Unresolved Grief: The Hidden Burden of Expat Life
Please don’t get me wrong. I am grateful for the many good things that have come with expat family living and with being globally mobile. Within the last 16 years, my family has expatriated, repatriated, and expatriated again. During these years, we’ve been blessed to have friends from different countries and cultures, holidays in different countries, comforts and privileges in daily living. Moving across countries has made our family closer, our friendships deeper and our adventures more colorful.
Intermittently within the last few years though, beginning when my family repatriated in 2012, I’ve been feeling what was an unexplainable sadness and bewilderment. From that time, it took me about three years to finally feel settled again in the Philippines, and I wrote about my experience in a post last year entitled “My Unexpected Journey of Repatriation.”
After four years of being back in the Philippines, come mid-2016, we moved back to Singapore where we first expatriated in 2005. Many of my friends and family thought that it would be much easier this time around since we were moving to a familiar place. Sure, in some ways, it has been easy moving back to Singapore. But that sadness and bewilderment still nags at me sometimes.
In library@orchard a few months ago, I stumbled upon a book by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken entitled “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds.” I started reading it, thinking that it’s about what my children may be going through as they are growing up across cultures.
A Third Culture Kid (TCK) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parents’ culture. The TCK frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background. (p.13)
As I read on, I realized that I wasn’t only learning about what my children may have been experiencing, but I was also discovering words for the darker side of my own “third culture” experience.
Unresolved grief. This term hit me hard. My occasional feelings of isolation, confusion and guilt were finally given a name. And with the name came an acknowledgement and a sort of permission, as if the authors were telling me that it was ok to admit my on and off lack of confidence, sense of loss and reluctance to get on with this new life.
…it’s not hard to see why repeated cycles of mobility can lead to repetitive losses and the normal, ensuing grief those losses generate. It’s not hard to imagine that changing cultures and cultural rules can make it more difficult or take longer to go through the transition phase to the true entry and reinvolvement stages. (p. 74)
Lack of permission to grieve. When my family and I were in the process of leaving Singapore in 2012, I didn’t want to talk about the things I would miss. I didn’t want to seem unsupportive of the choice my husband and I had made together. I wanted my family and friends to see that I was fully on board, that I was ready and excited to come home.
When we moved back to the Philippines, the experience of reverse culture shock caught me off guard. I had gotten so used to my old life in Singapore that I couldn’t help but compare it to my new life back in the Philippines. However, I didn’t want to sound like what Filipinos call the “Ugly Balikbayan,” someone who keeps complaining about the bad or difficult realities in the Philippines and comparing them to the better or easier realities in another, usually a First World, country. I didn’t want to sound arrogant and ungrateful. I had to try to stop complaining about standstill traffic, inefficient service, slow internet, etc. I had to suck it up and stand by my choice to be there.
I couldn’t show any grief to friends and relatives who have known me for a long time. I didn’t want them thinking that I had changed into a completely different person after having lived abroad, that I’d become a snobby former expat or a snooty world traveler. I was afraid to be judged for the lifestyle I had grown accustomed to. I knew that I had changed, as people change through the course of life, but it became somewhat of a dark secret, something I could only share with those who went through a similar journey of transition and mobility.
Denying grief. This has meant a denial of my own grief, as I hid it from family and friends as much as possible. Those close to me knew how much I missed Singapore when we left in 2012. When they learned that I was moving back to Singapore this year, they all congratulated me and talked about how ecstatic I must be to move back. Most of the time, I had to say, “Yes, sure I am!” I couldn’t admit that I was having mixed feelings – that while I was excited about many things in Singapore, I was also going to miss many parts of my life in the Philippines. I was afraid that they would think or say, “But you loved Singapore so much? That you couldn’t wait to go back to your life there?” And I believed that. I thought that after my grief over leaving Singapore, why should I feel any grief going back? Why shouldn’t I be jumping for joy, as many might have expected? I didn’t understand myself. I didn’t make sense to me.
In the three times my family has moved countries, I’ve always felt that I should be strong and positive in front of my children and that I should set an example of how we can go through transition with as little grief as possible. (I had failed three times recently when I cried while saying goodbye to my mother, to our family helper and to our dog.) During our recent move, I especially wanted to be encouraging to my children since I know that they didn’t want to move this time around. I never denied their grief, and my husband and I broke the news about the move to our children several months in advance to give them time to process and to grieve, to bond with their friends and to prepare to say goodbye. In the months before and after our recent move, I’ve been hiding my sadness and confusion from my children. I want to be strong and steady, to be the capable and positive mother who will do whatever it takes for her family to be happy and healthy. I want them to see and to believe that we are in a good place and that we made the right decision to move.
What I realized recently is that when I deny my own grief, I am setting myself and my family up for unrealistic expectations and deep disappointments. Saying that it’s all good, even when there are bad or sad times, is a denial that can hurt us in many ways and leave us lost or grieving for a long time.
It has been a little over three months since our recent move. In some ways, it has been easy. In other ways, it has been hard. Learning about this unresolved grief that is affecting my family has been helpful. I’ve learned not to rush my children into making new friends and getting into activities. I’ve learned to give them time and space to be alone, to be sad, and to miss their friends and routines in the Philippines. I’ve learned that we are all still in transition, and the journey is different for each one of us. Some of us may embrace this new life sooner than later. Some of us may be grieving longer than others. And we need to respect each other’s journey and support one another through it.
I am learning to allow myself to sometimes be sad, to feel confused and insecure. In any journey of transition, grief has its place. It is not wrong; it is not bad. I believe that grief needs to be accepted, expressed and allowed its due course. Writing this blog post is one way that I am facing my grief. Perhaps this will help me (and anyone reading this) gain a better understanding on how to deal with this darker side, this unexpected burden of repeated losses and unresolved grief that comes with expat life and cross-cultural mobility.