Ask a counselor: how do we process loss and grief?

by Kay Bruner on October 3, 2015

A couple of months ago, I put out a call on our Facebook page for new questions for the “Ask a Counselor” column, and I got a whole slew of TCK questions.  To those questions, there is pretty much one answer.

  • What’s the most common reason that adult TCKs seek counseling?
    • Unresolved loss and grief.
  • How can adult TCKs learn to say goodbye well after developing defense mechanisms as a result of so many goodbyes during their childhood/adolescent/teen years?
    • Process their loss and grief.
  • How can the adult TCK learn to develop meaningful relationships while taking the risk that the other person will leave–because so many before have moved on?
    • Process their loss and grief.
  • What is the best thing a parent of an adult TCK can do to understand and offer support for the difficulties their child(ren) experienced as a result of being a TCK?
    • Help them process their loss and grief.
  • How can parents recognize and help their TCK through depression?
    • Realize they have loss and grief; help them process it.

Ladies and gentlemen, all your questions answered in 10 words or less!  Shortest column ever!  Also, totally unhelpful at this point, I know.  Let me try to expand this into helpfulness.


Here is the one issue that every single TCK has in common:  loss.

As a TCK, you don’t get to keep your life overseas forever.  At some point, you will have to let it go and move back to your passport country.  That is an inevitable loss with inevitable grief attached to it.  No amount of wonderfulness in overseas living can stop that reality from coming.  In fact, sometimes the more wonderful your overseas life was, the more difficult it is to let it go.

I’m a counselor, so of course I think therapy is a good idea.  In my experience, therapy for these issues as a young adult can help TCK’s learn how to manage their emotional world.  In therapy, they’ll begin to recognize their own patterns, they’ll process their emotions in a safe place, they’ll figure out what resources are available, and they’ll know where to turn for support in the future.  I see therapy-seeking as a healthy recognition of the need for support around a set of difficult issues.  

Going to counseling is NOT a failure.  It’s a healthy way to take responsibility for yourself emotionally, just like going to the doctor is a healthy step to take when you’ve got strep throat.  You need help, you get it.  Simple as that.

One of the best ways to help our kids be okay with going to therapy is to MODEL that behavior for them.  Check out our Resource page, and seek help for yourself when you need it.  As you normalize being a regular person who needs help, they’ll be more likely to seek support for themselves when they need it. 

One of the things we know in the counseling world is that often clients struggle along with their problems for years before coming to therapy.  Six years is the average for marital issues!  SIX YEARS!  Don’t be those people!  Get help early and often, and your kids will be more likely to follow your lead.

But you don’t have to wait for a counselor or a group to get started on processing loss and grief.  Here are five processing exercises you can try at home for yourself, and pass along to your older TCK’s for them to try as well.

  1. Journal 20 minutes each day

This is a research-based number:  journal 20 minutes per day when you’re working on a specific issue.  I recently had an adult TCK client tell me how much the 20-minute exercise has helped.  She’s not stuffing down her emotions any more, and the 20-minute limit helps her contain the feelings so they aren’t as overwhelming.

You can journal about:

  • feelings (sad, mad, scared, glad),
  • memories,
  • places,
  • people,
  • food,
  • language,
  • culture—
  • anything at all that comes to mind.

There are many journaling prompts online.  Here are just a couple of links I like:  here and here.  Surf around and find some that suit you.

  1. Write a letter to a friend (or potential friend)

One thing I hear over and over from TCK’s is “Nobody understands me.”  And it is true, we can be weird.  But I’ve found that, with a little explanation, my non-TCK friends can understand me pretty well.  So, write a letter to a friend (or potential friend or pretend friend) explaining:

  • The nature of the loss
  • The thoughts that accompany that loss
  • The feelings that accompany that loss
  • Behaviors that we notice ourselves having, as a result of that loss (isolating, angry, sad, scared, acting out, etc.)

Ask your friend for support in a specific way:

  • “I would love to have coffee once a week.”
  • “I would like to meet at the gym for basketball on Saturdays.”
  • “Can I sit with you during lunch on Wednesdays?”
  1. Choose a theme song or Psalm

I almost always have a theme song for any particular time in life that helps express my emotions.

Many of the Psalms are songs of lament—perfect for times of grief.  Read over those laments on a daily basis, accepting that grief is an essential part of the human experience.  David felt it.  Jesus felt it.  We feel it—as individuals, and as families.  It’s right there in the Bible!  Share those laments together.

  1. Write a letter to God

Are you mad?  Are you sad?  Are you scared?  Are you grateful?   Tell God about it.  Write it down, and let Him have it.  You could make a “Letters to God” box for the family to share.

  1. Get some exercise

Take 15 or 20 minutes each day to get outdoors, wherever you are.  Sunshine is good for you.  Walking is good for you.  Let there be light.  Let there be movement.  If you can’t get outside, exercise indoors as best you can.  Studies are showing that serious exercise can be almost as effective as psychotropic medication in treating issues like anxiety.  Our emotions are chemicals in our bodies, so it only makes sense that we need to process those physical chemicals in physical ways.

A final note

I think one of the most important things to understand about grief is this:  grief keeps us connected to the thing we have lost.  And so, as TCK’s, there are times when we don’t want to stop grieving.  We don’t want to disconnect from the old thing.  We don’t want to stop being weird or depressed or obnoxious.  We don’t want to adjust to the new thing.  We just want our old life back again.  We can be pretty resistant to processing, because deep down, we really don’t want to let go.

What we really need in those times is the loving presence of another person who isn’t going anywhere, no matter how bad we feel.  

The presence of Love with us as we grieve, without demands or expectations, helps us experience that hope is present, here and now, even when we have lost so many precious places, things, and people.

Did you see this meme on grief going around on Facebook recently?  I think it pictures the TCK life of loss and grief pretty well.


So, be patient with your TCK.

  • Realize it may be a long, messy haul through the valley of grief.
  • Like other important losses, this loss may appear in different ways at different times of life.
  • Be present with your TCK as they grieve.
  • Model good processing skills.
  • Keep hanging in there.  Keep being patient and present.
  • Remember that your loving presence provides hope in the here-and-now.  That matters.  A lot.  Even–especially–when the progress through grief is slow.

The mess of loss and grief provides us with the opportunity to love our children the way God loves us:  just the way we are.

Resources to explore for TCK support:


Michele Phoenix

Families in Global Transition

Picture Credit
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About Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    Loss. I feel it is the one constant in life. I don’t think it’s relegated to global nomads, though it’s endemic in that population. I will say that all the TCK and missionary talk we’ve been exposed to over the past few years has opened my eyes to the concept of loss and what it looks like in everyday life. In meeting with friends during our time back here in the States, I now hear people’s stories differently. I now see and name losses EVERYWHERE. When people start talking about “stress,” what I start hearing is LOSS. And the thing is, I think Americans are really terrible about actually grieving loss. We just want to ignore it and “move forward.” But one of the first things to do in these “stressful” times is to name and grieve the loss, as you say. This side of heaven, there will always be more losses to grieve, so your message here will never lose its importance. Thank you for saying it.

    • The actual grieving is painful, and the letting go is painful too. We all hate pain! But I agree that American culture is especially resistant to the experience of grief. We’re a culture of frenetic cheerleaders, singing that song from The Lego Movie: “everything is awesome…” It’s a challenge to find a community where it’s acceptable to experience the sadness that we all need sometimes.

  • Marilyn Gardner

    So much wisdom in this piece. Thank you. I hadn’t seen the meme – but yeah – so perfect.

    • I want that meme in poster-size. Or maybe a tattoo. Or both.

  • Maggi

    Yet another one of your posts that I’ve put on my favorites list. Saving it for a rainy day. 😉 On my playlist for a long time now has been “If You Want Me To” and “I Am Nothing” by Ginny Owens. I like her whole “Say Amen” album, too. Especially her version of “Be Still My Soul”. Powerful, powerful lyrics in all three of these. 🙂 Look forward to seeing more people post song comments. 🙂

    • Thanks, Maggi. Those are great songs–I love “If You Want Me To.” Definitely on the playlist!

      • Maggi

        Awww… That’s special. To make your day, I mean. 🙂 “If You Want Me To” is just so fitting, word for word, for so much of what people express here. Have you heard “Dancing In The Minefields” by Andrew Peterson? If not, I think you’ll like it. Other songs I listen to in rough times are “Peace, Be Still” by Al Denson and “Hold Me Jesus” by Rich Mullins.

  • Claîre Wagner

    So well written, so well said! Thank you! I’m not a TCK, but I went to Papua New Guinea as a young 26 year old adult, single. I feel quite a few of the things my dear TCK friends feel, and I didn’t understand the many TCK’s I knew at first, years ago. Many of us returning missionaries needed a re-entry program but there wasn’t one for us until about 5 years after I had awkwardly come back to my original culture, which I hadn’t fit into for quite some time.
    I did stumble into counseling and was so helped by the discussions and the sense of normalcy in what I was going through. Another wonderful sense of community has arisen in a growing group of us on Facebook. We have many daily and at least weekly encounters and the reconnection has been hugely encouraging for all (I know because people say it) of us involved. We span a few decades of ages, but it doesn’t seem to matter with people who are cross-cultural. Have you noticed that?
    Love your insights! Thank you!

    • Claîre Wagner

      I also have analyzed my own process (simplified) somewhat like this:

      As I came to be aware that I was going to be living overseas, I noticed a pulling away within from my original culture as I began to ready myself (on various levels like mental, physical, emotional, etc.). I prepared and then left.

      I had begun to pre-embrace my new country, and then I arrived there and continued the process of assimilating to it. I expected to be there for many years. Expectations are powerful inner beacons, aren’t they?

      Things changed. My work altered. It became time for furlough (usually every 4 years) from which I would not be returning “home” (my new country) and I had to leave dear people who had become like family to me, and beloved sights and sounds and smells and activities and pets and people and culture and language and hopes…. It was a wrenching grief that tore at me. I had to farewell what God had sent me to… and that was a bigger pain than I knew what do with.

      I came back to my original country. I didn’t want to, and I did my best to remind myself of the things I would not like, and the things that I could do to help myself fit in and have some mental breaks. I did love seeing my family members again, but they were not able to assist me (how could they?) or understand why I wouldn’t be able to fit in nor why I didn’t particularly care to…. It was a rough first 2 years or so of adjustment. I wrote lots of letters to old friends and that helped. I journaled a lot and that was a good release. I missed going to people’s homes weekly and sitting and just talking and also doing simple activities that didn’t involve spending money. In the States, people weren’t in each others’ homes. There was such a distance! And, they didn’t know how to just hang out with each other and chat.

      I had wanted to move to another state with my organization and start very fresh. I didn’t do this due to realizing I needed to do some parental care. That was tough but good and I do not regret it. God was in it.
      So now, it is a couple decades later. I am still adjusting. But with technology, I find others to bond with who are similar. That helps to make my burden lighter, as well as theirs. It is good. It is not what we love, but we love each other. That is a gift straight from God.
      It makes me look all the more forward to being in Heaven with loved ones, as that will be our permanent, non-good-bye Home, and we’ll all be whole then. That will be the best culture ever!

      • It’s interesting; my kids could verbalize some of these things even at a very early age. My youngest at about age 7 told me a couple of months ahead of a move back to the US that he didn’t want to play with his friends any more, because it would hurt less when he had to leave them. And my daughter at that same age (earlier furlough) drew a picture of what she didn’t like about America. A stick figure of herself, with big tears falling, with the caption “Everybody is inside their house and there is no one for me to play with.” I do miss having the open doors of friends, for sure. There are so many good gifts, well worth our grief at their loss. And, as you say, worth the hope that all this will one day be redeemed and restored. The best homecoming is yet to be.

    • Yes, the age doesn’t matter–nor the country. One of my closest friends, in fact, is from a TCK’ish situation within the US. There is such comfort in “me too”–knowing that others understand. Thanks for reading!

  • Martha Lester

    Great post. Still learning about grief and loss/es even after all these years. Even though I am not a TCK, I am going to try some of the journal prompt ideas. On the playlist right now: “In the Valley” by Sovereign Grace; “Rock of Ages” by Sandra McCracken; “Let us Love and Sing and Wonder” by Indelible Grace.

    • Journaling is good for all of us! Thanks for the songs–and welcome back to the USA, my friend! 🙂

  • Alicia

    Thank you for this! We are repatriating after 9 years overseas and I will mark this post so that I can keep coming back. At this stage, I feel like my TCKs are being patient with me! I’m the one in the valley of grief today. The Lord is providing people to walk with us, for which I’m thankful. Many thanks for the practical processing exercises.

  • Tricia

    Gosh, I can so relate but have more questions after reading. We have been lay-leading a small church for the past couple of years, and have experienced so much grief and loss and betrayal from those we have served and loved and trusted. We even had great fruit through the tough times of handling conflict biblically and standing on the Scriptures without compromise, but how soon they forget. Meanwhile, our financial/business and family life has experienced major crisis, but we tried to consistently demonstrate our faithfulness to our brothers and sisters and to obeying God throughout. At the end of it, after doing what was right and loving time and again, we’ve got nothing but loss and grief, and gossip. I had a major faith crisis during December, doubting that God either exists or cares about any of it. I wish I could afford counseling, but I can’t. (Ironically, i just started my graduate degree in counseling, but had to quit because i cant pay for that now, either.) So I thought I would process last year’s events on paper. Then I had the bright idea to ask two couples (who I thought I could trust, thinking they trusted us), to read it and comment. I thought they would understand that I needed encouragement, since this all happened in front of them. Long story short, one of the ladies decided I needed to be confronted, in front of other people, on a separate issue, since I was open to talking. She has also been gossiping (she says it was never maliciously!) With another woman whom i have been available to support her on a moment’s notice numerous times! And then the other couple agrees with the first woman’s gossip. I’m so done, ministry sucks, I’m broken! No matter if I slice off my arm for someone else, they will inevitably forget soon enough and question my character, my motives, etc. And we are not even getting paid for this!!

    Thanks for giving me space to rant 🙂 I’m technically not overseas, though we’ve been trying for the past 5 years, we live off mainland USA in an area that in some ways resembles the third world, and I do live directly off Overseas Highway, if that counts 🙂

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