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

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

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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:

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