What does it feel like for children to stay when wave after wave of friends and teachers move away? We recently asked adult Third Culture Kids what it felt like when they were growing up. Their answers?
Numb. Precarious. Hollow. Heart-ripped. Exhausted.
There is no question that it can be difficult to stay, and yet, as an internationally mobile community, we pay much more attention to those who are leaving or just arriving. Those two groups are important to support, but are we neglecting to support the “stayers?” The “stayers” are the families who host goodbye party after goodbye party, bring out the welcome wagon again and again, endure what can feel like a revolving door of friendships. Stayers may feel that there is no appropriate time or place for feeling sad or for grieving loss.
What these stayers are experiencing is a phenomenon Dr. Kenneth J. Doka named disenfranchised grief. People experience disenfranchised grief when society does not acknowledge their “need, right, role, or capacity to grieve” (Doka, 1989). In this context, stayers are grieving the loss of friends and loved ones due to their having moved away. It may be difficult for stayers to find support. Feeling sad, and speaking out about this pain, may seem inappropriate or selfish. Internationally mobile children and teenagers often experience this phenomenon more acutely because we emphasize their resilience and adaptability at the expense of their grieving processes.
So what can we do to support our stayers?
Acknowledge and celebrate them: Whether you are staying around or leaving town, take a moment to tell the stayers in your life that you appreciate them. Ask them how they are feeling about their friends’ upcoming moves and then simply listen to them and offer your understanding and support. Create rituals, throw parties, write thank you notes, stay in contact, send care packages to those you have left behind or to friends who are about to say goodbye to another group of loved ones moving on.
Don’t minimize: Never minimize a stayer’s feelings. We all experience and express loss differently and there is no right way to do so. One of the worst things you can do is dismiss or deny someone’s feelings of grief.
Be aware at the beginning of school: Children may say goodbye to friends at the end of the school year, but often the reality sets in when school starts and their friend is no longer there in the classroom. Try to prepare your child for that experience and be sensitive to this transition.
Address social isolation: Occasionally, children who have had to say multiple goodbyes may protect themselves from the associated pain by isolating themselves from others. Withdrawing for a brief time is normal but if this behavior lasts longer than a couple of weeks, parents should seek the help of a counselor trained on working with children affected by mobility. To avoid this isolation, keep children active in the community and address feelings of emotional exhaustion, defensiveness and hesitation in making new friends.
For more information on supporting internationally mobile children, see our resources page and look for upcoming events on these topics.