Beloved Strangers and Grief

Contributed by Lois J. Bushong, MS, LMFT

March 21-23, 2014, I attended the Families in Global Transition (FIGT) conference in Washington DC. The conference is always a highlight for me as I learn about the latest studies on TCKs and the expat, pick up new books, interact with other professionals (i.e. counselors) on how to improve my skills in the counseling office, and just sit and talk with my old and new friends. This year was not any different, except the buzz of excitement seemed to be louder. It could have been because I was not distracted with giving a workshop this year; the new board was filled with positive energy or the larger number of new attendees. The days seemed shorter, and I left with my little iPad chucked full of ideas.

As I think back over those three days, the session that impacted me the most was a seven-minute talk given in the Ignite Sessions by Julia Simens, the author of “Emotional Resilience and the Expat Child.” Julia’s presentation was titled, “Beloved Stranger: Hired Help or Much Loved Reference Person”. Julia shared many stories and pictures of individuals from the host countries who had a big impact on her family. These were primarily the nannies of their two children.

My mind wandered back to my own stories and relationships with maids or housekeepers who lived in our home as I grew up in Central America. Although the countries and sectors were different for the Simen’s family, the bonding experiences were the same. A few of the women from our host countries who impacted my life as a child were Teresa, Amparo and Hermelinda. Teresa taught me how to use proper Spanish, rather then the choice words I was learning on the streets from my peers. Amparo demonstrated how to care for a small parrot and teach it to sing and talk as it sat on its small perch on the porch. Hermelinda quietly showed me the skills of making many of our favorite local foods that I continue to enjoy today. All taught me how to listen and withhold judgment with everyone who shared their workspace. These women were BELOVED strangers in our family tree. But to our family they were not strangers. They were wonderful friends and mentors.

The audience was with Julia as she talked and shared pictures of each of these important members of her family. We were like one group, listening and breathing together as she smoothly transitioned from one beloved stranger to another. That is, until she got to THAT picture.

It was a picture of a young person sitting who was fading into a brick wall. The photo is actually one from Brad Spencer’s collection of  “Amazing Brick Sculptures”. Here she began to talk about how the memory of the “Beloved Stranger” can begin to fade for the adults, but for their children they will not fade as they were among their important attachment figures. She talked about how these nannies and housekeepers must also grieve as they see “their” children whom they have come to love as one of their very own, move away, knowing they will probably never see them again. That was when I had to put down my iPad and dig out a Kleenex from the bottom of my book bag. Throughout the remainder of Julia’s talk, the adult TCKs were in tears while the expat parents were rapidly taking notes.

Once again, it affirmed in my mind what I already knew. Grief and loss is huge among the TCKs with whom we work. When we think we have tapped into all of the grief that has been buried there, we run into another deep vat of grief and loss. I have experienced this myself as an adult TCK over and over again.

I knew that I missed Theresa, Hermelinda and Amparo. But that afternoon I walked out of that session thinking, “Who helped Theresa, Hermelinda and Amaparo walk through the tremendous loss they must have experienced when my parents moved back to the U.S.?” ”How could we as a family have helped all of us in our goodbyes”? “Why did I not make it a point to go back to see all of them before they died”?

What picture or story comes to mind as your ATCK thinks back on that host country person who lived with them over the years? What are the feelings that are awakened? What values did they instill in you that you still claim? And what can you do to honor them today? Do my ATCK clients relate to the term “beloved strangers”? Thank you, Julia, for allowing me the space to stop, remember, and feel these much loved women who left a strong imprint on my life.

Author: Lois J. Bushong, MS, LMFT

Lois J. Bushong, author of the recently published book Belonging Everywhere & Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile, ATCK, Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, writer and international speaker.