A Global Pandemic & Ambiguous Loss

In 1999, researcher Pauline Boss, introduced the concept of ambiguous loss with these words: “In the world of unresolved grief, there is a unique kind of loss that complicates grief, confuses relationships, and prevents closure. I call it ambiguous loss. It lies at the root of much depression, anxiety, and family conflict.

While religious communities traditionally have comforted those who lose a loved one from death—a clear loss—less attention is paid to ambiguous loss. This is understandable as there is no official notice or ritual for such unclear loss. Yet, the trauma devastates people. Traditional therapies are insufficient because closure, the usual goal in grief therapy, is impossible. With faith communities so often the central support system for people who are suffering, knowing about this more nuanced and complicated loss is important.

She goes on to say: “I do not pathologize. Depression is, of course, a symptom that needs treatment… in the case of ambiguous loss, the cause lies in the external environment. It is important for people suffering from this kind of traumatic loss to know that it is not their fault.”*

Ambiguous loss is believed to be the most stressful kind of loss. Death brings finality and closure and you are allowed and expected to mourn. Ambiguous loss brings none of those things. There are no sign posts. Instead, the grief process is frozen.

Ambiguous loss is unclear, traumatic, externally caused by illness/work/leaving (not by individual pathology), confusing and incomprehensible.

Ambiguous loss can freeze the grief process. People can’t get over it, they can’t move forward, they’re frozen in place. 

Pauline Boss

I can’t think of a better description of the losses people are feeling during this worldwide pandemic. Quick pack-ups and overnight border closures, family separations and job losses, death with no or limited funerals, grieving alone – all of it has contributed to lack of closure and a prolonged and ambiguous grief process.

There are two types of ambiguous loss:

  • Type One: Occurs when there is physical absence with psychological presence. This includes situations when a loved one is physically missing or bodily gone. While there are catastrophic examples of physical ambiguous loss (including kidnapping, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, genocide, and natural disasters such as earthquake, flood, and tsunami) the more common examples of physical ambiguous loss are divorce, adoption, and loss of physical contact with family and friends because of immigration. This would be the most common type with third culture kids and expats. There is a physical absence, but you know the place you left, the friends you left, are still psychologically present. You see pictures of your adopted home, but you are no longer there. Your children see their school friends through social media, but physically, though the place remains, you are gone. You may never get to visit again.
  • Type Two: Occurs when there is psychological absence with physical presence. In this second type of ambiguous loss, a loved one is psychologically absent—that is, emotionally or cognitively gone or missing. Such ambiguous loss occurs from Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias; traumatic brain injury; addiction, depression, or other chronic mental or physical illnesses that take away a loved one’s mind or memory. Psychological ambiguous losses can also result from obsessions or preoccupations with losses that never make sense, e.g., some suicides or infant deaths.*

Identifying ambiguous loss is a huge step. I remember first reading about it several years ago, how just reading about it did something powerful in and for me. Realizing I wasn’t alone, that there was a name for my experiences, was a pivotal point in better understanding what I needed to do.

There were several steps to my process, and I write them here cautiously, knowing that there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to facing ambiguous loss.

Naming it as ambiguous loss was an important first step. Finding a name for what I was experiencing was huge. You can’t cope with something unless you know what it is. At six years old, I waved goodbye to my parents as they stood on the platform of a train station in Southern Pakistan. I strained my head to wave, crying the crocodile tears of a child that knows that they are leaving their primary source of security, but not having words to express it. I strained to watch my parents through the window until the platform was out of sight, finally succumbing to the comfort of kind adult chaperones. I knew that my parents weren’t dead, but their physical absence brought profound loss. It would be the same for all but two years of my childhood until I turned 18 and left home. Finding out about the concept of ambiguous loss was deeply comforting to me. I thought back to many childhood events like this one, realizing I had never grieved the losses because I didn’t think there were any. Naming is an edenic act, and when we name something we open up a door to understanding that is otherwise impossible. In this Pandemic year, it is important to name the ambiguous loss. If you had to pack up with little notice and no goodbyes, if you did not have time to build the RAFT to float yourself and your family, it is probably true that what you are experiencing is ambiguous loss. The place you left still exists; the work and your place within the work may still be there, but you aren’t. Soon, someone else will take your place because though people are not replaceable, positions must be replaced. Naming this is critical to moving forward. If you do nothing else but name it, you are still on a step toward healing.

Use both/and thinking. It’s not one or the other – it’s both. We have both the anxiety of no closure and the opportunity of unexpected change and relationships going forward. Absolute thinking is not helpful with ambiguous loss or the pandemic in general. F. Scott Fitzgerald said this, and it is perfect for thinking about both/and thinking:

The test of a first rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”

F.Scott Fitzgerald

This both/and thinking is important for us and for our children. We acknowledge the losses even as we begin to write our names in the land where we find ourselves.

Find meaning in the present. Not acknowledging ambiguous loss can cripple us to finding meaning in our present reality. What is the meaning in your present reality? Where have you found meaning that is unexpected? Perhaps you have found meaning in the act of waiting. Perhaps you have had unexpected time with aging parents. Perhaps you used to long for more time with your kids, feeling like their childhoods were on fast forward in the movie of life. Suddenly, all of life has slowed down and it feels impossible to dream, to look forward to anything. Maybe there is meaning in the impossible.

Reconstructing identity is a third step in facing ambiguous loss. Moving, death, job loss, changing friendships – all of this affects our identity and our perception of our identity. Who are we without what we had? Who are we when we are not in our adopted countries using hard-earned language skills? Who are we without the brother, mother, son, or daughter that we have lost to a country or place far away? Who are we apart from our friendships? Who are we when ministry is gone? All of these questions are a part of reconstructing our identities. Ultimately, in my faith journey I’ve recognized that identity is not about where I am, for that is too fickle and can change through pandemics, military takeovers, natural disasters, and job loss – indeed everyone of those things have affected my life at different points. Instead, my core identity has to be about being beloved by God and recognizing I am part of a bigger picture in His world.

Building resilience, not seeking closure. The goal is not closure, and we make a mistake if we think that is possible. That’s the thing with ambiguous loss – the goal changes from closure to building strength and acceptance of ambiguity. We may never get to say proper goodbyes, we may always wonder “What would have happened if we stayed?” We may always long for something that we can’t even voice. I’ve been learning a lot about being grateful for those things, for they are indeed gifts. We live in a world of displaced people and refugees; indeed that is the story of our time. It is a gift that we know what it is to grieve loss of place and people. Understanding ambiguous loss is in itself a gift. It allows us to enter relationships with hope but without the guarantees that we so long for. This is far more what our world needs than a security and belief that what we have will be there forever. This is true for individuals, and it’s true for a family. As a family adapts to change, stress, and ambiguous loss, it builds resilience and this becomes a part of the larger family story. The larger family story will have a pandemic chapter, but it’s not the only chapter. It’s one of many.

Discovering new hope. As we move forward, we discover new hope. Hope in a future that will continue to hold the hard and unknown, yet entering it with a greater reality of the presence of God. Hope in the words from the book of Hebrews that He who called us is faithful. We may never know the whys, but can it be enough to know Him? I speak truth when I say that some days it is enough and some days it isn’t. I cling to the days where it is enough, where He is enough. And I’m getting better at facing the days when He is not enough, where I pray the Jesus prayer all day long and into the night.

Lastly, God is far more concerned about who we are than about what we do and where we live. If we lose everything, He still loves us. Before He called us, He loved us. I’m sitting with that hard truth, praying that I will know it in my soul. I pray that wherever you are today, and whatever your losses, you may know this hard but glorious truth. He looks at you and He loves you – and though all around you may be loss and grief, that truth is a reality.


Note: This post was originally published in A Life Overseas

*https://www.ambiguousloss.com/about/faq/

Longing for Permanence 

“The shifts of time unearth our longing for a permanent residence, unshakeable, immovable, wholly given and wholly ours. Scattered across this great globe, now and then, we stumble across gifts of happiness from a God who, kindly, with an absolute patience that the trees themselves were taught to imitate, guides us up into the security of his own life”

Laura Merzig Fabrycky

Recently I have been longing to purchase a home. For a long time we did own, first in a small town in Massachusetts, then in the city of Phoenix. I loved those homes. They were our spaces, places where  we could share our lives. One was an old Victorian home with 36 windows, five bedrooms, and a side porch with a doll house and wicker furniture. Our children climbed the trees in the side yard in the summer and fall and sled down a small hill in the back yard in the winter. We would order and stack chopped wood each fall to use in the wood stove in the living room, where we would gather each evening after homework to drink tea and talk.

The other was a much younger southwest home with archways and tile, cool stucco and high ceilings. Fans whirred most of the year and the diving pool was in constant use. A large back yard faced the desert and the famous Phoenix sunsets brought on quiet beauty and longing almost daily. We created a large patio at the far corner of the yard, and spent hours sitting, talking, and listening to our teenagers hone their guitar skills. In those completely different venues, we created space and place so that any guest or stranger would know the space was undeniably ours.

Growing up we never owned a house. We went from mission house to mission house and each one I loved. There were similarities in all of them – ceilings taller than 20 feet, archways, small windows just below the high ceilings called roshandons, often made of stained glass that helped to circulate air, and fans hanging from the ceilings with 12 foot thick wire. Salts crept up the walls causing them to bubble and crumble, but they were home. Courtyards with dusty Bouganvillea and Hibiscus grew wild with brilliant color, a sharp contrast to the dust of the ground and walls. The flat roofs allowed us to look across houses and trees, mosques and shops giving us a birdseye view of whatever city we lived in. They were all home. They were, above all, safe.

As an adult I’ve called four countries home and always welcomed the challenge of creating beauty out of odd colors and spaces, of transforming kitchens and living rooms into places we could call home. With all their warts and impermanence, we still called them home.

We’ve rented now for many years. I don’t think we set out to rent. I think we didn’t think about it, and the next thing we knew, prices around us had risen and owning was far out of our affordability. This worked out well when a dream of being back in the Middle East became a reality and we rid ourselves of seventy five percent of our posessions, taking on a journey that would have us fall in love with a place and people more than we’d ever imagine.

But, as those who read my writing know, that ended and we found ourselves back in the Boston area rebuilding what we had left, grieving even as we moved forward. Six months into our move, the world stopped, borders closed, and we experienced limited movement like we’ve never had before. It was soon into this closure that a longing for a house began in me. While we have our beautiful cottage in Rockport, it is too small to host our kids and our guests, and I long for something that can create memories for this next stage of life.

In recent weeks, its reached a feverish level of longing. Almost before my prayers in the morning I look at my realestate app. I try to imagine living in places that I don’t even like, and then shake my head in frustration. Why has it reached this sort of longing? Why is my heart so aching for place?

I’ve written a lot about place. And indeed, I want my next book to be about place. From Paul Tournier’s A Place for You to Wendell Berry’s Port William series, I read words that remind me place is important. We are created for place. Our longing is not misplaced so much as it is affected by our limited vision of what place is and where it fits in our spiritual and physical journey.

I don’t know what will happen with this longing. I don’t know if it will be fulfilled. Even as I write this, I know how incredibly fortunate I am, how I do not wonder where my next meal will come from or where I will sleep tonight. I am warm. I am safe. I have place even as I long for place. This longing is real to be sure, but it is not like the longing for a child, an empty womb and hands a continual sword in the heart. Or like the longing for a close one who has died. But longing is longing, and telling myself it’s minor is like slapping myself.

That God meets us in our longing is something I know in my bones, but even as he meets us, we are flesh and blood. We ache and long for permanence in the impermanent; in a world that can’t possibly deliver. As I wrote several years ago: We are tethered to earth with hearts made for Eternity. Surely Christ, who experienced the impermanence of place and a human body on this earth knows this. In the quiet of my heart I sometimes feel his whisper of the permanence that awaits me, more glorious than I could imagine, but seemingly so very far off.

In Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter, he writes poignantly of place. And whether place is rented or owned, there is something in the keeping of it that matters. I grab onto this on this day, a day when I looked yet again at the real estate app, desperately searching for something. As I grab hold, the words settle into my spirit. I sigh, close the app, and bake a lemon blueberry cake. It is enough for this moment.

There is no ‘better place’ than this, not in this world. And it is by the place we’ve got and our love for it and our keeping of it, that this world is joined to Heaven…

Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry

The Return

It was 10 years ago today that my sister-in-law and I arrived in Pakistan to participate in a 2-week medical relief trip.

At the end of the summer of 2010, Pakistan had been overwhelmed by floods with millions displaced. Camps for those who had lost their homes were set up across the country and aid was coming in from many countries around the world. Anytime there is a disaster like these floods, there is a domino effect of problems. Malaria, severe malnutrition, dysentery from poor water supplies, and skin diseases that happen when you have thousands of people living in close proximity to each other.

As my childhood home and love, Pakistan has a special place in my heart and to go back in this capacity was a gift. I returned with far more than I gave. What I didn’t know at the time is that it would change the trajectory of my life, for it was during and soon after that trip that I began to write.

I began writing about childhood memories and belonging, about the trip to Pakistan and what it meant to me. I wrote about saudade and identity, about faith and being an adult third culture kid. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote. Soon after, I began a blog. The blog propelled me into writing a book, and then another book that I had begun several years earlier. Writing was my therapy, my way to make sense of so much that had happened long ago.

At the end of my trip, I wrote an essay called “Holy Moments from an Unholy Disaster.” It was later published in my first book, but as I remember the anniverary of that return, I wanted to post it here.

To you who have read my words, who have encouraged me in my writing journey, who have stuck with me through mixed metaphors and my sometimes grammatically dubious sentence structure – I am beyond grateful. You have made my words live by reading them and posting them, by emailing or messaging me to say that my words resonate. I am so thankful.

On this 10 year anniversary of my return, here is the essay “Holy Moments from an Unholy Disaster.”


Given the choice of a five-star hotel or camping, I will pick a five-star hotel every time. I tell friends that anyone who grew up in the developing world with a commode for a toilet and one bath a week would appreciate my love of luxury. So it was with some surprise that I found myself eager to return to Pakistan on a medical flood relief team.

When I first heard news of the floods, I felt a sadness that was somewhat distant and removed. Pakistan was my childhood love and home, but as an adult I have been more connected to the Middle East through work and travel. My connections with Pakistan had been reduced to occasional emails from friends and to moments on the subway when, eyes closed, the rhythmic movement transports me back to the Pakistani trains of my childhood. That changed when I saw a picture in the New York Times of the city of Jacobabad under floodwaters.

Jacobabad, in the Sindh province, was home to my family when I was a little girl. I broke my leg there. My mother’s artificial flowers were stolen in Jacobabad. Mom had planted them around our house to add color to clay that would never grow anything. They provided a source of joy for a few hours and then they were gone. The New York Times photograph hit my heart in a way I had not anticipated, and through what could only be a work of God, an opportunity came about for me to participate as a nurse on a medical relief trip to care for internally displaced people in northern Sindh.

I never imagined that my life for a short time would resemble a National Geographic feature story. Although I grew up in Pakistan, raised my family in Islamabad, and lived for seven years in Cairo, my current reality is downtown Boston, where I drink a Starbucks coffee daily. I shop at Ann Taylor and get frustrated when my hot water runs out or I don’t have time to put on my eyeliner. But in early September the idea of working with victims of the flood suddenly became real and I became cautiously excited, knowing I may not have what it would take but willing to take that chance.

On October fifteenth, accompanied by my sister-in-law, Carol, and thirteen thousand dollars worth of donated medical supplies, I boarded an Etihad airliner and flew via Abu Dhabi to Karachi ending the journey in Shikarpur, Sindh. Outside the Shikarpur gates, a kilometer from the hospital where we were based we passed the burnt remains of a convoy of twenty-seven trucks that had been featured in the New York Times “Pictures of the Day,” and I realized that I hadn’t paid as close attention to the location of that picture as I perhaps should have.

The two weeks that followed were filled with holy moments. I watched as a mom pointed to heaven in thanks for food distributed to her family. I laughed with children at my own mistakes in Urdu and Sindhi. I prayed in the depths of my soul for the baby who looked like a skeleton at four months of age and for the emaciated mom who held that child with the love only a mother could have. I put shoes on the ulcerated feet of an ancient woman, countless stories written into the wrinkles on her face. We delivered a sewing machine to a widow who danced with it on her head. We saw and served people created in the image of God. These women and children in their beautiful, brightly colored clothing were “no mere mortals” and dear to the heart of God.

Our team — a doctor, two nurses, a community healthworker, interpreter and food distributors — were like a mini United Nations. We represented six people groups and six different languages, but we shared a unity in purpose and spirit that gave us efficiency, laughter and joy. In fourteen days we covered eight villages, surveying needs, running medical camps, and distributing food. Mud huts, tents provided by USAID, and charpais combined with chickens, roosters, water buffalo and cow dung completed the setting and tested our nostrils and stamina. But everyday provided a new adventure and new moments of awe.

There was, for me, an added bonus. Almost anyone who was raised in a country other than his or her passport country can relate with the immigrant experience. The sense of isolation, nontransferable skills, and being ‘other’ can creep up at the oddest of times and result in a deep loneliness and sometimes conflict with one’s passport country. Our lives are lived between worlds.

But for those two weeks I was not other. I was home. I saw friends who knew me when I was young, received blessings from men who worked with my father and women who had deep friendships with my mother, walked through compounds to the embraces of old friends, and was woken yet again by the call to prayer. These were holy moments that I had not anticipated.

A wise friend once told me that there are times in our lives when we need to remember who we are. During those two weeks, I was given the gift of remembering who I was.

Since leaving Pakistan as a child, I, like many, had to redefine my faith. It has often been a painful process. I struggle with unanswerable questions about life and God. This trip back was a humbling reminder that the God who sustained me when I was six years old at boarding school, crying into my pillow, is a God who still provides holy moments in places where real life happens.

I arrived back in JFK International Airport in New York City after twenty-three hours of travel and within a few minutes felt ‘other’ again. I faced a moment of confusion as I looked at the Immigration line options. Was I really a resident alien? An alien? No. I was a US citizen, shaped by cultures and moments that were not of my own making. In that moment I recognized that the peace of belonging happens deep in my soul and that peace can transcend the outside circumstances.

 I don’t know why I was given the gift of going. That is a mystery to me. But I know it was Grace.

For the Global Souls

You are the bridge builders and the listeners, the ones who understand what it is to live between.

You are the border crossers and the visa holders, the ones who say goodbye to a million friends, and make a million more.

You are the sorters and the packers, putting a world into a suitcase – the ones who know that packing up a suitcase and packing up a life are two different things. Into one you put your belongings, into the other – you pack your heart.

You are the language learners and the mistake makers, the ones who try to sort out grammar and idioms, ruefully accepting the good natured laughs that your language skills provoke.

You are the world news gatherers, catching your breath as you hear about a tragedy across oceans and continents that affect the people and places you love. Praying and hoping as you await news beyond the headlines.

You are the challengers of stereotypes, knowing that “No one is a single story.”*

You are the defender of accents, the one who knows that limited language ability does not mean limited intellectual ability; the one who knows that accents are the badges of honor in a world that needs connecting.

You are the ones who know the strength of ‘saudade’ and have cried tears of longing for what no longer exists.

You are the ones who can bargain for the best produce in five languages yet get paralyzed in the cereal aisle of your passport country.

You are the holder of stories and hidden experiences, the lover of all things travel, the one who knows what it is to be lonely on a Sunday night in an international or domestic airport.

You are the ones who know what it is to be displaced and culturally confused, the ones who long to end the refugee crisis and closed borders, the ones who speak out against policies that hurt people and shut them out.

You are the ones who feel the pain of closed borders and the sadness of unused tickets, the ones who are forever separated from so many places and people you love.

You are my fellow travelers and global souls, you are my friends and my family, you are my tribe. May you take comfort in your stories and your memories, your sacred objects and your soul friends.

May your life of movement help you to love more, judge less, and reach across the boundaries that divide knowing that all is not lost.


*Chimamanda Adichie “The Danger of a Single Story”

Race Reckoning and a White Third Culture Kid

The reckoning is how we walk into our story; the rumble is where we own it. The goal of the rumble is to get honest about the stories we’re making up about our struggles, to revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives.

Brené Brown, Rising Strong

Like many of you, I have thought a lot in these past weeks about race and racism. Also like many of you I have posted, reacted, posted again, thought again, reacted again, and finally stopped to catch my breath. It’s only as I’ve stopped to catch my breath and pray that I have felt a measure of peace in moving forward.

As I look at the purpose of Communicating Across Boundaries, it is not surprising that there have been many posts by myself and others around racism, immigrants, refugees, and loving the one who is other. It is the “what”at the heart of what I do. It is the “why” at the heart of what I believe, for if a gospel cannot transform me and our world from the inside out, what good is it? Why does it matter?

This time I post with even more care than usual. We have a huge portion of the population of the United States who are in pain over injustice and racism. It is a callous person indeed that doesn’t recognize this and respond with deep love and care.

As a third culture kid growing up in the developing world, I had my own unconscious privilege to reckon with, and once made aware, to answer for. This privilege took different forms. From thinking “they” weren’t as smart as me to happily enjoying a life that would have been far more difficult if I had been born a different color or had a different passport.

A reckoning is, by dictionary definition, a “settling of accounts.” So what does that mean for me, as a privileged, little white girl growing up in a country where people had varying shades of brown skin? What does that mean to someone who is a guest in a country that had a recent history of colonization by the British Empire? For me, this primarily means being honest.

It took me a long time to recognize my prejudice and even longer to be aware of my privilege. Some of my recognition of this came when I began to write. The more I wrote, the more I articulated my perspective, the more I was reminded that that’s what it was – my perspective. I viewed the world through a particular lens and that lens affected all my experiences. I walked through the world with different skin on, and skin made a huge difference.

As I moved on to writing Worlds Apart, I realized how my childhood was affected by growing up in a land where colonization ended only 13 years before I was born.

To give context, a delightful activity for me as a child was “high tea” at a hotel near my boarding school. During the summer months, my mom would take us to a hotel that served mini pastries and savory snacks on three-tiered China platters. Tea was served in a pot and each of us had a separate pot of tea. There were waiters dressed in turbans and starched white coats, attentive to every need. They treated me like the princess I thought I was. I loved it so much. It was later that I realized there was another side to my experience.

There was a darker side to high tea I would only confront much later. This pleasure that so delighted me as a little girl was a survival of Pakistan’s colonial past. The “British Raj” era, or the era of British rule, lasted for almost 100 years. It included the entire Indian subcontinent. Pakistan was born in 1948, and my parents arrived only five years later. I was completely blind to my privilege as a little, white, English-speaking girl. I cringe now at what I took for granted. 

Those who were white and English-speaking went to the head of the line. Those who were white and English-speaking could casually criticize Pakistanis without thought. We traveled where we pleased, we went first class or third class on trains –it was our choice. We were educated and would have a world of opportunity. I thank God for parents that had the conscience and determination to discipline me and teach me in various ways that I was not better than those around me. Still, with a strong personality and ego to match, those lessons sometimes fell on ears unwilling to listen and a heart that would need continual reminders that privilege is not something I earned or deserved.”

Worlds Apart: A Third Culture Kid’s Journey

Children grow up to be adults, and as an adult I’ve had to take responsibility for learning and growing in areas where I had a lot of pride and a lot of ignorance. That pride and ignorance led to wrong thinking and distorted theology.

Recently, I’ve focused more on the listening part of learning. My friend Caroline is one of the people I listen to. We became friends one cold, snowy evening as my husband and I made our way into a large room in New Hampshire for a church retreat. Caroline and her husband were helping to register us. It was pretty much love and friendhsip at first meeting. Caroline and I share a third culture kid background. She is ethnically South Asian, raised in several places in the world and a brilliant speaker and thinker. She said this in a sermon given in Wheaton, Illinois this past weekend:

Be on guard against cheap diversity! Cheap diversity settles for representation, cheap diversity is satisfied when the room looks colorful, Be on guard against cheap diversity. Representation is satisfied with people being present, justice says “I care about this person inside this room and outside of it.”  Justice says “We see and do not stand for the way that our society and our culture upholds oppression and racial violence.” Justice says “I won’t quit until all are seen as image bearers.” The kingdom cares about life and shalom and flourishing here and now. If one of us is in pain or grieving, we ALL are in pain and grieving. If one is experiencing injustice, then all are experiencing injustice.”

Caroline Lancaster

She then gives action steps to her listeners. With her permission I am sharing them here:

  • Get in proximity: how can you be in community or learn from a community different than your own?
  • What are your spheres of power or influence? How are you bearing the fruit of justice in those spaces? How can you distribute power, access, money, etc. to steward power and influence well?
  • Educate yourself about injustice in both your passport country and your host country. Don’t walk through the world oblivious.
  • If you are a Christian, choose a passage or a verse that anchors you in God’s heart for justice. Memorize it and meditate on it daily.

I will be on this long journey in the right direction for the rest of my life. Why? Because this is a journey directly related to who I am as a Christian. God cares about oppression. God cares about justice. God cares about hurting communities. God cares about color – he cared enough to create us in different skin tones with different hair textures.

Here are some things that continue to be a part of my long journey:

  1. Confession – I had to begin with asking God to heal my thoughts and my eyesight. It was and still is hard, but in searching my soul I have realized that this sin is against God and fellow man.
  2. Learn to recognize and confess my own bias. None of us is without bias and our bias comes from many things. But we can be crippled into wrong belief when we don’t recognize and confess it.
  3. Develop real friendships with those who don’t physically look like we do. We walk through the world with skin on. That skin is perceived differently depending on its color. I walk through the world as a white woman. I have many friends who walk through the world as Arabic speaking, Kurdish speaking, and Urdu speaking brown women and men. I have other friends who walk through the world as black, English speaking women and men. Jesus himself walked through the world as an Aramaic-speaking brown man. Tamika in a recent post on Taking Route says this about color “If you say you don’t see color, then it means there is something about me that you can’t acknowledge.” Developing real friendships and relationships with people that don’t look like us challenges us and changes us.
  4. Always, whether in leadership or as a follower, have a posture of humility and willingness to learn from people who look different than we do.
  5. Be prepared for that leadership to look different – leadership is culturally based and may feel uncomfortable for a while.
  6. Read and listen and learn. Let me say that again: Read and listen and learn. Then read and listen and learn again.
  7. We will get it wrong. Our proverbial old habits die slowly and often painfully, but if we remain open to correction and change, to true repentance when we hurt others, to not letting pride block us, we will continue to move forward.

In my journey I’m learning more about empathy and standing beside – not in front of – people. Most of all, I’m learning that this is critical to my faith and my belief that we are all made in the Image of God.

This is my long and important reckoning.


Note: Other voices that I’ve been listening to include:  Fellowship of St. Moses the Black, Osheta Moore, Black Coffee with White Friends, Caroline Lancaster, Eugene ChoArchbishop Sebastia TheodosiosElias Chacour, and Ramez Attalah.  They each offer different perspectives based on where they are from and where they live. I have been continually humbled as I hear and read perspectives outside of my own sphere.

[Picture Credit: Pixabay https://pixabay.com/photos/children-road-distant-supportive-1149671/

The Earned Fact of the Third Culture Kid

I first heard the term “earned fact” from Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers. As an immersive journalist, she talks about being able to write, not because she saw something, or read something, but because she lived something. In order to write the book, Boo immersed herself in the lives of people in a slum in Mumbai. Daily, she went to the slum, sat with people, recorded stories, observed, and asked questions. She did this for three years. When she wrote about the slum, she described the people, the smells, the garbage and even the air as one who had experienced this world.

But the book itself is not the focus of this blog post. Instead, I am interested in this idea of “earned fact” and how it relates to the third culture kid conversation. I’m interested because many of the third culture kids I know, myself included, become weary of feeling like we have to somehow justify our experience through education or research. The reality is that we have something that education and research can never give anyone – we have earned fact. We have lived something extraordinary and our words and stories come from that place.

Our earned fact often begins at birth, where the first words we hear are not from our mother tongue. Instead, they are words said over us by a midwife, nurse, or doctor who speak Urdu, Tagalog, or any other of a number of languages. We don’t come into our lives as third culture kids with already formed world views. Instead, our world views are formed by living between. Our identity is shaped through interacting with our parents and their dominant culture and the dominant culture surrounding us. Research on identity formation does not apply in the same way. Instead, we move back and forth as little people whose identity is being forged and shaped between two, often conflicting, cultures. “A British child taking toddling steps on foreign soil or speaking his or her first words in Chinese with an amah (nanny) has no idea of what it means to be human yet, let alone “British.” He or she simply responds to what is happening in the moment” (Pollock and Van Reken, 2001).

The earned fact continues through childhoods lived on the edge and in between, picnicking in places that are far from our passport countries and participating in events that don’t make sense to peers in our passport countries. What is normal to us is considered ‘exotic’ by some, ‘extraordinary’ by others; ‘reckless’ by more than a handful. In the words of Liz Rice, in her memoir Rituals of Separation, one thousand things begin to separate us from the people we are related to by blood or by legal definition.

From the moment my life in Korea started, one thousand things began to separate me from the people of my bloodline and the country of my passport. My umbilical cord of identity stretched out to the city and the people in front of me.

“Closing one life door had opened up another. I was becoming part of a new family, not bound by blood or nationality, but created out of calling and circumstance, and the simple fact of what happens when a little girl’s parents decide to make a home in a new land.

Nothing about that life or my identity felt particularly remarkable until I came to the U.S. Nothing about my place in-between cultures and communities, between fundamentally different ways of understanding the world, seemed like something I needed to reconcile until the day we left Korea behind. I only look back now and try to analyze this time, to pick it apart, to understand the people and places that were forming me, to remember the ways of those who were teaching me how to greet and grieve.”

Liz Rice in Rituals of Separation

This earned fact is not easily described. When I talk about negotiating across cultural differences, I don’t just have a theoretical understanding. I have experiences that began when I was very young. When I speak on culturally responsive care, and understanding the impact of culture on all aspects of life, it is part of my bones. I have sat on the sidelines of many conversations or discussions on culture. Because I have fair skin, and my features resemble many in the area where I live, it’s assumed that I have only lived here, that my experience does not include anything beyond the borders of Massachusetts. It’s a hard and discouraging assumption to fight. I have a notebook of things that have been said to me that dismiss my invisible experience – invisible until I tell stories that go beyond my skin color and show a life lived in places and cultures far different than the one where I now reside.

There is a skepticism of the term “Third Culture Kid.” Third culture adults don’t necessarily like it, and third culture kids don’t buy into it. It separates them. It is irritating and divisive. I hear that and I respect the sentiment behind it. We have enough in the world to divide us into the next millenium and beyond. But for some of us, this term has encouraged us to connect. It has given us a foundation from which to engage. It has given us hope that we are not alone.

Because here’s the thing – There was a time when we didn’t have a name. When we were forever told to pull up our boot straps and get on with life.

There was a time when we thought we were the only ones, traveling solo in our passport countries, not knowing how to put words to our longings, how to verbalize our pain.

There was a time when reentry seminars were non-existent and it was assumed that we would arrive in our passport countries without incident, when folks said to us “Aren’t you glad to be back home” and we nodded assent, but a part of us shriveled inside. We would assimilate and no one would ever know that part of us that shaped and molded us from birth.

There was a time when we over spiritualized and downplayed ‘place’ and ‘home’, convincing ourselves that since our real home was in Heaven, earth really didn’t matter too much. But ah….when we got to Heaven, that would all change. Except that we were young and Heaven seemed oh so far away.

There was a time when we failed to understand that throughout history, God has used place.

There was a time when we laughed at the thought that we had losses, we brushed away any grief. “That’s ridiculous” we sniffed! Other’s have far more losses. Others are far worse off. But then we faced one too many moves and in the back of our minds the whisper of losses began to shout.*

So, to those that don’t need the term “Third Culture Kid” – I hear you and I honor and respect that. But to those of us who do feel like the term has helped? Make no mistake that we, that you, have an earned fact and some of that earned fact can be represented in the phrase “Third Culture Kid” or “Third Culture Adult.”

As my friend Robynn so beautifully states, we are from this third culture, this nebulous nomadic space. Whether we are 13 or 50, we have these common traits and can proudly own our earned fact. And we can, if we choose, use the term Third Culture Kid or Adult Third Culture Kid. It’s our choice.


*Excerpt from Between Worlds: Essays on Culture & Belonging

Siblings and the Third Culture Kid Journey

The train rounds a bend.
The rest of the cars appear one by one,
all tied to one another
far into the distance
It comes as a surprise
to be tied to things so far back
Nazım Hikmet,
Human Landscapes from My Country

Recently I was thinking about an event in my childhood. It took place at the time of the Indo-Pak war – the war of independence for East Pakistan, the outcome being East Pakistan becoming Bangladesh.

As I remember, it coincided with a mono epidemic at our boarding school, where many of us were sent home early to recover from what used to be known as the “kissing” disease.

My parents were living in the city of Larkana in Southern Pakistan at the time, and we were the only expat family, the only English speaking family in the area. It created a unique family dynamic, one where we relied heavily on each other without even realizing it.

My brothers decided to build a trench in our front yard, a worthy act that could hardly have saved us from Indian bombs falling but was, nevertheless, a creative outlet. When finished, they proudly invited my parents and me to take a look. We were duly impressed, although secretly I remember thinking it didn’t look like it could survive an air raid. I’m not sure why I wasn’t involved in digging the trench, but knowing the princess that I was and continue to be, it was wise that I was on the sidelines – ever appreciative but not getting my hands dirty.

And so it went, my siblings and me. They were the ones that traveled with me through the same places and situations of our between worlds life. Home leaves, where we went through the painful process of trying to adjust to our passport country and the strangeness of New England for a short year before packing our bags to head back overseas; winters in the dusty, Bougainvillea laden homes in the Sindh region of Pakistan; long Punjabi church services listening to Miss Mall lead singing with her powerful bass voice; boarding school and the ups and downs of being away from home; camping in Kaghan valley with the monsoon season ensuring everything was damp; eating curry by the side of the road during family trips; falling asleep to the sounds of ocean waves hitting the sand during our yearly week at the beach; and so much more that went into our sibling journey.

The situations changed, but the main characters were always the same. Ed. Stan. Tom. Marilyn. Dan.

Until they weren’t. Until the actors, one by one, left the scene and it was finally left to me and my younger brother to continue the play. A few years later I would be the one to leave the stage and my brother would continue on his own. What used to be a chaotic and ever-stimulating conversation among siblings changed to a silent monologue, different for each of us.

If the time and sounds of childhood are marked by our siblings, then perhaps it is even more so for the third culture kid. The daily events, the arguing, the all out fights, but overall the undying loyalty to place and to each other that connects our memories.

“Remember that time in Greece when we ate cherries at the outdoor cafe?” “Remember that time in Japan when I fell into the fish pond outside the hotel?” “Remember the time in Murree when we were on the mountain during that storm and thought we would get struck by lightning?” “Remember picnics by the canal?” “Remember leaving for the beach in the wee hours of the morning, landrover packed tight with stuff?” “Remember baby turtles and Hawkes Bay?”

Remember? Remember? Remember?

We were named and claimed as members of a family, marked by faith and place. In life’s journey, we knew that siblings mattered; sometimes they were all we had.

In losing one of our siblings, we have lost not just a person, but a piece of place, a voice of our memories logged deep in our souls. We have lost a place at the sibling table as represented by Stan.

A friend recently captured this well in a comment written to me about a photograph:

I see in the photo and hear in the words that loss of places in a person too…the sibling. One of the precious few who embody all those places and things collected from those times, and in so doing, they are our truth-sayers about that unique snapshot of those two years here and three years there.

Jody Tangredi

Siblings – those ones who represent the places we lived and the events that went with them. The ones who we will always have with us until they are no longer here.

A friend of mine wrote this article for Thrive Global. “Covid-19: The Third Side of the Coin – Hope, grief, and complexity in times of the Coronavirus“. It is an excellent, nuanced article that I found to be hopeful and encouraging during this time.