IDEAS Published Articles

How to Grow in the Grief of Childhood Transition

Childhood Grief Transition

There is loss in leaving, and adults come to know it quickly. Experienced overseas workers learn how to make immediate friendships, grieve good-byes, and move on to the next wave of arrivals. There is a cycle, and most of us are transient. You get used to it.

But children get their hearts broken.

As they get older they learn the system also. Third-culture kids grow resilient overseas. But that first wave is painful, especially when life abroad is all they ever knew.

We stayed in the Arab world longer than many. Our oldest daughter arrived at age three and was twelve when it came time to leave. Her last year was difficult. Friends returned to their home country. Her grandmother in America passed away. And when we departed, she said goodbye to two local friends she met in kindergarten.

Anticipating a year in the United States before relocating elsewhere in the Middle East, we feared the pangs of middle school. But all was well. Teachers were welcoming; students were kind. There was only one problem: Our daughter didn’t make any friends.

Classmates invited her to sit at their lunch table. She preferred to read. Grades were fine, and she joined activities. Her smile never faded, and her spirit never wavered. At home all was normal, and at school all was fine. But nothing of friendship, and little effort to find it.

She knew she was leaving again, come end of school year.

At first we encouraged her to engage. “If you sit by yourself and read, people will think you’re a snob. Just join in, and learn how Americans talk, laugh, and play.” But she did, and she didn’t like it. “They were inappropriate,” she said, “and crazy.” This was without malice or judgment, but the conservative Arab culture left its mark. She was uncomfortable.

But it would be wrong to blame things wholly on society. It was her.

And it was ok. Natural. We comforted her and spoke of adjustments. Having lost friends once while abroad, why lose them again back home? And which place was home to begin with? But she was faithful in her responsibilities, accepting of her circumstances. As a family we grieved, mourning the past and anticipating the future. But this could not be the end of the conversation.

“Your choices are understandable,” we told her. “They are ok. We won’t push you.”

“But they are not best.”

Life involves pain, and there’s no way around it. If we seal ourselves off for a time to recover, we can then reengage. But if we steel ourselves to the world as a posture, we stop living. And worse, we stop giving.

“Others need us,” we counseled. “And we need them. If you make new friends, yes, you will leave them, and it will hurt afresh. But they will fail to experience God’s goodness through you if you keep yourself from their friendship.”

“Take your time; there is no guilt,” we comforted. “Just do not let yourself forget there is a better ideal God calls us to. He is patient, but also maturing you. Use this time to grow deeper into his image, love, and mission.”

We are still in process, and she has friends now. Probably just in time to leave—and grieve—once more. But next time it will be easier, and soon she too will know the cycles of overseas friendship.

Our daughter’s life lesson is also one for adults. These life cycles can mask God’s ideal just as easily as our daughter’s reticence. Happiness comes in communion; life flourishes when we give of ourselves.

Empty yourself, as God did for you. Then enter into the joy of his fellowship—overseas, anywhere, and forever.


(This reflection was written with the approval of our daughter and after her review. It was first published at IDEAS.)


Emma: A Cross-Cultural Self-Portrait

From our young artist

A few weeks ago, Emma drew her first self-portrait.  Actually, I think it was her first attempt at drawing a person at all, and she chose herself.  I’m not sure where this falls on the list of developmental milestones or if she is on track, but up until now she hasn’t drawn many things.  She likes to color and stays in the lines well, and usually likes to use many colors on her pictures.  She is working on writing her letters and numbers and can draw shapes and such, but pictures of things have been few.

The other day I went to pick her up from a church nursery and she proudly showed me her picture (on left).  She pointed out that she had very long hair and flowers on her dress.  I think her friend, Emma, who was in the same class may have drawn a self portrait as well, so maybe that is where the idea came from.  Since then, I have seen her draw herself two more times.  The last time is pictured on the right.  There have been a couple variations, but some things remained the same.

One of my favorite aspects of these pictures is the arms.  I love how they come out of her head, and am curious to know why this is, and also when she may notice that coming out of the sides might be more accurate.  One of the variations between pictures is her dress.  In her first picture, she drew a flowery dress, which is a normal thing for her to wear, especially as she basically wears nothing but dresses these days.  Her second picture she colored her very favorite dress on herself, or so she told me.  It looks a little red to me, rather than the actual pink color of the dress, but its close enough.  I thought the colors on this last drawing were interesting as they reminded me of Egypt’s colors, but I don’t think that went through her mind.

The one constant through all three of her self-portraits was her long hair.  You’ll notice that her hair is incredibly long in these pictures, reaching way down below her feet even!  It’s not the same color in both pictures, but I don’t know if that is a conscious choice.  I do think, however, that her drawings of very long hair are reflective of a struggle she is having.  She really really really wants long hair, but at this point, it is only medium-length.  She has fine, slow-growing hair.  I did cut the back a few times, over a year ago, as I thought it looked better a little on the shorter side, rather than long and thin.  But she has said many times that she doesn’t want it cut, and wants it to be long.  Sometimes her desire is to be like me, which often takes me by surprise.  Some days she wants a ponytail because “mommy has a ponytail.”  She doesn’t realize I just do it to keep cool and it’s something I can do quickly in the morning.  It’s all about practicality.  She just looks at my long hair and wants hers to be the same.  I think, though, that this desire for long hair is coming more from the children around her.

We are in Egypt, and most Egyptian girls have lots of long, thick hair.  They are born with a full head of hair and it grows quickly after that.  Mine are born with just some hair, and then it seems to take forever to grow.  Hannah is three and I can barely get a ponytail out of her hair, and I’ve never cut the back.  Emma’s is growing, very slowly, but it is something she notices that is different between her and the girls at school.  It doesn’t help the situation when one of the girls said to her the other day that her hair was short.  She took a real offense at that since short hair is for boys!  She didn’t come home crying about it, but she did think to bring it up to me and was quite upset when she recounted the remark.  I comforted her as best I could telling her I was sorry that hurt her feelings, and that probably most of the girls she sees here have  a lot of hair!  I assured her that one day her hair would be longer, but regardless of hair length, she was a beautiful girl.

When I saw her self-portrait that she drew tonight, and noticed the hair reaching beyond the floor once again, I remembered this comment of the schoolmate, and saw this picture as a little white fair-haired American girl trying to fit into the picture of girls she sees around her … dark, long-haired Egyptians.  I’m sure there will be many such drawings, conversations, stories, and tears throughout the years of us living cross-culturally as our girls try to fit into a place where they want to belong.  God, give us wisdom and the right words to comfort and encourage our little girls.