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A ‘Classic TCK’ Living With Unresolved Grief Learns How to Heal Through A Messy First Draft That Blossoms Into A Memoir

For a long time, I didn’t know what was wrong with me. As the daughter of a Korean diplomat, I had a privileged global upbringing. I studied at Oxford University, then started a promising career working at a Big Four accounting firm in London. On paper, I had everything going for me.

But behind the scenes, I was suffering from depression and drinking throughout most of my twenties. In truth, my mental health issues started much earlier; it seemed maybe I was just born this way.

My epiphany happened when I came across the book “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds.” I imagine many readers may already be familiar with what’s widely recognized as the TCK bible, but I’d never heard of the term “TCK” before. And boy, was it eye-opening — and so validating — when I did!

Author Lena Lee. Photo courtesy of Lena Lee.

As someone who moved countries every three years growing up, I was a “classic” TCK. I exhibited all the hallmark personal characteristics and relational patterns. For instance, my tendency to dive deep into friendships, which I’d always assumed was a personal quirk, proved in fact to be a TCK thing.

UNRESOLVED GRIEF

But there was one section in particular that really spoke to me: the bit about unresolved grief among highly mobile people like me. At first, I winced. Grief sounded melodramatic. No one had died. But then I started to recognize the many significant losses and abrupt endings in my life that I hadn’t come to terms with, even all these years later.

Growing up, everything changed every three years. Not only my house, school and friends but the food, the language, the culture, the climate, the color of people’s skins. Everything.

And with change came loss. None of my friendships lasted over three years. Three years was their shelf life. After that, with one flight, I’d be on the other side of the world trying to make new friends. Rinse and repeat.

I vividly remember saying my final goodbye to my friends in the United States when I was fourteen. My mom came to pick me up after our last sleepover, and I sulked in the backseat. My friends huddled around, leaning into the car. They tried to hold on as my mom gently stepped on the accelerator. It was like a hearse driving away. My friends wept, and it felt like a part of me really had died.

Although my mom would praise me for how well I adapted and how easily I made friends in each country, these losses accumulated in me and manifested themselves as the various stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression. I needed to grant myself permission to grieve, to mourn my losses, so that one day I could reach the final stage: acceptance.

I vividly remember saying my final goodbye to my friends in the United States when I was fourteen. My mom came to pick me up after our last sleepover, and I sulked in the backseat. My friends huddled around, leaning into the car. They tried to hold on as my mom gently stepped on the accelerator. It was like a hearse driving away. My friends wept, and it felt like a part of me really had died.

Lena Lee

LEARNING TO HEAL

For me, the healing process took the form of writing. As the first lockdown hit the United Kingdom in March 2020, I tried to disentangle the big mess that was my thoughts, feelings and memories and arrange them into words, sentences and paragraphs. The writing was terrible, and the timeline jumped all over the place. But none of that mattered. I just needed to get it all out.

grief

As part of the process, I looked through old photos and memorabilia and was surprised to find myself crying while rereading old letters, some written to me nearly two decades ago. This was unresolved grief.

I’m proud to say that three years on, the messy first draft has evolved into a published book, Girl Uprooted. it’s my deeply personal story of being uprooted many times over and finding a sense of identity, belonging and home. It’s also my story of healing from unresolved grief.

Lee’s book is available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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