The term “hidden losses” is one that I have seen circulate abundantly and frequently in the Third Culture Kid world. The concept is that much of the TCK’s grief stems from losses that are neither obvious nor acknowledged. These hidden losses often remain buried in the underground parts of the TCK, creating a toxic soil that results in unresolved grief, another all-to-common TCK phrase. Unfortunately, the sprouts of these seeds of hidden losses inevitably spring up to the surface sooner or later in destructive and unhealthy patterns. This most commonly happens when a TCK reaches adulthood.
As always, my question is: How can we prevent this???
How can parents of TCKs (and those who work with TCKs) uncover these “hidden losses” so that they can be called out, acknowledged, and productively and preventatively worked through?
First, we need to realize what these hidden losses commonly are. (The following list comes from the 3rd Edition of “Third Culture Kids” by David C. Pollock, Ruth E. Van Reken, and Michael V. Pollock.)
Loss of their world. TCKs lose everything they know, all at once, with an airplane ride. This often happens repeatedly and sometimes without warning.
Loss of status. Not only to TCKs lose their world, but they lose their sense of place in it. They no longer know where they fit and what they have to offer as a person in each new culture.
Loss of lifestyle. The daily routines, housing type, and way of life often change nearly instantaneously with each move.
Loss of possessions. This doesn’t only include favorite toys that are left behind, but also “things that connect TCKs to their past” (Third Culture Kids 3rd Edition, pg. 88). These could be dishes, their bedding, the Christmas table cloth that signaled the holiday season, Dad’s favorite rocking chair, etc.
Loss of relationships. Whether they are the ones leaving or being left, TCKs often lose friends routinely. They are also more likely to have disrupted relationships within the nuclear family (siblings at boarding school, parents traveling for work or ministry, grandparents a continent away, etc.)
Loss of a past that wasn’t. Birthday parties missed, not graduating with the high school class they started with, not being close with friends and family in the passport country. All the things that they would have been a part of if they hadn’t moved away.
Loss of the past that was. Being unable to go back to the past as they remember it. People have moved on, the physical place may no longer be accessible, there is no tangible way to remember the life that happened in a certain place.
“The real issue is that in these types of invisible losses, where the tangible and intangible are so inextricably intertwined, no one actually died or was divorced, and nothing was physically stolen. They were all surrounded with so much good.” (Third Culture Kids, 3rd Edition)
Hidden losses often remain hidden in the TCK’s life because they go unacknowledged by the parent either purposefully (to avoid talking about the “sad stuff”) or unintentionally (because they may not be as obvious or impactful to the parent).
While parents cannot prevent these losses from taking place-they are an inevitable part of the TCK life, I believe they can be intentional about bringing them out of hiding and thus, preventing the unresolved grief issue that is the result of letting these losses remain hidden.
Here are some simple, but key ways you can gently shed light on the losses that your TCK has experienced.
Talk about it. I have worked with many parents who were afraid to talk about these losses for fear of reminding their children of the sad things, bringing up a loss that their child hadn’t even thought of, causing their children to wish they weren’t TCKs, or causing their children to blame them (the parents), the work their doing, or God for the challenges. Unfortunately, by not talking about them, you only enforce the subconscious idea that they aren’t significant losses and should be ignored. By bringing them up gently with your child, you can help them to connect their feelings of grief to tangible (and valid!) reasons for that grief. Many times, TCKs simply need to know that there are legitimate reasons behind their seemingly intangible sadness, and thus, know that it is ok to be sad.
Comfort. Comforting is not providing encouragement, but rather sitting with your kids in the midst of their pain. Depending on your child’s personality, the most comforting things can be as simple as a hug, a meaningful gift, or a listening ear. The purpose is not to fix, but to let them know that you care, understand, and validate their feelings.
Be Aware. By simply being aware, parents can prevent unresolved grief from accompanying these hidden losses. Parents may have never thought about these losses being so grief-inducing for TCKs, or perhaps just never connected words and specific losses to the struggles they have seen in their TCK. Awareness does not take away the losses, but it does give the parent a more clear window into what their child might be going through.
Be open about your own losses. The losses that you have experienced through moving and living overseas may not be the same as those your children have experienced but, by you talking about them, it tells your TCK, “It is ok to be sad about these things!” This is also a great way to spark conversation about the hidden losses. As you are folding your new bed sheets, fresh out of the dryer (or off the clothes line) say, “Sometimes I really miss the sheets I had back in California.” “Do you ever miss your bed and your old bedroom?” These simple conversation starters tell your child that it is ok to think about these things, talk about these things, and cry about these things.
Unresolved grief most often occurs because of lack of awareness of the losses, lack of permission to grieve (believing the losses aren’t or shouldn’t be a big deal), and lack of example (people in their life showing them effective ways of dealing with grief). Parents can and should be intentional with their children in each of these areas. By putting words to your child’s losses, communicating to them through comforting words and actions that it is ok to be sad about these things, and displaying what a healthy version of coping with grief looks like, you can help your TCK bring these “hidden losses” out of hiding.