Practical Tips for Helping Your Child Process the Grief of Moving Overseas (Part 2): The Post-Grieving Child
“Some people grieve in advance of a loss-they see it coming and feel sad. They look around and realise, “I will never do this again.” Others grieve after the change occurs. It is at this point the post-griever realises, “I will never do this again”. –Tanya Crossman, Misunderstood (2016)
The post-grieving child will experience the bulk of their grieving after you have arrived overseas and they finally “realize” what they have lost. The post-grieving child may not seem to be overly upset in the days leading up to the move and instead will enter into the fullness of their grief during the first few days, weeks, even months after you’ve arrived in the new place.
It is important that you, as the parent, decipher whether your child is a pre-griever or post-griever so that you can strategically help them work through their grief. Post-grieving children often seem comfortable and excited for the pending adventure, so if that sounds like your child, this should signal you that you may have a post-griever on your hands! If not, you may have a pre-grieving child and you can read more on how to assist that child here.
Things to watch for:
Unemotional “Goodbyes”. Post-grievers may not be as emotional as you think they “should” be in the days leading up to the move. This is because they don’t feel the weight of the move until after you’ve landed overseas. They might not feel the need to say “goodbye” to things or places, and may want to give a quick hug and “see you later” to their closest friends. This is not because they don’t care, but because the grief of the goodbyes won’t fully hit them until they have already left. However, it is vitally important that you are intentional about walking them through the process of leaving well; part of which is saying "goodbyes" and not "see you laters". More on that below.
Seeming un-phased by the pending move. Post-grievers seem to be the perfect missionary kids as you raise support, speak in churches, and pack. They tell everyone how excited they are to move to a new country and can give all sorts of facts about where they will be living. They are sad to pack up their room and cut down their stuff to a 50lb suitcase, but they are not overly upset about it. If this is your child, be prepared to have a bit of a rough start when you arrive overseas. They may ease right into the new country, but more likely, they’ll feel their losses strongly after you arrive and won’t “jump in” to the new culture as quickly as you had expected them to.
Reluctance to integrate into the new culture. It may surprise you when the child who was most excited to move is also the one who has the hardest time after you arrive. They may become melancholy, angry, and mildly depressed shortly after you reach your destination and they may not engage in the new culture as much as you would have anticipated they would. It may take weeks or months before they begin to settle in, and that time can be stressful for parents who are hoping that their children will adjust quickly.
Poor performance in the new school. Starting in a new school in a new country is challenging in and of itself, but it is especially so for a post-griever. School is an easy place for them to "see" what they have left behind. They no longer have friends to sit with at lunch, rapport with the teachers, even a familiar grading system. If they are homeschooling and were attending school at home, they may miss the social aspect of going to school. No matter the type of school they are a part of, they may be unable to concentrate well and may not want to engage socially or academically. This could result in poor grades, unsatisfactory teacher’s reports, refusal to do homework, etc. If you notice this becoming an issue for your child, address it with them and remind them of your expectations, but be sure you also acknowledge the underlying cause: grief.
Bad behavior. Children don’t understand that they are grieving and they don’t know how to channel the uncomfortable feelings they are experiencing. This often results in anger about the situation and this often manifests in bad behavior. Post-grieving children may be surprised that they are feeling the way that they are because they were so excited about the move. I have heard from many parents, “My child has always been such a well behaved, respectful kid but all of the sudden he is acting out! I don’t know what’s gotten into him!” I answer, “Grief. Grief has gotten into him.” While grief explains the poor behavior, grief does not justify poor behavior. However, the way that you deal with the poor behavior may be different than how you would under “normal” circumstances.
Things you can do:
Help them leave well. Post-grievers may have a tendency to skip over the goodbyes because they are focused on getting to the new place, so it is important that you make it a point to help them walk through the steps of saying good "goodbyes". The concept of RAFT is helpful for this. Here is a simple explanation:
R= Reconciliation. Or, Say Sorry. Ensure that you and your TCKs are reconciled with people before you leave. Don’t let leaving be an excuse to not make amends with people you’ve hurt or been hurt by.
A= Affirmation. Tell the people who you love that you love them. Help your children write Thank You Cards or draw pictures for their friends and family. Perhaps make a list together as a family of all of the people whom you want to say, “thank you” or “I love you” to before you leave and then include your children when you do so.
F= Farewell. Say goodbye, not only to people, but to places and things as well. Encourage your child to continue to engage with their friends, favorite places, and favorite things up until it is time to leave. Encourage them to fully engage in saying goodbye. When it is time to leave, take a final trip to their favorite park, schedule final play dates, say goodbye. It is critical to the grieving process that children know that it is the final play date, trip to the park, night sleeping in their bed, etc. and are able to say goodbye.
T= Think Destination. Talk with your kids about the place where you will be moving. What do you know about it? What might be different from where you are living now? What is the plan when you first arrive? Perhaps watch YouTube videos or look at pictures of where you will be living.
Help them arrive well. Leaving well is important, but arriving well is even more essential for the post-grieving child. When you arrive, encourage them to engage in the new place, but don’t push them. Explore, try new foods, do fun family activities, meet people, etc. but also give them space to grieve. Realize that they are processing their new reality and need time and space to do so. Lead by example. Instead of pushing them to get involved, make new friends, learn the language, etc., start to do so yourself and invite your child along. Give them opportunities to engage, but don’t force them to. When they are ready, they will begin to integrate, but they can’t do so well without first grieving all that they have just lost.
Address bad behavior. Remember that the poor behavior stems from something much deeper. Reprimanding the child’s poor behavior without addressing the grief behind it is ineffective and will create a rift between you and your child. Be clear with your child that your family’s rules do not change and that they will be punished for bad behavior. Many parents who are moving their family overseas feel guilty for their child’s grief and thus extend extra grace for poor behavior during that time. This is not an effective way to handle your child’s grief and poor behavior. Children are constantly learning boundaries and it is important that as your family goes through this transition, those boundaries don’t change. While it seems counter intuitive, reinforcing the “family rules” will help your child to feel more comfortable during the transition because they know what is expected of them and know that those boundaries are one thing that is not changing.
Talk about your grief. Children need an example of how to deal with complex feelings like grief in a healthy way. Let them see you grieve. Talk about how much you are missing people, places, and things. Tell them that you feel yucky inside too sometimes when you think about all that you've left behind. If you are having a hard time integrating into the new place, making friends, etc., tell them. This will encourage your children to share their grief with you instead of feeling like they have to hide it because they think you won’t understand.
Be patient. If you have a post-grieving child, it can be very easy to become frustrated. You may have expected them to engage and integrate quickly because of their excitement before you left and that makes it even more challenging when they suddenly change tunes upon arrival. Remember that a key goal in raising TCKs is teaching them to grieve effectively from a young age. This is the perfect scenario to begin that training, so be patient, give them space, give them time, and let them grieve.
If your child seems to be struggling after arriving overseas, take heart. You likely have a post-griever and this is the natural and healthy process they need to go through in order to fully embrace the new place. This season of grief will not end abruptly, but instead will dissipate over time and before you know it, they will be ready to fully engage in their new life.