A talk with the Author of Third Culture Kids: Ambiguous Loss

For anyone who hasn’t read it yet; if you are interested in this topic, you should read Third Culture Kids by David Polluck and Ruth Van Reken. This book changed a lot about how I thought about my military upbringing. I mention it many times in my Military Brat Blog. It uses people’s stories to explain research done about how growing up in the “third cultures” such as military, missionary, or diplomat communities. In particular the impact this has on children during their formative stages of development.

When I was interviewing kids aged 4-18 for my short documentary, the general consensus was that they didn’t feel very different from their civilian peers. They felt like normal kids, just trying to make good grades and build their interests and relationships. It isn’t until later in life that sometimes the “weirdness” of their nomadic upbringing really set in.

I was very fortunate to get in touch with the author of Third Culture Kids, Ruth Van Reken, last week and talk to her about some of the phenomena discussed in her book. Perhaps the best explanation in her book is of something called “ambiguous loss”. Ambiguous loss is, in short, unresolved grief. Purdue’s Military Family Research Institute does a lot of research on ambiguous loss because it manifests itself in multiple ways for military families.

The most prevalent way to see it is when a family loses a service member in action. Whether they are taken as a POW or they are killed in action. It is a very uncommon way of losing a loved one.  It is hard to deal with this kind of loss because it comes suddenly and not many others have had to deal with it themselves. I want to note that I have not personally had to experience this so I will not go deep into discussion on this aspect today. However, the MFRI and TCK Book are great resources to learn more about it.

Ambiguous loss commonly resurfaces in the later years of a military child’s life, during college and into adulthood, most often after leaving the military community. Military children are so frequently leaving behind homes and friendships and being told to move on to the next thing that there is little or no time to grieve their losses. In grieving, you are able to understand that you have lost something of significance and that the old era is now over. There are a few different ways in which this grief is sometimes inadmissible by the military lifestyle. First off, moves happen so frequently that it is optimal to get over your loss ASAP in order to reintegrate into the new community. Second, parents wanting their children to feel happy about their move will discourage crying, sadness, and grief because they want their children to be strong through the transition and see all of the positives of the new place rather than dwelling on the old.

While these are both understandable, it is not to say that it is really the best way to deal with a tough transition. It is important to understand that loosing friends as frequently as military children often do is difficult and sometimes harmful to the child’s development. It can result in loss of interest in new relationships, lesser faith in long-lasting relationships, and frequently depression. It is important to grieve loss because it helps us to recognize that what we had was good. But like all grief cycles, it must end. And by the end, the hope is that you come out stronger.

In my conversation with Ruth last week, we talked a lot about how we had both experienced unresolved grief but never knew that is what it was. I shared with Ruth a weird thing that I always did and she explained to me that it was a coping method developed from years of leaving people behind. I told her that whenever I go on a trip, no matter if it is a move or a short weekend trip, I get irritable with those around me. I start pushing away the people near to me and in a way shut down and quit talking to them. She told me about this subconscious coping mechanism I had developed and that the reason was because it made my sadness to leave lesser. She was absolutely right. It was a great revelation when I had read it in her book a year earlier because it helped immensely when I could explain that to my husband and my loved ones who had to deal with it. Putting research to these actions has helped to recognize that I am not the only one who does it or feels that way. And it has helped me to catch myself before I start shutting down.

Thursday I will present some people’s stories to give you an idea of how ambiguous loss impacted them later in life. Some key aspects to take away; ambiguous loss is basically unresolved grief. When a child is constantly leaving new friends and making new ones, they should not be remiss to recognize that what they had was good and it is ok to be sad to leave it behind. It is OK to grieve, but it eventually must be overpowered by hope and strength knowing that the next place has as much potential to be as good as the last.





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *