by Lauren Wells
Back when COVID first began to wreak havoc on the lives of expat families with whom I work, I put together a spontaneous video series. I had talked through the same points, concepts, and answered the same questions with many families in those early weeks of quarantine and decided it would be easier for them and myself if I could record those responses. I figured I would send them to those families and put it on my website (TCKTraining.com) in case it might benefit others as well.
I created the Power Points, asked my husband to take our girls out on a drive for an hour (because there weren’t many other options during quarantine), and quickly recorded the series. Oh, and this was the day after we moved across the country so what you can’t see is that I am surrounded by boxes and the wall behind me is the only sliver of blank wall space in the tiny apartment we spent those first few weeks in. All that to say, it was much to my surprise (and honestly, horror because I’m a perfectionist and they are far from perfect) that the videos that I threw together quickly grew to over 1,000 views. It clearly hit a felt need.
Though it has been nearly seven months since that time, the effects of COVID on expat families are far from over. I pray that these thoughts, practical ideas, and reflection questions allow you to proactively care for your family in the midst of this season.
When Leaving Well Didn’t Happen…RAFT (Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewell, and Think Destination) is still important.
Reconciliation with those whom you’ve abruptly left is critical. This is especially true for TCKs who learn early on that they can use a move to excuse making amends with people. If the answer to any of these questions below is “yes,” it is important to do the hard work of reconciling.
- Are there people who you or your TCKs were not on good terms with when you left?
- Is there someone who was upset about how your leaving happened?
- Is there anyone that you or your TCKs were relieved to leave because that seems a good excuse to not resolve an issue?
Affirmation is still important. You may have left without the time to tell the people who you love that you love them. Don’t let that keep you from doing so.
- Write a list as a family of all the people you left who were significant in your life.
- Decide how you’ll affirm them. This could be a letter, pictures drawn for friends by your children, a video call, a text, etc.
Farewell needs to be said, even if you’ve already left. Because we live in a very connected world, it can be easy to skip this step because we feel we aren’t really saying “goodbye,” we’ll still “see” them on Facebook. Yet, we are saying “goodbye” to the place that they held in that season of life and that needs an intentional farewell. This can happen over a phone call, in a video message, in a letter, etc. It is particularly important that your children have a chance to do this with their friends. TCKs get into the habit of cutting off relationships without saying, “goodbye” so it is important to show them the importance of an intentional farewell.
- Who did you not say a proper “goodbye” to?
- Who did your TCKs not say “goodbye” to?
- How will you arrange that in the coming days?
Think Destination becomes think about where you are. If you are in your current location because of an evacuation, you likely didn’t spend time planning for your arrival and all of the things you wanted to do upon arrival (and if you did, that was likely all canceled anyway). As difficult as it may be, one of the things that I have seen be the most helpful in this season is gratitude.
- What are 5 things that you like about the place where you are?
- What are some things that I’m grateful we’ve been able to do/experience in this place?
When Leaving Well Didn’t Happen…Meeting Emotional Needs Becomes Critical
Prioritize family health and relationships. It can be easy to put these needs on the back burner during transition, but that is exactly when prioritizing them is most necessary.
- What do your children need from you as parents in this season?
- What are the emotional needs of each family member and how can you work as a family to meet them? Some examples could be stability, playfulness, nurturing, quality time, introverted time.
When Leaving Well Didn’t Happen…Assume a Block has been Added to the Grief Tower
The Grief Tower is my method of explaining the concept of TCK grief. Each time something grief-inducing occurs, it stacks like a block on the grief tower. When those blocks go unprocessed and unresolved they remain on the tower. In early adulthood, TCKs with a high-stacked grief tower are susceptible to it toppling over and wreaking havoc. If your family has been negatively impacted by COVID – an evacuation, a difficult quarantine period, an abrupt end to school, etc. you can assume that your child has added a block to their Grief Tower. If not intentionally unstacked, it will remain there.
So, how do you unstack it?
1. Talk Through the Emotions
Pull out an emotions chart (you can download one for free at tcktraining.com/worksheets) and talk through times in the past year each of you have felt that emotion. Parents, you need to give honest answers to be a model for your kids.
2. Begin Family Check-Ins
Each day, ask, “What was the best part of your day?” and “What was the hardest part of your day?” My kids like to ask everyone to point to the emotion face that they felt today on the emotions chart, so you might consider doing that too! This seems like a simple process, but especially during stressful seasons, these regular and expected check-ins become a built-in family debrief. When you have conversations about the challenging, worrying, difficult, parts of the day, it keeps those moments from being stored and unprocessed in the brain which can lead to them becoming a “block” on the Grief Tower. Ask questions like, “What made that so hard?” “What do you wish would have happened differently?” “What do you hope tomorrow looks like?”
3. Process the blocks
Processing the blocks on the Grief Tower can happen in a number of different ways. Here are ideas for various ages:
For toddlers and young children, tell them their story. You can either talk about them personally or create a character that is like them and tell a story that parallels theirs. Pause routinely to ask “How did he/she/you feel?” Storying allows them to process their emotions by putting themselves back in that time and place. If they don’t want to talk about how they themselves feel, using the narration of character can help them to open up.
Example, “There was a little boy who lived in Indonesia. He loved living there and played outside with his friends everyday. One day, his parents found out that they were going to have to go back to America and only had five days to say goodbye. They told the boy that they needed to start packing their things quickly. How did that boy feel when he was packing his things? Then, they flew to America and had to stay inside the house for TWO WEEKS! How did he feel being stuck inside? They thought they would go back to Indonesia in just a couple of months, but now it has been seven months and they are STILL in America. How is that little boy feeling right now?
For ages 5 and up, use art processing. You can create your own ideas, but here are a few to get you started.
- Paint a picture of how your insides feel right now
- Sculpt something with play-dough that you are excited about and something that you are nervous or worried about
- Perform a skit with your siblings about something difficult that has happened in the past year
- Draw a picture of a fun/happy thing from the last week and a picture of something that was hard/sad for you this past week
For teenagers, give the gift of a Safe Space. Create a safe space for your teen to process with autonomy by giving them something specifically for the purpose of processing their grief. You might consider doing this for the adults in the family as well! Along with the gift explain, “We’ve been through so much in the past year and we are learning how important it is to process through it instead of pushing it down and moving forward. We know you like ____, so we’ve gotten this for you specifically for you to use while you think through and process the last year. We are here if you’d like to process out loud at any point.”
Safe Space Gift Ideas:
- New art supplies for the one who processes through creativity
- A cookbook for the one who cooks when under stress
- A nice journal for the one who processes through writing
- New running shoes for the one who goes for a run to process
- A cozy blanket for the tactile one who need comfort to process
- A set of legos or model airplane kit for the one who needs to process while building
- Seeds and gardening tools for the one who needs to get their hands dirty while they process
This season has been a difficult one for everyone, but particularly for expat families. For many, leaving well didn’t happen. Leaving happened abruptly, spontaneously, and with little chance for intentionally transitioning well. Instead of moving on past this time without processing it, I pray that you will use this time and these tools to help your TCKs work through the grief of this season. Doing so can prevent unresolved grief and the consequences that result and can lead to learning to process emotion in healthy ways for everyone in your family.
*The Grief Tower and Safe Space Gifts are trademarked concepts of TCK Training
To learn more about caring preventively for your TCKs, consider attending an upcoming TCK Training workshop.
Lauren Wells is the Founder and Director of TCK Training and author of Raising Up a Generation of Healthy Third Culture Kids. She specializes in practical, proactive care for TCKs and their families and has trained TCK caregivers from over 50 organizations. Lauren grew up in Tanzania, East Africa, where she developed a love for smokey chai and Mandazis (African doughnuts). She now lives in South Carolina with her husband and two children.