Back to school – talking about grief

Lately I’ve spent a lot of in time school. I was a relief teacher (substitute/supply – depending on your dialect of English!) at the nearby Christian international school. The art teacher had to go out of town suddenly, so I covered her classes for four days. There were school trips happening so there were fewer students than normal. I know most of the students in the school so it’s always a comfortable place to be. I enjoyed seeing what they were up to and was hopefully a little helpful along the way as well. Their art teacher is the best I’ve seen – I’m amazed at the way she draws talent out of her students and engages them in the creative process. I wish I’d had an art teacher like her!

I also had an opportunity to speak to a group of students at another international school. Several friends teach there but I’d never been before. Most students are Chinese or Korean, plus a smattering of students from other places, including the US, Africa, Central Asia, and the South Pacific. The small class I visited had students from China, Korea, Thailand and Eastern Europe.

I was invited in by the health teacher. Normally all her classes cover the same material, but for this week she had allowed each class to choose between several optional subjects, such as first aid, bullying/violence, and basic psychology. One class chose a unit on death/grief, and the teacher wanted to find a guest speaker with experience counselling teens. Somehow I got the job!

I don’t feel that I am in any way an expert on death, but I’ve had a lot of experience walking with TCKs through grief experiences. Loss is a constant, an ongoing part of international life. (TCK stands for Third Culture Kid – children who spend a large part of their growing-up years outside their passport country).

I went over the 5 stages of grief with them – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. They’d covered these briefly, but I went into greater depth with them. We talked about what these stages might look like, and some words/phrases/attitudes often linked with each stage. We talked about how grief is different when we are far away from the people we are grieving for. We talked about the many other losses we grieve, especially those connected with international living – moving away, friends moving away from us, physical or emotional distance between us and our relatives, etc.

I talked about physical pain – that it has a purpose. Pain tells us there is an injury that needs to be dealt with. The inability to feel pain is actually an illness, and creates a lot of problems. Pain is useful. In a similar fashion, grief is related to loss. Grief is a sign that loss has occurred, and if a loss occurs without being grieved, there is a problem. Each loss is like a physical cut – it needs to be cleaned, possibly stitched, bound up, and given time to heal. The grieving process is analagous to the healing process of a physical cut. The final stage – acceptance – is like the time at which a wound become a scar. It is still there, a part of my story, but no longer causes me pain.

We talked about “outlawed grief” something a new friend eloquently talked through with the TCKs at January’s EPIC Conference in Cambodia. This is when we feel we are not allowed to, or not supposed to, grieve a particular loss. This often happens when kids hear lots of positive things about something they are experiencing – usually an attempt by adults in their lives to cheer them up, to help them see the positives. Unfortunately, this can leave kids feeling that they are not supposed to feel sad about the changes happening around them; many then learn to put on a happy face and stuff their unresolved grief deep down inside. Like a physical cut, however, these wounds still need to be cleaned and bound – or infection can poison the whole body. In the same way, an unresolved grief can poison a person’s heart for years.

With my Grandpa at my 21st birthday party. Just a note - I'm wearing heels here. Grandpa was super tall!

With my Grandpa at my 21st birthday party. Just a note – I’m wearing heels here. Grandpa was super tall!

I shared several personal stories with them. I talked about the deaths of my two paternal grandparents, and the big differences in these grief experiences. When my grandmother died I was still living in Australia, and I spent several days in her hometown with my family for the funeral. When my grandfather died I was living alone in China, and I didn’t go home for the funeral. My grandparents were wonderful people, lived very full lives, and were well-loved. While I was obviously sad to lose them, to no longer have them as part of my life, to lose the opportunity to know them better as an adult, neither loss was particularly traumatic. The importance of telling the stories was, rather, the difference in the grief experience and grieving process in each case – especially when most of the kids I was talking with live far away from their families.

I also talked about my 4-day trip to Canada in 2008. Several months before the trip I had a sort of emotional hissy fit in which I decided I was uninterested in meeting new people and making new friends. In the preceding 12 months a huge percentage of my good friends left China permanently – and I didn’t do a good job of grieving that loss. I got stuck somewhere in the grief process – until I went to Canada. I was there for the wedding of two friends who had left China, and many other friends who used to live in China went to the wedding as well. I felt fragile the whole time, and cried nearly every day (very unusual for me!) But by the time I got back to China I was ready to start investing in new friendships – in fact, I was adamant about the need to do so. Looking back I realised that those days in Canada gave me a chance to finish the grieving what I had lost, and move to a place of acceptance (healing).

Beijing people together in Canada

Lots of Beijing people reunited in Canada

The reason I chose to share all of this with you is that it helps illustrate the importance of the work I do with TCKs. Everyone experiences loss, and grief, no matter their situation or location. TCKs, however, experience far more losses than average kids growing up in their home countries. Not only that, but each grief is compounded by distance. As the years go by, the accumulated weight of griefs, both mourned and buried, can wreak havoc on a young life. The coping strategies TCKs come up with to deal with constant loss and the grief that goes along with it can also make great difficulties in their adult lives.

International life comes with incredible opportunities and TCKs have so much potential to change the world. Loss and grief, badly handled, are the biggest handicaps I see to their future life and growth. Helping them process their transient and loss-filled lives while they are in the middle of it all has, I believe, a big influence on who they will grow to be – and how happy they will be.

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