For the third time in 4 years, you have to move. For you, it might just be OK. But for your kids?
They’re 6, 12 and 15 years old. The younger starts grade one, the second is heading to high school and the older one is right in the middle of her teenage years. All important steps in their life.
You feel guilty because this is going to be very hard on them.
Sure, they’ll get priceless life experience, unique cultural insights and precious skills.
Very useful…for later on. But for now, they’re going to suffer. And you’re responsible for it because you’re making the decision, as parents, to change their world.
I know. I’ve been there.
An international move is full of changes. You know what you lose. You’re not sure what you’ll gain. And before fully reaping the benefits of a new experience, you’ll have to mourn those losses.
Yes, mourning the losses.
In fact people deal with this kind of loss in exactly the same way as when a loved one dies: the emotional stages and responses are the same.
Moving abroad triggers a form of grief.
I call it expat grief.
Children don’t grieve like adults. That’s the popular belief.
Even when there is a death in the family, they can keep on playing, laughing and fighting. They may cry or look sad for a moment and carry on regular activities shortly thereafter. This comes, from the fact that children are living more in the present compared to adults who are more time conscious according to renown psychologist John Bowlby in his book “Loss, Sadness and Depression”.
Because children don’t externally exhibit the stigma of sadness or despair in such a pronounced and consistent way, we assume that grief in childhood is short-lived.
Children grieve. It’s a mistake to believe that they’re insensitive and forgetful.
From 4 years old and onwards, John Bowlby concludes that “they mourn in similar ways to adults”.
Expat children are no different. They’re not grieving the death of a loved one but they go nonetheless through lots of losses that they’ll have to mourn.
If this grief is not recognized and acknowledged, children might suffer later on from unresolved grief. This can result in behavioral problems ranging from anxiety, guilt, excessive anger to self-destructive patterns, substance abuse and school difficulties. Children may actually give up connecting with others. When they become adults and still haven’t solved their grief, they may face severe depression and/or relationships problems.
You feel guilty…
because grieving is painful. You know it. You’re going through it as well.
You feel powerless because the best thing you can do to help someone grieving a loss is to bring back that loss. You could potentially do it and cancel the move. But you won’t…
However if you understand what’s happening in your children’s head and if you’re willing to invest time and energy, you’re going to give them a gift for life.
Why? Because we’re confronted to loss all the time. Learning how to deal with losses in a healthy way can prove to be an invaluable skill.
So do something about it.
Grieving is inevitable. What does “healthy grieving” mean?
Healthy grieving means
- First, accepting that a change has occurred in your external world and
- Second that you’re required to make corresponding changes in your internal world to reorganize your attachment behavior accordingly.
(Adaptation from Bowlby of Anna Freud’s definition)
The 4 tasks of mourning are:
1/ To accept the reality of the loss
2/ To work through the pain of grief
3/ To adjust to the new environment after the loss
4/ To emotionally “integrate” the loss inside yourself – give it a little place in your heart – and/or reinvest the energy in other activities
(adapted from the work on mourning the death of a loved one from professor of psychology William Worden)
Expat grief covers 2 types of losses: definite and ambiguous.
- Definite losses are clear-cut losses: you can’t get them back and you know this without a doubt. Ever.
Some examples are the loss of a house if it’s sold, the loss of your routine, the loss of shared events (like the soccer matches with your team), the loss of opportunities (like performing in the school musical).
In other words, definite loss has closure.
- The other kind of loss is ambiguous loss, as named by Pauline Boss, leading therapist who has been studying grief and loss for more than 3 decades.
They can cover the loss of school friends, the loss of frequent interactions with the extended family and even anticipated losses like the loss of celebrating birthdays together or attending family gathering for Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Ambiguous loss is particularly stressful because there is always hope. While the children are moving to another country, they’ll still be able to keep the contact with their friends. Not on a daily basis as they used to but through social media, Skype or visits. The persons are physically absent but psychologically present.
The insidious, draining thing about ambiguous loss is that there never is closure.
In this process, what are the 7 things your children need to hear you say?
Here are the lessons I’ve learnt from studying grief and talking with my kids.
1. “I’m always here for you. You’re not alone”.
Being fully present – physically and mentally – is one of the best gifts you can do for the grieving person. This is a general feature for children and adults alike. We all need to be heard and comforted by a warm and understanding person.
It might be difficult for you to hear the pain of your children but know that your attention and your dedication will be a major source of comfort for them.
2. “We’re changing country, language and culture but this is what we’re not going to change.” (list of all that’s going to remain the same like for example breakfast together)
In the midst of change, there’s an extra need for continuity. I believe that in the transition period, the child should remain with the major attachment figure (which is usually the mother but could be in some cases the father or a nanny). It’s not a good idea to change family structure and location at the same time.
3. “I feel for you.”
What grievers need most is acceptance and non judgmental listening. That’s the motto of grief specialist Therese Rando.
But how do you express both in a compassionate way?
The classical “I understand how you feel” can backfire because your children may argue that you’re not at their place and have no idea of what they really feel (which is true). They could have the impression to have their feelings dismissed.
In my experience, I found that the most valuable help was for me to listen to the child and certainly to refrain from justifying our choice. Just acknowledge and validate their feelings.
4. “You mean…? If I understand correctly, you’re sad because….”
Practice active listening which is asking open questions and reformulating the idea expressed by the child to make sure you’ve understood properly. Show her that you’re focused in the discussion by making frequent eye contact and head nods. Make the children talk, draw, express themselves by any creative mean you can think of.
Suggestion: Make a list of all the losses. Define whether they are definitive or ambiguous.
Suggested losses: schoolmates/house/toys/food/friends/extended family/language…
This could be the purpose of an artwork or a game.
5. “Do you know what you’re going through? It’s called grief. It’s a normal reaction and this is how it works. ”
Giving precise, detailed and accurate information is extremely valuable. It’s so helpful to know that what you’re going through is a well-known phenomenon, a normal reaction to a very frequent life event, the loss of something of someone dear to your heart. Giving other examples of grief can broaden the scope of what your children are experiencing. Grieving also happens for children who are not moving. In case of a divorce, a child will experience an ambiguous loss. The parents separation means that such a child will always miss one of their parents in the daily life. This friend will grieve even without moving.
6. “You feel angry, frustrated and confused. That’s normal.”
Be prepared to deal with anger. It’s a natural reaction to loss. Don’t take it personally. The anger can be directed at the child herself, you, both parents, a third party, the place you leave or even the country you go to. When we came to Australia, my daughter was angry at Australia (that it even existed!).
7. “I wonder how you feel, now that we moved 6 months ago.”
Mourning takes time. It’s a personal process which can last for weeks, months or even years. It’s important to periodically check on the child. It’s not because children don’t express it that they aren’t grieving any more. Maintaining dialogue is key, especially with teenagers who could have a tendency to withdraw in their bedrooms.
Finally, don’t forget yourself. You’re a role model. Children do what you do, not what you say. Take care of yourself. You’re grieving too. If you’re struggling, join the mini-course on grief. It’s free.
(As a bonus, you’ll also get a video on “7 Mistakes Families Make When Moving Abroad” and all new posts directly in your inbox)
And tell me, what would you add? What would your child need to hear you say? Speak your mind (and theirs) in the comments. Thanks!