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Grieving Your Third-Culture Childhood: 5 types of losses

A Third Culture Kid is someone who lived with their parents outside of their passport country for all or part of their childhood. They are also referred to as "global nomads" and are commonly children of military, diplomats, missionaries, and scholars. However, Third culture kids (TCKs) eventually grow up and often move back home. Now what?

Where once you were a Korean living in Germany, or an American living in Russia, now you are one of the sea of faces, indistinguishable from your endemic peers. But just because you know how to navigate the grocery store, what to say at dinner parties, or have been 'home' for 15 years does not change your inner TCK. For many adult TCKs, settling down means stability they never had. During this time is common for unresolved parts of a chaotic childhood to surface now that there is safety and space to look at them. The most common issue to surface is unresolved grief.

Transition implies loss. Every TCK is expected to deal with a large variety of transitions, which means there are many types of losses they experience. Not only do they suffer direct loss, but also lose friends, family, and other anchors that may have helped mitigate those losses. Even years later, adult TCKs report that they experience lingering grief from these losses.

In a 2008 study of adult TCKs, researchers uncovered that grief fell into five categories of losses. The losses of TCKs can be classified into losses of people, places, pets, possessions, and existential losses.

People: High mobility means leaving behind loved ones. The peer network of a TCK is constantly in a state of flux, as both the individual moves, and their expatriate community moves. Some even learn extreme coping skills such as repressing their grief, such as one young woman who explained “At the risk of sounding cold and heartless, I have to say that I don’t recall ever being sad that I’ve lost people.” (Gilbert, 2008, p. 100) TCKs also experience loss in the form of death of a loved one. Whether the loved one was inside or outside of the country they currently lived in, it brought on feelings of losing home.

Places: Another common loss was related to physical locations. TCKs cite smells, tastes, cultural rituals, geography, climate and site-specific opportunities as elements they miss of places they have left. At times, moving was traumatic, with very short notice. But even with adequate time, they still experienced change in school, residence, and at times, even boarding school, separating them from family. The most severe grief resulted in statements such: “I have no definite sense of place. There is no place for me that is more important than another,” and “I’ve never felt tied to anyplace.” (Gilbert, 2008, p. 101)

Pets: For many TCKs, a move meant the reality that their pet would be left behind. For those who had pets, the grief of a lost companion can be significant. This was especially true when the animal served to replace a consistent peer group.

Possessions: Although TCKs tend to place less value on possessions, they still report a feeling of loss over specific items. This was especially true at a younger age. Among many types of items reported, TCKs mentioned dishes, clothing, toys, photographs, artwork, blankets, and jewelry. Often these decisions were made by parents:

“We were over our weight limit. Music was always very important to us overseas—we never even had a television in most places. Because we were over our weight limit, my dad took all of our record albums and dumped them. These records represented hundreds of memories of times with our friends and host cultures throughout our childhood in Africa, the U.S., and Asia. I was so angry with him because he kept the records which he liked, and just dumped ours.” (Gilbert, 2008, p. 102)

Existential Losses: Existential losses include losing the world as they thought it was. When participants discuss loses, most often they speak first about existential loses. TCKs lose the predictability of viewing the world as stable and reliable. As part of this, they may believe that relationships are fluid, that nothing can stay the same, and they may highly value adaptability. Other examples of existential loses experiences by TCKs include questions about “who they are, what they are, where they are from, what and who they can trust.” (Gilbert, 2008, p. 102)

These categories of loss are a common source of unresolved grief for the adult TCK. Often times, wrestling with unresolved grief can manifest itself as cultural struggles, prolonged adolescence, and longing for a voice. Other times it surfaces as the more traditional irritability, sudden angry outbursts, excessive rumination, chronic negativity, anxiety or depression, shame, or caretaking behaviors among other symptoms. Or you may notice emotional numbness or physical symptoms such as health issues, discomfort, headaches, and aches and pains.

If you are an adult TCK and you are starting to notice these symptoms, therapy is a good place to start. You can recognize the loss you experienced and begin to process the grief well known to TCKs. While it was wonderful to be a TCK, you also lost a lot. However, you are not alone.



  • Gilbert KR. (2008). Loss and grief between and among cultures: the experience of third culture kids. Illness, Crisis & Loss, 16(2), 93–109. Retrieved from http://0- 49050&site=ehost-live

  • Pollock, D.C. & Van Reken, R.E. (1999). The Third Culture Kid Experience. Maine: Intercultural Press. Pollock, D. C., & Van Reken, R. E. (2009). Third culture kids: Growing up among worlds. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey

  • Schaetti, B. F. (2002). Attachment theory: A view into the global nomad experience. In M. G. Ender (Ed.), Military brats and other global nomads Growing up in organization families (pp. 103-119). Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.

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