It’s like a switch deep inside me. I can turn it on, but it’s more common for me to turn it off.
Two whole years had passed by since we had last seen my dad. I had just arrived in Florida, along with my two young children, when my dad called to say that he was driving through the area. I was thrilled. He then went on to mention that he could only stop by long enough to have lunch. Only lunch? Only an hour or two of the day? I felt the loss and sadness begin to well up, so I threw my switch to the “off” position.
I didn’t know that it was actually a “good thing” for me to feel painful emotions. It was actually healthy. As a result, when I felt sorrow begin to fill my mind and creep into my throat, I’d automatically throw my switch into the “off” position. Effectively dousing the slowly budding flame of anguish that I was about to feel, I would move on and avoid feeling anything at all.
I got very good at detecting that little flame early. I could catch it right at the onset. I got to the point where I rarely felt any negative feelings at all. Instead of letting those hard emotions show or letting myself feel them, I internalized them. They roiled deep within me and then usually escaped somehow, having been transformed into anger or frustration. My husband and children were the most likely targets.
Are you with me?
So what’s good about grieving?
What difference would it make if we knew how to actually grieve the many losses we’ve experienced? How would it help our children in the long run if we could model how to do this well? What areas of our lives would be freed up, more carefree, or even joyful . . . if we could just take care of the loss that is calling for our attention instead of ignoring it? What would it be like to give honor and value to that person or experience, through our grief, instead of trying to ignore it?
See Beyond serves many people living in this region around a multitude of topics. However, grief and loss are the predominate undercurrents. Usually, they are left unaddressed. Yet, they are still having a detrimental impact on people’s well being.
I’d like to share the things that have helped me start to grieve.
There are many pieces to consider in loss and grief, and the process below is just a starting place. The points below may be especially helpful for those who have past losses that they haven’t yet acknowledged or have chosen to ignore, as well as for those who aren’t sure how to start grieving.
We’d like to suggest trying these steps on what seems like a smaller, more manageable, loss. Please remember that it can often be extremely helpful to bring a friend or even a trained professional into your grief process.
1. Identify the loss.
Loss is a prevailing theme in cross-cultural life. We lose our way of life when we arrive in another country. We lose friends. We lose independence and freedom. If we’ve been here for longer than a year or so, we can even become defeated in our ability to accomplish our goals. We lose experiences that we’d love to have or wish we could give to our children. We lose hope.
During a recent seminar, we asked participants to identify the losses that come with cross-cultural living. Here are the general categories that they shared, beginning with the most common:
- Family (experiences with them, new family members, milestones)
- Friends (face-to-face time)
- Language ability and the feeling of competence in daily life
- Fitting in, understanding the culture, normalcy
- Professional development
- Clear job/role
- Belonging in a community
- Familiar foods
- Comfort and conveniences
- Missing cultural changes back home
- The ability to blend in (always standing out)
- A good haircut
- Changing seasons
- Home/Family traditions
- Opportunities to date people similar to me
- Outdoor activities
- Freedom and Independence
Wow, that’s a lot of losses!
In addition to identifying a basic loss (Ex., losing a friend who returned to his home country), it’s also helpful to recognize all the other losses associated with that category.
Take a moment and identify one area of loss. Then, write down all the losses that were part of that bigger category.
2. Remember what it was like.
It’s not a loss if it didn’t hold value for you. So, honor the value that the thing, experience, or person had for you. Take some time to remember them fondly. What did that experience give you that made it valuable to you?
When my son got married, I felt an unexpected loss. I realized that I was losing my little boy (who was no longer that little!). Part of grieving for me was cherishing the memories of playing together in the yard, our late night talks, the times that he came to me for advice, and just having his presence in our home.
It might help to journal about what you remember or to look at photos and remember what it is you valued about this person or experience.
3. Capture the emotions.
At this point, we aren’t even suggesting that you try to feel the emotions. Rather, just name them. Sometimes, just giving them a name is a huge step. We might start by saying, “I just feel loss. I feel sad.” It may help to use a chart of emotions often associated with grief in order to identify the many layers of emotions that are actually present.
Loss can feel like a broken dish - a messy pile of broken, cracked, and scattered pieces. You may want to download our image, “The Many Pieces of Grief,” print it off, and color all the pieces that identify a feeling that you have associated with your loss.
It was years after my mother had died that I used this image to help me process that loss. It helped me to realize that panic, resentment, and guilt were all a part of grieving for me.
I was young, but was listed on her living will. I found myself in a place of having to make choices that no one should have to face at any age. I was panicked about making the decision, resentful that I’d even been put in that position, and feeling guilt about the decision that I felt forced to make. I felt relief, another common piece of grieving, when my mother passed away on her own before I had to make that decision.
Personally, I like printing off “The Many Pieces of Grief” chart, getting out a box of old fashioned crayons with their delightful smell, putting the name of the person or thing that I’m grieving at the top, slowly coloring in each of the words that relate to that loss, and leaving the rest blank. This slows me down and helps me to linger on each word a bit. Otherwise, I can tend to rush through this, dismissing words that were actually part of the experience.
These three steps will help you to start the journey of grieving. They are not the end. We’ll be writing more on this topic of grief in the months to come. However, no need to wait . . . get started on your Good Grief journey today.
About the Author: Katie is an IDEAS Associate, has a Master of Science in Psychology, with dual specializations in Organizational Leader Development and Leadership Coaching Psychology. She and her husband, Tim, are the owners of SeeBeyond in North Africa. Click here for the original blog posting.