Research among expats, third culture kids and expatriates

In my practise The WestDuin in The Hague, Scheveningen I work as a mental health professional were many nationalities present themselves. Since a big part of my clients are foreigners, also described as global nomads, expatriates or adult third culture kids and I have asked myself many times if this should make a difference in my therapie approach.

I myself have lived in my passport country only for the first 10 years of my life during which I was educated at the American School. After that I went to a Germany and a German school, to Switzerland were I lived with  20 different nationalities in boarding school setting. After boarding school it was München, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Tenerife, New York, Düsseldorf until finally and more by coincidence then by planning, that I came back to my passport country. Holland from which I had completely estranged. Having lived the experience of living abroad for more then 20 years I find that the challenges that life posses are the same but that the coping mechanisme might be vastly different among global nomads.

Social networks need to be rebuild at every move, jobs might be though and maybe one finds it hard to adjust to the culture of the new country. Separated from family at ones passport country and it’s traditions can make life set-backs harder to deal with.

Given these circumstances I asked myself if attachment, grief or disenfranchised grief could play a larger roll within this group and if age is an issue. And if so, what could be helpful in therapy within this specific group?

Nationalitiy, culture  is something you receive at birth and is something that can only be retrieved through complicated, sometimes endless administrative procedures or by death. Your nationality is a given at birth and might define but will certainly influence the persons whole life. Peoples birth country or culture stay with them and even though we live in a high tech world were all developed countries provide us with internet, possibilities for (cheap) phone calls and international news stations which keep us well informed with news from all over the world many find it difficult to be living away from their birth- passport country. People grieve. But what do they grieve for?

Looking at this from an therapeutic point of view in terms of loss and (disenfranchised) grief and the expatriate background of the person in therapy, resulted to the following main research question:

Does grief or disenfranchised grief due to loss of attachment or age, play a rol in the lives of expatriates?

Pollock and Van Reken (2001)  identify four key areas which need attention in when dealing with transition. People, places, pets, possessions. Expatriation, moving to another country or continent is a transition. A transition that will result in personal loss and grief. A periode of mourning that must be lived through all stages to be able to start with a future life. When the stages of grief or the themes of grief are not acknowledged it will turn into disenfranchised grief.Literatuur tells us that grievers can be disenfranchised when they are either very young, or old. The group of responding expatriates were all adults and they all coped with some sort of disenfranchised grief. Disenfranchised grief also occurs when the environment simply does not acknowledge the themes of grief. This is often the case for expatriates were the social environment does not acknowledge expatriates grief or it maybe it might even clash with the new culture.

In regard to grief and disenfranchised grief one can conclude that they are most certainly present in expatriates lives. All respondents had experienced some sort of grief concerning their family. Loss of attachment to family or extended family is an issue in all interviews.

The qualitative research finds that moving, leaving country and culture has an effect on peoples feelings disenfranchised grief. Feelings of loneliness are an issue for 70% of the interviewed, belonging (80%) and a lack of understanding (90%) of what is going on in their lives produce disenfranchised grief for most. This issue is enhanced by age. Results show that 80% of the expatriates became more aware of their expat status when they age due to not knowing were they belong anymore. The group of expatriates that coped with more feelings of disenfranchised grief had left their birth country before the age of 25.

Depending on the amount of disenfranchised grief and grief as well as the age at which the expatriate client left his/her birth country it would be good to start with therapie sessions on mourning and resolving lingering and unresolved grief issues. As age makes a difference in feelings of disenfranchised grieve, therapists should be especially alert with clients that have left their birth country under the age of 25.

Learning to recognise their irrational- unrealistic thoughts could be a step in therapy. Excepting the situation for what it is and recognise the impact of his/her thoughts and how it influences his/her feelings and actions. Irrational thinking about belonging, loneliness, culture and age can be transferred into more accepting, hopefully even positive thoughts. Managing life expectations and exploring feasible hopes for the future as an result.

Piglet came up to Pooh, “Pooh” he whispered
“Yes Piglet”.
“Nothing”, said Piglet taking Pooh’s paw.
“I just wanted to be sure of you.”