Walking Through Grief as a Third Culture Kid

Andrea Frey Metzger, MS, LPCC

Walking through Grief as a Third Culture Kid

As a TCK (third-culture kid), I learned early on how to put on a smile and pretend things were fine. In fact, that jokingly became our family motto when things were hard “I’m fine. You’re fine. Everything is fine.” The harder part of growing and acknowledging my past was realizing how to unravel the pieces that were not actually fine. It took some years to realize there was unresolved grief in my own life and to give myself permission to grieve the culture I had lost, the country I lost, the relationships lost, family lost, and pieces of myself that were left along the way.

In This Article

  1. Awareness
  2. Identification and Permission
  3. Living in the Middle

About the Author

This article is based on scientific evidence and clinical experience, written by a licensed professional and fact-checked by experts.

Andrea Frey Metzger is a Bilingual Licensed Professional Counselor specializing in Blended Family Issues and Multicultural & Third-Culture Issues. You can schedule an appointment with Lacey for online counseling or in-person at our Springfield, Missouri counseling center.

Walking Through Grief As A Third Culture Kid

At age four, my family moved to Mexico City, a city of 32 million people with so much beauty, culture, and movement. My parents were missionaries, and I spent most of my formative years in the city. If your parents were missionaries, military, diplomats, contractors, etc., that makes you a third-culture kid or adult third-culture kid.

As a TCK (third-culture kid), I learned early on how to put on a smile and pretend things were fine. In fact, that jokingly became our family motto when things were hard “I’m fine. You’re fine. Everything is fine.” The harder part of growing and acknowledging my past was realizing how to unravel the pieces that were not actually fine. It took some years to realize there was unresolved grief in my own life and to give myself permission to grieve the culture I had lost, the country I lost, the relationships lost, family lost, and pieces of myself that were left along the way.

I can vividly remember reading Octavio Paz’s Labyrinth of Solitude on the plane ride home to Mexico City during college. I had been back in the States for a few months, and they had felt heavy. Though outwardly I was smiling, had friends, a job and was attending classes, inwardly I was confused, sad and felt incredibly alone. I seldom went to the cafeteria for dinner on campus and instead opted to go to my room and sleep for a few hours by myself. My older brother had paved the way in this school, and he was my anchor during that semester, checking up on me and knocking on my window to make sure I was OK.

As I read Paz’s words about Mexico during that plane ride, tears streamed down my face. He said, “Feeling alone isn’t feeling inferior, just different. The feeling of loneliness is not an illusion.”  His words penetrated my heart. I had felt so lonely during the months leading up to my break to go home. I was so homesick and desperate for home, and yet because of my birth certificate I would never fully be Mexican. There was something tragic about that. I wanted to be known as Mexican, but as a white-skinned, green-eyed güerita I never fully fit the mold. At the same time, I never fully fit the mold of a U.S. citizen. The places where I lived in the U.S. never truly felt like home. I always felt like a visitor, like an outsider but made great efforts to look like I had it all together all the time.

How do you grieve an identity you don’t fully have? How do you grieve a home that is not fully your own? You learn to. As TCKs, there is no handbook for this. No one tells you how much it will hurt when you leave your family or how much relief there will be to get back on a plane to your “foreign country” that is more your own than any you have ever known. What do you do with the feeling that you never truly belong to either place? Quite simply, you allow yourself to feel the depth of that confusion.

Giving yourself permission to grieve the losses, to shed tears during the end of a season of life allows you to fully inhabit those moments and to be more present to your current season of life as well.

Awareness

Whether you are 18 or 98, it’s important to be able to bring awareness to the areas in our lives that beg for attention. As a TCK, you may not have ever been able to take the mask off and be truly vulnerable. Constant change and the need to evolve depending on the environment all while maintaining a positive front may have been adaptive during a time, but eventually this constant state of being “on” can take its toll. Can you identify areas in your life where you continue to maintain the mask of perfection?

Identification and Permission

As you become aware of your own history and how it has affected your life, you might notice there are parts of your story you tend to back away from. There are losses – some small and some large – you may have never even thought needed attention. It is important to identify the losses you experienced and give yourself permission to grieve those moments that defined your history. Sometimes there is a hesitancy to grieve any part of what you experienced, because to an extent it feels like a betrayal. For example, when I moved back to Mexico in high school after spending two years in the U.S. I felt conflicted. I was so happy to be back home, but I also deeply missed the friendships and relationships I had formed in the U.S. Acknowledging there is a loss during these moments does not negate the joy in the present or the good experienced in the current location.

Living in the Middle

There is something beautiful about being able to integrate our history in life, but sometimes this poses a challenge. How do I integrate my “home country” (whatever that might be for you) into my current life? How do I honor my history in a way that allows me to live fully in the present and also integrate all of the experiences that formed my worldview? These are some of the questions that you have to ask yourself as you grow and embrace your whole history.

As with any growth, there are challenges that come along. Some of these processes can become tedious if you are trying to go through them alone. Find a person or even a community who will honor your story, stand beside you as you walk through the grief and the joy of your history, and allow you to process your own story without trying to change it.

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