Painting Pictures, Seven Stages of Re-entry Grief
I met Cecily via Marilyn Gardner at Communicating Across Boundaries. When I announced the TCK series, Marilyn wrote and said, “You need Cecily to write for this.” She was right. Warning: Cecily Paterson’s post is a little long. Command: Read it. Don’t be daunted by the length. Once you start you won’t be able to stop. And quick, now, before you start, grab a Kleenex. She gave me the freedom to edit and cut but I couldn’t do it. My eyes were blurred from tears and grief and hope and so I give you her entire beautiful post. And then after you read it, go to Amazon and get her teen novel Invisible. Cecily is offering this book about a girl who also felt very much on the outside as a FREE e-book. I already picked up my copy.
Seven Stages of Re-entry Grief
When I was 16, if you’d called me ‘an Australian’ I would have felt like you were stabbing me with a blunt knife. My reaction would have been almost physical. And then I would have corrected you. And swiftly.
“I have an Australian passport. I don’t feel Australian.”
Because, you see, I am a TCK.
My family went to Pakistan when I was three and returned as a family when I was 16. In Pakistan we lived alternately in a crowded third world city, in the Himalayan mountains, and in the arid desert, extreme landscapes, all of them, with colourful people.
In Australia we moved into a medium-sized, comfortable house in a medium-sized, comfortable country town. I found the landscape boring. Even ugly. The green-grey of eucalyptus trees seemed insipid next to alpine forests. Middle class Australians seemed dull with their barbecues, salad and cheesecakes and their languid accents.
I didn’t like Australia.
More than that, I felt pain about what I’d left behind when I got on that plane to fly away from Pakistan. It was intense pain. A physical rip in my chest where a piece of my heart had been pulled away and left to bleed. A hurt that was palpable.
I’m 40 now.
And something has happened that, then, I never thought would occur.
The pain has healed. Truly.
If you called me ‘an Australian’ today, 24 years later, I wouldn’t feel a thing. No knives, no physical lurching. And I wouldn’t feel any need to correct you.
Because you, see, I am. I am Australian, as well as being a TCK.
How did it happen?
Stage One: Crisis
The first year was about managing crises. Some were small, some were big, but there were many of them, one on top of the other, week after week, month after month. Every new experience brought with it painful memories of an old experience. Every new place brought pangs of longing for an old place.
The crises came when we moved to our new house, when we started school and a whole new curriculum and system of education, when we negotiated the supermarket, when we tried to make friends, when we opened bank accounts, when we didn’t recognize popular music, when we didn’t know what to wear. They continued at youth group, on driving lessons and on holidays which didn’t take place at an out of reach, mountainous location off the beaten track.
In the midst of the crises, we got through as a family by talking a lot. We cooked curry, looked at photos, remembered old haunts and former friends. We had a bond – not just with each other, but with our old home – that no one else could have.
In the midst of the crises, I wrote letters. I wrote at my desk, looking at my bedroom decorated with Pakistani fabrics and art. I wrote to my friends, some still at my former boarding school, some in the midst of their own crises, back in their countries of birth. I wrote to friends who had already been through the re-entry process. When they wrote back, it was like drinking fresh water on a thirsty day.
In the midst of the crisis I used what looked like arrogance to survive. Basically I put my head down and focused on simply getting through my final year of school. I found a minimalist number of friends that I could tolerate, participated reluctantly in social occasions and appeared to be generally stuck up and disdainful. I wasn’t really like that, but it helped me cope in the short term.
Stage Two: Going back
After eighteen months, school ended and I was free. At that point I had one thing in mind: to get back to Pakistan.
Because the academic years in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres are different, I ended up with 6 months in which I could work to earn myself enough money to travel back to my boarding school for my class graduation in the middle of the year.
I found four part-time jobs in our middle sized town and went to work six days a week in a bakery, newsagent, shoe shop and doctor’s surgery. And I loved it. I was working with grownups (way easier to deal with than school-going 17 year olds), earning my own money, learning things and taking responsibility. And I had a short-term goal that made living in Australia bearable: to get myself out of there and to grad.
From the letters I’d written to some of the girls in my class in the two years since I’d left, it felt like I was in the loop, in touch, up to date with what was going on back in Pakistan.
But as soon as I landed in Islamabad, I realised that life had moved on. The place looked different for a start. There were new buildings and signs, improved roads and different vehicles. Heck, a major fast food chain had even moved in.
At school my classmates were friendly, but in about three minutes I realised they hadn’t been pining for me for two years in the same way I’d been pining for them. It felt weird to be on the outer, almost in the same way that I had been on the outer back in Oz. I didn’t get the ‘in’ jokes any more, I didn’t know the new people and the only reason I cried during the playing of Pomp and Circumstance on the actual night of graduation was because I realised that life at this school had been over for me for much longer than I had thought.
Another surprising realization came in the two months of travelling through Europe after graduation. Yes, Switerland was beautiful, England was historical, France was romantic and Czechoslovakia was fascinating, but the truth was, I wanted and needed to go home. Home, as it turned out, was with my family. In Australia. And landing in Sydney on the day before my pop’s 70th birthday party was a happy, joy-filled occasion.
It was on that day of returning again to Australia that I knew that I couldn’t go back. The crisis was over. From that point on, I knew I would have to find a way to move on with my life.
Stage Three: Making Decisions
I didn’t want to work in a shoe shop for the rest of my life so I took myself to university the following year. This meant a move to Sydney, into a residential college of 200 people. It also meant that I could make some very specific decisions.
About a third of the college residents were from overseas. Quite a few of them were older. These people would have been easy to get on with. But at this stage of my life I needed to know that I could fit in to Australian society adequately. From day one I deliberately chose to mix with Aussie kids from middle class backgrounds.
Sometimes I felt bad. There were people I could have befriended who probably were lonely and suffering culture shock. I could have related well to them, but I didn’t want to. I was busy trying to assimilate. I didn’t want college to be over and for all my friends to disappear off overseas again. I wanted to make friends who I could continue on with for the long term.
I also decided to get involved in my church and campus Christian group. This wasn’t a hard decision – I had always been a committed Christian, but now I decided I would give my time and enthusiasm to the music group, to bible study and to other Christians. It was a decision which gave me a home. I felt like I belonged and that I was recognized as a real person.
As well, for a year I went to an MK support group. It was mostly great. I got myself on the committee, helped organize a few afternoons and met people. It was good to chat to others who understood the MK/TCK mindset and at times I felt quite at home. However, it also underlined for me that you can feel ‘on the edge’ in any group – even a support group specifically set up for someone like you! When everyone else is pining for Papua New Guinea and you’re the only one who misses Pakistan, it’s as isolating as when you haven’t followed Home and Away for five years like everyone at public school has.
Crystallizing in my head was this thought: fitting in to a group takes work, and most people feel on the outer at some point. It’s not just a TCK thing.
This was important. I was able to see the pain of loss and the ‘weird’ TCK issues as just two specific traumas amongst a whole basket of other pains that everyone endures at some point. The more I got to know the other Aussies around me, the more I realised that they had their own pain, their own hurts. And I was making a conscious effort to get to know people. I knew that I’d been perceived as arrogant and I worked very hard to strip myself of that arrogance and disdain so that I could correct my own heart and enjoy the hearts of others. It was, of course, a painful process, and yet it was necessary. To see that other people’s experiences mattered as much as my own was a revelation but it changed everything for me.
But back to the MK group. In the end, it got boring. Not because we did dull things or because there was no entertainment. The boredom came from constantly revisiting the miserable feelings of re-entry and loss. I have a short attention span, and I’d already spent years in crisis and crying. I’ve felt bad long enough I thought. I don’t want to do this anymore. And I made the deliberate decision to move the TCK heartache out of the living room of my soul and into a back bedroom. I just didn’t want to face it or feel it so often. Anyway, there seemed to be nothing I could do about it. We could talk endlessly about grief and pain and the woes of re-entry, but it was like swirling muddy water. It was easier to mop up the puddle and not think about it.
I consciously filled my life with study, work, good friends (yes, it appeared I could fit in!) and a boyfriend (later my husband), deliberately building a life for myself and doing things I wanted to do. And even though it may not have been healthy just to banish the sadness, the happinesses I found overflowed to cover it up.
Stage Four: Making recent history
Ten years to the month after I arrived in Australia ‘for good’ as a 16 year old, I had my first baby. I’d been married for four years, been to five different churches and had lived in four different places by that time. Just by continuing to breathe and eat and live, I’d been able to make my own ‘recent history’.
moving on and new family
When people asked me “Where are you from?” I was now able to answer, “Well, we’ve been living in Sydney, and before that I was in central west NSW.” Sometimes it was enough to avoid the questions that had always previously followed, drawing attention to my TCK-ness.
Sometimes I wanted to talk about it, and then I found that memories from 10 years ago appear more faded than memories from say, two years ago. It was so much easier to talk about my memories without becoming too choked up to speak or too stirred up to function.
Most of that type of conversation disappeared naturally anyway when my baby appeared. I don’t know what it’s like for men, but for a 26 year old woman with a baby, conversation revolves entirely around bottle vs breast, toilet training and the favourite topic of all mothers of babies – sleep.
Having a family of my own was the most ‘filling’ cure to the TCK emptiness. Imagine feeling very, very hungry as you wait for dinner. What you don’t realise is that coming up is a full scale, succulent lamb roast with potatoes, pumpkin, roast garlic, steamed tender vegetables and gooey, caramelized gravy. Dessert is apple pie with cream and ice cream. And there are seconds. You eat it, you sit back and loosen your belt. Then you try to imagine the hunger you felt before. It seems impossible, and yet it was so real at the time.
The pains of TCKness didn’t go away from having children, but life filled up immensely, not just with busy-ness, but also with love and, correspondingly, new pains, because pain always accompanies love. Now I was suffering with the stresses of having children and the anxiety of being a good mother, especially with a child diagnosed with autism.
Stage Six (infrequent): The Resurgences**
The crisis and the decision periods of my grief were over at about the sixth year after returning from Pakistan. These were the periods of intense feelings. Since that time, my TCK feelings have been small and infrequent. However, I have had three major resurgences of grief in 18 years.
One was at an MK camp I was asked to speak at as an adult. This was simply because I had to think hard to prepare relevant and interesting talks for the group of teenagers who were all feeling those raw pains I had known so well.
Another was over a period of months, when my husband was suggesting that we move overseas. We had often talked about going overseas to work in the early years of our marriage. But once I had my first baby, that desire was completely extinguished. Now even the thought of it made me ill with depression and nausea. It’s too hard, I’m too tired, I can’t do it all again, were the only thoughts running through my head. When I cried pretty much the whole time during a ‘preliminary chat’ with an organization leader we all knew it wasn’t going to happen. And I was amazed at the strength of hidden fears and pains that were obviously still there, just not floating around.
The third major resurgence of emotion was at an Australian reunion of families and staff from our boarding school, the year it celebrated its 50th birthday. I had to drive from Sydney up a mountain to the conference centre where the reunion was taking place. As I drove I noticed myself becoming more and more agitated, angry and upset. I felt incredibly ill at ease the whole day, was unable to sing, and just wanted to cry. And yet six hours later, when I drove back home, down the mountain, the uncomfortable feelings subsided. I arrived back at our house happy, relaxed and normal, albeit extremely confused by what I’d just experienced. (I think these feelings were much more about a very unhappy year that I’d had at the school, rather than general ‘TCK’ feelings though.)
Stage Infinity: Healing
These days I see the TCK part of me as a bit like an old eccentric uncle who spends his days rocking on a porch swing on the verandah. He’s niggly and annoyingly and just slightly bitter and has nothing good to say about the view. He’s cranky, he’s embarrassing and he’s always talking about the ‘good old days’, but he’s dear and he’s part of me and he’s always good for a story that’s a bit out of the ordinary.
Mostly I turn a blind eye or have a quiet giggle at his awkwardnesses and get on with my life, but at the quiet end of the day sometimes I go and sit down on the swing next to him and ask him to tell me a story. Maybe the one about the time we all played sock cricket in the dark, wet and cold in an English raj cottage on the top of a mountain because there was nothing else to do. Or the one about the walks we went on in the dusky Thar desert evenings with the jingle of goat herds’ bells in the distance. Or the one about the colours and smells of Karachi bazaar in the afternoons. Because he’s the guardian of my memories and part of a rich life that now only lives in stories and recollections and coffees with old friends.
Today, I’m a squeak off 40 years old. I’m a TCK. I’m also an Aussie. Most of all, I know that every experience I’ve had has left a mark on me. And I’m exceedingly grateful that many of those experiences were as a TCK.
Can you identify with one (or more) of Cecily’s stages of grief and healing?
**yes, stage 5 is skipped, trouble counting to seven…so there are six stages in the post. Sorry! Editor’s fault (that’s me, Rachel).
Follow more of Cecily’s words and wisdom and writings: www.cecilypaterson.