8 Ways to Help TCKs Grieve

by Rachel Allord

I pressed my hand against my thirteen-year-old’s closed bedroom door and prayed. For the moment, this child wanted nothing to do with me or her dad. Who could blame her? A month ago, we had plucked her from our small midwestern life and, mere days ago, dropped her into a culturally foreign school in the middle of the term.

Later that evening, my husband and I called our other child, the son we’d left behind. The son who had chosen to stay in the States to begin his freshman year in college. A wise, even anticipated decision that broke us all, nonetheless. His first semester was proving to be ripe with challenge, and we were limited in what we could do from across the ocean.

The hurt in his voice and the anger of the child upstairs tempted me to call it quits on this crazy overseas missionary attempt and jump on the next plane home. Apologize to our supporters for all the fuss we’d caused. Reclaim the house we’d sold. Retrieve the dog we’d rehomed. Restore our hurting kids to their old, comfortable non-grief-stricken life.

I wasn’t prepared for the grief. Not really. Even though I had been prepared. The topic surfaced frequently during pre-field training. “The best thing you can do for your kids is to help them grieve well,” a seasoned missionary once advised.

What does that even mean? I wondered at the time, most likely in self-preservation mode, aka denial. Her words ruffled me. I didn’t want to consider what it meant to help my kids grieve because I didn’t want them to grieve. Sadness, culture shock, even loss. These I expected. But grief? That sounded serious. Therapy inducing. Grief felt like an enormous sack of rocks, the last thing a loving parent would ever want to hand their kid.

Grief is part of the life overseas deal. Ours, our kids’, and the loved ones we leave behind. Layers and levels and loads of grief. That doesn’t mean the journey isn’t laced with joy, adventure, and wonderful pinch me I must be dreaming experiences. Our family has experienced a photobook full of those moments too.

But when I look back over these past eight years of preparing for, settling into, and serving on the overseas mission field, the emotion that sticks out above the rest is grief. Sharp and throbbing in the early months, mellowing as time carries on. It underscores holidays and birthdays, intermittently, sometimes unexpectedly, leaves its thumbprint on days and years, and although it becomes manageable the more time passes, it’s never too far away. Grief becomes routine, accepted, like a familiar neighbor who quietly slips in and joins you round the table uninvited.

God promised this life would bring trouble and grief. Grief has its place and purpose and has the power to wield ample fruit. Still, we naturally, rightly, yearn to keep it far from our children, even though we know sorrow will befall them at some point, protected or not.

My husband and I got a few things right in the grief department and a whole lot wrong. If God were handing out do-overs, I’d be the first to raise my hand. Yet his grace runs sure and constant, even over our parenting flails and failings. He grants wisdom when we ask and renews our thinking. Here are some things parents can do to help kids, especially tweens and teens, handle grief well.

  1. Anticipate it. TCKs experience ‘death to self’ multiple times over in a thousand and one changes, some tiny, some hefty, all of them categorically a loss. Ironically, these losses add up to one heaping portion of grief. Our kids should grieve; it’s healthy and right, even biblical. Planning for grief (pencil it in your planner if need be) prepares us to accept its presence and manage those not-so-lovely words, tantrums, and silences that invariably tag along.
  2. Resist the urge to fix. That’s what we ache to do, right? Make our kids feel better. But rushing to solutions, Bible verses, and even prayer may inadvertently communicate that there’s something wrong with grief. That it needs to stop or be hushed up, which isn’t true. God wants to take our pain, sorrow, and anxiety. We can welcome our child’s. Let them feel and express whatever they’re feeling. This doesn’t mean we relinquish all parental control and give them carte blanche to act out however they want, but it does mean we may need to soften the boundary edges for a time. Overlook offenses. Err on the side of grace and beg God for a fresh supply.
  3. Widen our eyes and increase our prayers. Typically, the bigger the kid, the greater the grief. Parents of tweens and teens should keep a calm, steady eye out for signs of self-harm, depression, or anxiety that warrants intervention. Have the contact info of a good counselor in your back pocket. Assemble a team of prayer warriors before you leave the country. As much as your kid lets you, overcommunicate. Listen, listen, listen to them. Pray alone and, when they welcome it, pray with them about what you see, hear, and sense is going on in their heart.
  4. Don’t sermonize. Our desire to instill a love for God’s word sometimes drives us to spout scripture verses and biblical insight, even if the timing is all wrong. Rarely do parental sermons provide salve to a suffering soul, at least not when the wounds are raw. Like Jesus, who counts our children’s tears as precious, we want to come alongside those who suffer. Turning to the truth and comfort of the Bible is the right thing to do, eventually, but not when our kids simply need to weep. Timing is key. With the Spirit’s help and prompting, we gently, with a heart to listen more than talk, ask God to speak through His, and our, words.
  5. Curb our enthusiasm. My husband will be the first to admit he had moved to London in his heart and head long before the rest of us had warmed to the idea. While his excitement fueled our years of support raising, our kids, who had little say in the ways our decisions were disrupting their lives, didn’t appreciate it. Months before leaving for the field, one mentor challenged us to “not talk about the London thing” for the entirety of our family vacation, unless the kids brought it up. They needed a break. Turns out, we did too. Our eagerness to get to the field can’t and shouldn’t overshadow our children’s grief. They need to grieve. Encouraging them to do so may look like us capping our zeal.
  6. Yield when we can. Kids don’t often get a vote. Letting them have a voice in some of the process may help soften the blow. Let them pack whatever old ratty thing they want to pack. Ask them what new thing they’d like to get for their room or the house after the move. Consider tweaking the timing of transitions to best align with their schooling or social events. We may be the ones handling the reins, but we can let them drive the cart from time to time.
  7. Put on humility. We may be our kids’ parent, but we’re primarily God’s child. We don’t have all the answers. We’re not privy to the full plan no matter how strongly we feel called. And although we’re equipped with years of life experience, we don’t know exactly how our kid is feeling. There’s a certain comfort in knowing mom and dad are in charge, but we’re called to lead as a shepherds and servants, with humility, recognizing and expressing our dependence on our Father who is reshaping us as parents and as His child.
  8. Embrace joy. Even amid grief, there is good to be found. Living overseas provides our kids with unique privileges, rich experiences, and opportunities to activate their faith. Grieving kids can experience fun and laughter and sometimes the smallest of things spark joy. Go with it. Embark on the ice cream run. Discover new haunts. Watch that familiar, goofball movie. Let grief and joy bleed together and expect your kids to yo-yo between the two.

When our children grieve, we grieve. In times of upheaval, they need heaps of grace — and so do we. Thankfully God offers a never-ending supply and, in His time, in His way, longs to restore the broken hearts of our children even more than we do.

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Rachel Allord is the author of The Girl on the Tube, a YA novel that follows the humorous and heartbreaking journey of an expat tween. Rachel lives and writes in London UK where she and her husband serve as missionaries with ReachGlobal. Connect with her at rachelallord.com.

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A Life Overseas is a collective blog centered around the realities, ethics, spiritual struggles, and strategies of living overseas. Elizabeth Trotter is the editor-in-chief.

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