to diminish when I take my eyes off her. She gets smaller in stature when I don’t focus or fixate on her. Conversely she grows enormous and ominous when I stare at her, when I dote on her, when I nurse her with my self-pity. She’s magical that way. That’s another of her mysterious gifts.

Perhaps the sweetest thing of all that Loneliness gives is the opportunity to receive random moments of connection with others as gifts in themselves. I can receive a deep conversation in the church lobby. I can enjoy a joke with a stranger in the grocery store. I can marvel at the various people God has given me –a kindly neighbor, a faithful postman, a humorous barista–and I can receive them with thanks. I don’t have to demand from them a forced friendship, a deeper commitment. I can walk away and be grateful for the moment of connection, the sacred spot of community. Loneliness gave me that.

I’ve just said goodbye, with sobs and tears, to my friend Ellen. She’s returning to India. And I’m staying on here. I’ve bid Ellen farewell and in the same space, filling the same place she leaves– Loneliness steps in. I also just said goodbye to Jill. Jill’s moving to a place I’ve never even visited. She’s going on new adventures without me. I’ve said farewell to Jill too and Loneliness swoops in. I’d rather Ellen and Jill had stayed. But I’ve learned to not resist Loneliness.

Thank you Loneliness. You’ve been almost kind to me.

*This piece was first published under The Gifts of Loneliness in August 2012.

Picture Credit: http://pixabay.com/en/urban-people-crowd-citizens-438393/ Word art Marilyn R. Gardner

Moving is Hard or This too is India

Moving is hard or This too is India by Robynn. Today’s piece is longform – and you will be glad you read it. Especially if you are in a move or frequently support those that move. You can follow Robynn every Friday in Fridays with Robynn. You can also follow her on Twitter at @RobynnBliss

 moving is hard 2

Our family is moving this summer. It’s the shortest move we’ve ever made but in someways it feels the most daunting. We’re simply moving four blocks away and yet the process of packing and sorting isn’t greatly diminished. I wonder if moving will be hard this time too? Since we’re not really leaving the neighbourhood I wonder if much will change? I wrote this for others whose move involves actually leaving the city, or the state, or the country but perhaps I’ll need to re-read it in a couple of months time.

When we moved from India to the United States, 7 years ago, we were astounded by how difficult it was. Packing up a family of five had been stressful. Leaving one beloved country, travelling through two more en route before unpacking in a fourth was tiring. However, settling in was shockingly hard. I wasn’t expecting it to be like that. This was America. Things were supposed to run a little easier.

Part of our job in India was to welcome new expatriates and help them settle into the chaos of our North Indian city. We answered thousands of important questions, we walked people through hundreds of frustrations, we held their hands, we cried with them as they grieved their losses, we laughed at their surprises and delights and celebrated each of their new discoveries. It was an intense part of our lives there.  During that time we heard repeatedly of their frustrations with the Indian systems. Bureaucracy was a nightmare. Systems didn’t work. Loopholes were deeper, thicker, higher, and impossible to jump through.  Simple errands were complex. Nothing made any sense. The newly arrived were often angry, frustrated and exasperated. India was blamed for most of their troubles.

I’m not denying how agonizing it can be. Original copies of this certificate. Photocopies of that form. Four copies of passport-sized photos. Notarized copies of this application. Signed duplicates of that original. Go there. Get that. Return there. You still need this. The office is closed on Tuesdays. Office hours on Fridays are limited. It was often ridiculous and relentless. But I’ve come to see that very little of it was actually India’s fault.

Those first few months of life here in the US were (equally?) maddening. To apply for a phone we needed an address and a phone number. To sign up for gas and electricity we needed a phone number. We couldn’t get the phone number until we had a phone number. There were, nearly hilarious, systemic loops that we fell into. We couldn’t get internet service until we had a phone number. We couldn’t get a phone until we had an address. We couldn’t get our address until we could meet with the previous owner for him to sign over the deed. But we couldn’t fill out the deed until we had a phone number. Often Lowell and I would look at each other, remembering the angst that our newly arrived friends would experience upon arriving in India, and we’d say, “This too is India”!

Enrolling our children in school was also confusing. We had to have copies of their birth certificates (which birth certificate? Two of our three children have three birth certificates each!) and copies of their immunization records (which were unreadable and confusing and had to be redone by the local pediatrician’s office).  I didn’t have an American social security number at that time. My Canadian social insurance number confused everyone as it didn’t fit into the prescribed number of boxes. It was awkward and embarrassing. It wasn’t just my identifying number that didn’t fit into their boxes….our whole family seemed to be out of place.

I recently read a well written piece by a woman who was reflecting back on moving with her young family to a foreign country. I found the article a little annoying, if I’m being honest. Somehow it felt like the new country, let’s call it Papua New Guinea, was blamed for all their struggles. Her children struggled at settling in. Papua New Guinea was blamed. She and her husband struggled with the guilt of bringing their kids to this new and strange place. Papua New Guinea was blamed. As I was processing it with my friend Marilyn, I wrote, “It’s really an unfortunate piece. The fact of the matter is any move is hard on every member of the family. Just ask Jill about moving their 10-year-old and 6-year-old from Kansas to New Mexico. It’s hard to move. Period. It is a really narrow perspective to blame a cross cultural move for all the troubles you and your kids will have. Life is hard. Parenting is hard. Moving is hard”.

Two years ago, my good friend Jill and her family moved from Kansas to a nearby state, New Mexico. They transplanted their two young children and all their earthly goods to that new place. Both Jill and her husband were familiar with the city they moved to and yet it’s been a very difficult transition for them. They didn’t leave the country. They didn’t need to learn a new language. And yet…nothing is the same there. They’ve struggled to find a new church. The school system seems strange. New doctors, new hair stylists, new rules, new systems, new neighbourhoods, new friends. It’s been hard.

moving is hard

In a major move it’s easy to idyllically reinterpret your past. It was so much easier when we were there. Remember how fun that was? Remember how tasty that treat was at that restaurant we loved? It’s much harder to be present where you are, especially when where you are is new and strange and your responses to it are less than perfect. You aren’t the same person you were there. Your marriage looks different. Your parenting changes. But it’s also true that had you stayed where you were you still wouldn’t be the person you had been. You’d be older. Your marriage would have taken new turns. Your children move into the next developmental stage. They have new growth spurts and hormones and rebellions, new friends, and new circumstances. Everything is constantly changing. Resisting the temptation to blame the new location for the new you, the new (and strange) struggles your children experience, the new pains in your relationships, the new sins that surface in your soul is difficult but necessary.

This new place where you find yourself is a new opportunity to grow. There are fresh beginnings and unfamiliar experiences ahead. Train yourself and your children to be here now. Present and stable. Certainly there is value in remembering….but focus on remembering how faithful God was in that old place. Recall some of the hard things from that last chapter. Call to mind how you managed to get through it. Remember circumstances that were foreign and frantic. Remember how the Peace that few understand melted over your family then. And then be assured that it will sustain you in this new place too. That hasn’t changed.  The mercies of God, which were new every morning there, will also be new every morning here.

I’m not for a minute trying to minimize the pain of a move. It is painful.

There are a thousand losses. Nothing remains the same. None of your previous routines and systems seem to translate. Everything must be relearned. It’s very very hard. And it takes far longer than you think it will to truly settle in and be at home. But there is little to be gained for blaming the place for the heartache and dis-ease you feel. Pain is always an invitation to grow deeper. Jesus meets us in our pain and offers to lead us through it. Through to the other side of settled. Through to a new normal. Through to a new sense of home and being settled.

And who are we kidding….

Through to a whole new series of change and loss and opportunity and joy…through to a whole new invitation to go deeper.

This too is India! 

Photo Credits: http://pixabay.com/en/delhi-road-india-chaos-282933/ and http://pixabay.com/en/bellman-luggage-cart-baggage-104031/