Learning to Grieve Well

by Marilyn on February 7, 2014

We all enter the kingdom limping

A post on A Life Overseas by guest blogger Jonathan Trotter on grief had many of us in tears, others pondering grief in all its complexity.

The late Dave Pollock, a man who arguably did more to understand the third culture kid experience than any other before his death, echoes some of Jonathan’s words when he says 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. 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? And if parents are to provide a “framework of support and careful understanding”, how do we as parents learn to grieve well?

It helps to read books like the classic CS Lewis, Grief ObservedBut part of grieving 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, full of what it looks like to not grieve well. The goodbyes have added up, the grief sometimes squished down.

But through the journey I think I’m learning more of what it means to grieve well.

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.  I loved my home. I loved my friends. I loved my church. I loved. 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 rarely nicely organized. Grief doesn’t fit into nice categories or pockets. And those that try to put it there often 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 individual. It has been said that grief has no ‘normal’. 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 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 ache, 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. Grief can assault our faith, making us question everything that felt solid. So know this: God doesn’t waste pain. Never. Even as I type this I cringe at the cliché that screams from this page. But I’ll stand by it – We all enter the kingdom limping and he doesn’t waste pain. He doesn’t waste grief. Period. Full stop. 

Grief is loud in its shout and sometimes it’s hard to hear God’s whisper of comfort but I’ve experienced it in a small town in South East Asia and in a thriving metropolis in the Middle East; on a lonely bus ride or curled up on a couch. He is as present at six as he will be at sixty. and he never, ever gives up on us – even when we give up on ourselves.in a 

The Grief-Loss road is long and can be lonely. How do you grieve well? What truths have you learned about grief? Please do share – we need each other on this well-traveled path. 

*a different version of this post first appeared on Communicating Across Boundaries.

Marilyn Gardner loves God, her family, and her passport and can be found

blogging at Communicating Across Boundaries.


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About Marilyn

An adult third culture kid, Marilyn grew up in Pakistan and then raised her own 5 third culture kids in Pakistan and Egypt. She currently lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts 15 minutes from the international terminal. She works with underserved, minority communities as a public health nurse and flies to the Middle East & Pakistan as often as possible.
  • Elizabeth Trotter

    “Grief reminds me how much I loved.” “Laughter in the midst of grief is okay.” “Spiritual truths we believed when we weren’t grieving are still true.” Wow. This list is amazing. It’s hard to choose just one that speaks the loudest to my heart. . . Thank you so much for writing this.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Thanks so much Elizabeth– the laughter in the midst of grief was a huge step for me and it took one of my best friends to both recognize it as well as give me permission, letting me know it was not being disloyal. Loved your husband’s post and have been thinking about it since he wrote it.

  • Tim

    The day after I graduated from high school, my family drove from the mission base to Bogotá, and that night I wept quietly in bed, realizing that things would never be the same again. I would be moving to Kansas for college and would not live on the base again. My girlfriend and I would no longer be an item, since it was clear to both of us that we weren’t meant for each other. She would go to Dallas for college, and my best friend Murray would be in Canada. I would only see my parents every year or two instead of every vacation.
    It was very unusual for me to weep, but I’m glad I did on that occasion. It eased my transition to US life because I didn’t carry as much baggage with me.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      How well I remember my leaving Pakistan as well Tim. As often happens during those times that are so emotional, but everyone is processing them differently, I had a massive fight with my parents. So silly but there you have it. And I was leaving my boyfriend as well — the world as I knew it would never be the same. And I don’t know about you, but we all thought the US was much smaller. We assumed that we would see each other far more than we did. I’m grateful for memories like these that teach me life continues and grieving these losses critical to learning to live well where we don’t belong.

  • Richelle Wright

    Living in the moment is not a luxury – at least not for me – when I’m grieving. Otherwise I won’t allow myself the liberty of laughing nor the treasure of tears. And sometimes that means giving my introverted self space because there are very few people with whom I’ll share that side of me… or finding a way to be with those few people, even if means rearranging life some. I also try and find opportunities to serve others – be it cleaning the house for a grandparent, babysitting for a sis-in-law, because that also gives me moments of distraction when I’m not thinking about me or my grief but about others.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I am so glad you brought up serving– that is a huge piece in grieving well and I too often overlook it. Having immigrants and refugees as friends can be a great antidote to my grieving becoming to me-focused and get me out of my tendency to over analyze.

  • Linda Watt

    I have learned over the years to grieve well! When my father died when I was 12 I had no one to talk to and share my grief. When I became a social worker I vowed to grieve well. Over the years I have had to relearn the art of grieving well. I find it is harder on the mission field to do that, because you are in perpetual grief. I have found though that when I hit the wall I have to push through the pain and embrace it! It is so worth it in the end. Sometimes I find it is particularly hard when several good friends leave one after another. This year I felt particularly alone with most of my close friends who had left in the last three years! But it has given me a chance to lean on the only one who is able to always be there!

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Linda– this reminds me of that wonderful social work mantra: Lean into your discomfort. I appreciate you talking about having to relearn how to grieve. I’ve found that myself as well. Our last move almost did me in–I found I had to relearn all those things I thought I knew. Thank you for this reminder.

    • Pam

      This was very insightful! I’m still learning to grieve well and I do agree with the perpetual grief, I had never thought of it that way. I’m currently having a hard time since my best friend just left…learning to give grace to those who try to encourage me but don’t fully understand, and as you said, leaning on the only One!

      • Linda Watt

        I am looking at leaving my country of service in 2015. As I think ahead to what that will be like I have also had to look back at what I have already lost in terms of friendships–I have felt lost for the past three years in terms of close friends–One left in 2011 and one the year later. I was very close to them and then two more left after that. Perpetual grief! but I didn’t really grieve their leaving at the time. You say good-bye so often on the mission field! But recently I realized how much I missed my friends and that I no longer had close friends–sure I have friends but no one I can confide in, no one to share with, etc. I realized my close friends had left and i had not invested in other relationships to that level of intimacy. I have grieved the loss of those dear friends! And it has caused me to lean even more on the Only One who is always there!

  • Jen

    I have left a lot of places as a TCK and also as an adult international worker. It’s never easy. I have learned to say good-bye before I leave, not just to people but to places as well. When I was a child, I used to write good-bye letters to the beach in the sand. I always walk through all the rooms in the houses where I have lived and silently say good-bye. I go to my favorite cafes, parks, running routes, and quiet outdoor spaces to have ‘lasts’ and mentally and intentionally say good-bye. Sometimes I journal in those places, sometimes I quietly remember what they have meant to me during the time I spent there. I need this kind of closure in order to grieve well, before I move on to the next place, the next relationships, and the next new memories. When I’m feeling homesick or feeling out of sorts in a new place, I allow myself some quiet space to cry. A good cry every now and then usually helps the grieving process as well.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      I’m so glad you brought up the importance of crying. That is critical to grieving well. Your description of what you do as you say goodbye to places you love brings me to many of my own goodbyes and grieving places. Thanks for this great visual picture of what you do. It is helpful.

  • Liz

    Loving reading this today. I’m a year and a half into living in Haiti and am in a season of strong grief… I keep telling my husband that it feels like somebody died. There’s the continual grief of leaving home and family, but recently also the grief that this missional life will never look like what I had hoped it might… this new reality we are living in is different than what our expectations had been and there is grief involved in letting go of a dream. I’m also a TCK and thought I had been well acquainted with the various kinds of transitional grief, but this is a new one.

    • Marilyn Gardner

      Yes! I feel like I’ve been in that place. That was so much of what Egypt was about for me the first year. On the one hand, loving that I was in a place where I could hear the Call to Prayer daily again, on the other, giving up what I thought my life would/should be. Is it harder for TCK’s? I don’t know but it sure felt different than what friends of mine at the same age and stage were going through. There are points when I grow so weary of this grief/loss process and have to go in faith that indeed, this will not be wasted. I’m so glad you came by and thinking of you today in this transitional grief.

  • Pingback: Grief Quotes During Holy Week | Communicating.Across.Boundaries

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