Ben was 8 years old when he left the country where he’d spent all his childhood.
‘Daddy’s got a promotion overseas and says he can’t refuse it’, explained Ben to his teacher when he got the news. Originally the family was supposed to live abroad for 3 years and come back.
The move was temporary and Ben’s dad was well-paid, so the family decided to keep the house and didn’t even need to rent it out.
Ben took his favourite toys, his bike and his skate board.
But home was his house: his own bedroom with the wall paper he’d chosen, the big playroom where he chipped his tooth while riding the rocking horse when he was 6 years old, the garden with the rusty soccer goal where he played for hours with his dad. Ben was leaving, but he knew the house would wait for him. He would come back.
It didn’t turn out that way.
After 3 years, Ben’s dad got another assignment and the family moved to another country. One evening, the parents gathered Ben and his older sister.
‘We’ve been thinking a lot about our situation’, said Ben’s mum. ‘Dad will never get a job located back home. We now have to sell the house.’
‘What?’ shouted Ben, his cheeks blushing. ‘Never. I’ll never agree to sell MY house. When we left, you promised we’d come back after 3 years. You lied to me. I’ll never believe you ever again if you do that. You’ve got to keep it. I’ll buy it from you when I’m older.’
‘Ben, unfortunately we can’t maintain an empty house forever. You’re only 12 years old.’
‘If you sell the house, I’ll kill myself.’ whispered Ben, clutching his fists.
Ben’s parents knew that he was attached to the house. They expected a strong reaction. But such intensity took them completely off guard.
Deeply worried, they decided to delay any further action.
Announcing something and acting on it immediately afterward is traumatic for the recipient of the news because acts in human beings are always preceded by projects.
Francoise Dolto, child psychoanalyst
Adults and children don’t share the same amount of information. Oblivious to this fact, adults often forget that they had time to get accustomed to the idea before they made a decision and announce it to the children.
If this announcement is left to the last minute, action quickly follows leaving no time for the kids to process, hence the traumatic reaction.
In addition to this, paediatrician and child psychoanalyst Francoise Dolto mentions 3 levels of continuity that are essential to children’s development:
- their body evolving and developing itself in a particular space, and thus linked to it
- their social network and
- their sources of affection.
When there is uprooting from a meaningful place, the child can get lost in their body — their spatial landmarks. This happens until the child reaches 8 or 9 years old.
We now understand why the house is so much more than just a familiar place with pleasant memories. It’s linked to the child’s inner world.
Some parents, fearing the drama, may be tempted to hide the sale of the home with the idea of ‘protecting the child’. Of course, sooner or later, the truth will come out. Can you imagine its impact then?
Ben’s parents began to discuss the process with Ben. During the following weeks, they took time to explain the situation in detail. They shared their vision for the future.
When Ben expressed his concerns, when he recalled rose-tinted memories from the past, they didn’t try to ‘convince’ him or to prove him wrong. They just listened. They knew they had to let him grieve.
Eventually Ben admitted that he didn’t intend to commit suicide. It was his way to have his parents consider his opinion and try to stop the project.
Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are events of the same size.
Expatriates face a very specific situation. They need to deal with a particular type of grief. I call it expatriate grief.
The losses they have to mourn are not associated with the death of a loved one. This is the reason why it’s so often ignored, denied or ridiculed.
Some losses are tangible (the loss of a house), some are ambiguous (the loss of daily contacts with grandparents or school mates), some are invisible (the loss of a language that is not spoken any longer within the family).
Grief is different for everyone. Children grieve too.
Experiencing the grieving process in such a mindful way ensures a healthy future. In accompanying your children on that path, in putting words on what’s happening, in respecting their inclinations, their desires, their rituals, their wishes related to their grieving process, you give them a skill for life: the knowledge of how they grieve.
Ben was still sad but less angry. From time to time, he spoke about his house, resigned to the idea that his parents would do what they wanted. Often, he didn’t want to touch the subject.
His parents finally decided to launch the selling process. The house would need to be emptied.
Ben’s mother was anxious to speak about the topic with him once more. But she was committed to the process: openness and transparency.
‘Ben, we’re going to have a relocation company come to the house. Some things we’ll bring back here, others we’ll sell and the rest will go to the bin or to charities. Dad and I will go for a week to sort everything out. It won’t be fun. Hours of sifting through all the stuff.
If you want to come, you’re welcome. If you prefer to stay and tell us what to put in the container, that’s fine too. What do you decide?’
Secretly, she hoped Ben would choose to stay put. Taking the kids with her was an extra burden.
They’d have to miss school. They might slow down the sorting by complaining about how boring it is. They might want to see their former friends and she’d have other things to be preoccupied with. She certainly didn’t want to organize playdates!
She was also worried that Ben would be more affected by seeing the empty house. What if this stay refreshed so many memories that he’d be more attached to it and he’d suffer more afterwards?
Children are human beings to whom respect is due, superior to us by reason of their innocence and of the greater possibilities of their future.
That’s why it’s so critical to pay extra care, offer options, and deeply respect the children’s choice when dealing with such an important matter.
Whatever the degree of intimacy with someone, you can never feel what they feel.
People have tried over the years to analyse the grieving process and to structure it in steps. The reality is: it’s messy. The grieving process is utterly personal. There is no rule. Except that it should happen. It should not be constrained, denied or ridiculed.
Accepting our ignorance of how it unfolds for others with the deep knowledge that it happens, in some way can be deeply liberating. It means trusting your child that they will feel what their heart is inclined to do. It means creating for them a space where they feel safe to express themselves without being criticized, judged or fixed.
It also means letting go of the guilt: if you choose for your child and try to influence them in a way that seems more convenient for you, what if they suffer afterwards? What if they give your reproaches? How will you feel?
But you may argue: If I let them choose, what if they regret their choice afterwards?
You’ll know in your heart that you gave the options and that you genuinely listened to them.
Your children will know how it felt to make this decision. They’ll learn how to take responsibility for their actions.
For Ben, the decision was simple. He wanted to go.
The family spent a whole week, emptying the house. There were fun moments when Ben could play with his ball in the now empty living room. There were emotional moments when the loaded truck left the street and the family closed the front door for the last time.
But Ben felt good in his tummy. He had a proper goodbye. Now, he could move on.
Now over to you: what’s your experience with your child(ren) of losing a home? How did you handle it?
Credit picture Depositphotos credit music The piano society