I realize it’s only September, and the majority of people out there might think October is the fitting time for a post about ghosts. But for the TCK crowd, this time of year is often when the ghosts do their haunting.
You see, it’s the beginning of the school year. Most TCKs have returned from their summer excursions to connect with family and far-away friends and are back on their “home” turf. They are returning to the familiar hallways and classrooms that make up their schools and to the paths, and sometimes cobble-stoned roads, that make up their cities. But a fairly significant number of their friends, familiar faces and, let’s face it, comfort zones, are no longer there.
My husband really summed up for me one year, the feeling that people staying on, in a very transient community, can repeatedly experience. “It’s like there are ghosts all around us,” he said.
And that pretty much sums it up for a group of the Third Culture Kid experience who are less talked about in the literature and tips for moving on and forward. These “Left Behinds”, for want of a better term, suffer their own kind of loss. And they don’t have new experiences,new venues and new people to create some excitement along with the loss. They have the same familiar setting, with the very strong reality that memories of those who have moved on accompany them, like lost spirits, throughout the day.
From the cafeteria where they laughed so hard they spit sandwiches, to the lockers where they hung special birthday greeting and photos, to the gym where they hugged after a victorious game-winning shot, to those left behind, the familiar walls can be less a comfort than a constant mirror reflecting their loss.
We’re one of the few non-Austrian families that have spent a long stretch of time as members of our international school community. I’ve mentioned before, that I first recognized the ongoing theme of loss in an Austrian friend of ours who would ask at the beginning of the school year if it was our turn to move. “Is this your last year?” he would ask with some trepidation.
More recently, this has been the trend with my daughters. The last couple years saw the loss of some especially close friends, and this year, the absence of my now college-age daughter. Returning to school for my daughter left behind, means seeing that empty space around the lunch table, or walking to school alone. Such new realities, in very familiar settings, can be incredibly difficult.
One great strength of Third Culture Kids is that they learn resilience. In a society where current mental health issues of young adults can sometimes be tied to the lack of this skill and the trend toward protection, the ability to bounce back from difficulty is a plus. Third Culture Kids can often get more experience in building resilience. On the other hand, loss that is not acknowledged, and is hidden or avoided year after year, can cause emotional fall-out such as depression and anxiety.
At this time of year, I think those who live with, work closely with, and support, the unique culture known as Third Culture Kids, need to take a little extra time to think about and address our “Left Behinds”. Keep in mind that the familiar can also be a type of pain for them. Allow TCKs the time and opportunity to talk about and acknowledge their loss before trying to move them ahead toward meeting new friends and enjoying activities.
It might be helpful to encourage “Left Behinds” to voice their pain and loss through a means that is personal to them. Those who enjoy art might want to create a collage or drawing that reflects their feelings of loss. Writers could be encouraged to turn to their journals, write poetry, or write a letter to someone who has left. Although email is now the norm, I’ve watched my youngest daughter’s face light up when a colorful snail mail envelope lands in our mailbox. Music is a great way to work through feelings of loss. Encourage your TCKs to stick in those ear buds you may dread, listen to favorite songs shared with a person who has left, or burn twin CDs of favorite songs for missing friends and themselves. Many young people like to turn to nature or to work through their challenges through exercise or sports. Focusing in some such manner on the loss can help TKCs to feel that they have some control over it. Creating something for the missing person can also serve as a reminder that the special relationship will be remembered by those they fear may quickly forget or replace them.
Losing friends year after year is a type of grief, and as such, we need to allow TCKs who are left behind time to be sad, and to say their goodbyes. By acknowledging these losses as real, listening when our TCKs need to talk, and simply giving them a hug when words don’t help, those who are left behind will be able to move forward connected to people, instead of haunted by ghosts.