Learning to Grieve Well


Research shows that those of us who have grown up as third culture kids have layers on layers of loss.

Dave Pollock, a man who arguably did more to understand the third culture kid experience than any other before his death, said this: “One of the major areas in working with TCKs is that of…dealing with the issue of unresolved grief. They are always leaving or being left. Relationships are short-lived.At the end of each school year, a certain number of the student body leaves, not just for the summer, but for good.It has to be up to the parent to provide a framework of support and careful understanding as the child learns to deal with this repetitive grief.”

He ends the paragraph with these words:

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

We are told we need to grieve our losses. We are told that this is healthy, that this will help us move forward in life, not paralyzed by what was, instead purposeful in what now is.

But what does grieving those losses look like? How do we grieve?

Cecily at Cecily.Mostly wrote a post about grief – specifically getting over grief – a couple of weeks ago. The post is full of wisdom and sound advice.

It struck me as I’ve thought about grieving, specifically grieving well that it’s something we have to learn. But how do we learn it?

It helps by reading posts like that of Cecily’s, it helps also to read books like the classic CS Lewis, A Grief Observed. But part of it is not about outside resources and more about walking with one foot in front of the other and owning the grief.

The ‘grief and loss’ road has been a long one for me. And it’s not just about being a third culture kid. This road has been full of what it looks like to not grieve well and that’s not pretty. But through the journey I think I’m learning more of what it means to grieve well.

So here are a couple of things I’ve learned about grief.

Grief is good. You can’t grieve well if you don’t grieve. I grieved because I loved my life in Pakistan and then in Egypt. Yes – hear this loudly – I loved boarding school! I didn’t love everything about it but does any kid love everything about school? I think not! My grieving is not bad – it is a protective emotion. It is cathartic. It reminds me how much I loved. Grief and grieving is a good thing. Understanding grief as something good is a first step in grieving well.

Grief is individual. It is unique. Though grief itself is universal, my response to my specific circumstance is unique. It is caused by, and directed at, an event or series of events that are from my perspective. And just as the stamp of my fingerprint is like no other, so is my grief. Grieving well means understanding and living with the paradox of grief being universal and grief being personal and unique.Understanding that grief is universal helps me let others in; understanding that my grief is unique helps me to give grace when their suggestions may fall short.

Grief is rarely nicely organized. Grief doesn’t fit into nice categories or pockets. And those that try to put it there want to medicate us too quickly instead of allowing us to process, to go the hard route of getting to the bottom of grief and slowly healing. Grieving well means understanding that it is not well-organized and the more I can accept that, the less surprised I will be when it comes on like a tsunami in the most unlikely places.

Grief is physical and emotional. Grief is exhausting. The yawning. The anger. The wanting to cry but knowing you can’t –  all of that is physically exhausting. Grieving well means that I’ll be conscious of how grief affects me physically and do what I can to sleep and to eat well: protein and vitamin C, those physical healers need to abound in my diet.

Grief is culturally based. From wailing at funerals in Pakistan to the stoicism in a German woman diagnosed with cancer, responses to grief are culturally based. I cannot assume that others are not grieving because their grief ‘looks’ different. Grief knows no national boundaries, but it is definitely culturally bound. Grieving well means understanding how the culture where I am now living both defines and copes with grief, yet understanding that as one who knows what it is to live between worlds, I can choose to define and cope in other ways.

Laughter in the midst of grief is okay. Grieving well means understanding that laughter and joy are holy gifts. In the midst of grief it can be amazing to laugh until you begin to cry. It feels wrong at times – how can we laugh when something so terrible has happened, or when grief rips our souls, when we’re still full of pain? The amazing truth is that we can laugh. And laughter is good. It is holy.

Spiritual truths that we believed when we weren’t grieving are still true. They just don’t feel true. So know God doesn’t waste pain. Never. Part of me doesn’t want to say this because it is so cliché. But it’s also truth. He doesn’t waste pain. He doesn’t waste grief. Period. Full stop.

He meets us under whirring fans or beside oceans; in cold bedrooms or curled up on couches. He is as present at six as he will be at sixty. He speaks to us in our grief and in our pain.  And he never, ever gives up on us – even when we give up on ourselves.

How do you grieve well? What truth have you learned about grief? Please do share – we need each other.

This essay (and others that speak to living between worlds) is available in the book Between Worlds: Essays on Culture and Belonging

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