Saturday, February 8, 2014

10 Ways to Break Sad News to third Culture Kids – Expat Families

Before I took on the prestigious job of ummm … a trailing spouse, I was drilled with wise and no-so-wise advice on how to raise my future expat kids.

Make sure to speak to them only in Arabic. That one proved difficult but really vital.

They have to have daily contact with their family back home. Skype, photos, virtual dialogues, and visits helped with that. Long uninterrupted summer vacations in Egypt have also anchored my kids to my homeland.

Cook Egyptian food, Show pride in your homeland, Remind them of our traditions…..

Eleven years later and a myriad of school international fairs later, I take pride!

BRAVO... I have managed to raise at least one very Egyptian kid, one semi-Egyptian, and one oblivious to what that really means but still happy to be called Egyptian.

Tarek, 11 speaks Egyptian as good as I do. Taymour, 8 has an accent and funny translated vocabulary but the character of a true Egyptian street kid J, Tamara, 5 is struggling with Arabic but has no problem swaying her little figure to the drum beat and proudly wears her costumes at culture days.  It does help that Egyptian dresses have lots of bling and bright colors.

Molokheya is a staple on our table and Foul is our favorite Sunday brunch dish. But my biggest achievement is their sense of belonging!

When my kids speak about family, they don’t just mean the nuclear, immediate, uni-cell family that most expat families identify with. They mean their grandparents, aunt and uncles, cousins despite the wide age gap and a few best friends (although friendship has a very different meaning to them, but that’s another blog altogether).

And that’s when it backfires.. I’ve had the misfortune to deal with a strong family tie that has to be severed from afar twice in less than 3 years.. or is it more?

First, with the passing of my dad... One day he was there.. The next the kids had to go back to New York with their father because BiBi (my dad) was in hospital. Ten days later, they were told they would never see him again.

I don’ think they quite understood back then, but they kept true to their identity and they have consistently kept his memory alive; even Tamara, who was only 3 at the time.

But now, I had to break yet another sad news. Their grandfather, Walid’s dad had passed. I was aware of two new facts: 1- They are much older now. 2- Walid is not with us and won’t be for a while, which means I have to break the news, absorb all aftershocks and do it alone!

And when you do a job too well, sometimes all you reap is … Heartache!

As I go through a week of shock, mourning, blocking, pretending, denial and anger with them, I learn a few lessons no one 11 years ago has prepped me for.

11-   Expat kids have a deeper emotional attachment to extended family. They simply don’t take such ties for granted. Never under-estimate the impact of such loss, especially if it’s so sudden.

22-    When in mourning, Expat kids resent the isolation this lifestyle imposes on them. They want to be there, feel what everyone is feeling and see how things are done.

33-    Blocking comes handy when you live so far away. What you don’t see, you simply don’t miss as much. That however, makes it so much harder when summer comes, kids go back home, they start dealing with the apparent loss but everyone around them has already moved on.

44-    It is wrong to push the news to a later “more convenient time”.  I was tempted to do so, but I was wrong! An eleven year old sometimes needs to reach out and share, not in retrospect.

55-    Kids are more resilient and bounce back much faster. So any attempt, no matter how tempting, to dig deeper and probe with emotionally charged questionings is simply unnecessary torture. Don’t fool yourself into believing you are doing this to make sure they don’t bottle it all in.

66-    Engage third party helpers.. Nothing helped my son more than his conversations with his peers in school. He came back one day and told me: “it seems that everyone of my friends has lost at least one grandparent already”.

77-   Stop the urge to lure your kids into your own web of chagrin. If they see that you are fine and can live passed this horrible experience, they believe they can too. SO suck it up! My bathroom floor can attest to the millions of stifled tears it has witnessed in the past three years.

88-    Some kids, one of mine included, can’t quite cope with the concept of imminent death. Their fear becomes so exaggerated that they start questioning, when your turn will come, or worse, when theirs will. I still remember Tarek’s first knee-jerk question when I told him that my dad was gone. “What if it happens to you?” I told him I was confident it wouldn’t. I lied and hoped to God, he won’t fail me on that one, at least for now.

99-    Pray.. Kids need to believe in the afterlife; that their beloved didn’t simply cease to exist; hat they are out there somewhere receiving all our positive thoughts. It really helps during those first few days. It doesn’t matter how you chose to pray, just allocate that time everyday to channel some positive thoughts and send them straight to heaven.

110- Follow their lead. Don’t impose your grief or the way you chose to express it on them. Give them space to mull, roll and chew on the concept. They will come to you when they decide to share and they will impose how they wish to do just that!

I don’t wish this upon any trailing wife, especially one like me, who feels stranded out here in snowy Westchester while my whole family and friends are all gathered in mourning, seeking comfort from and around each other.

Rest in Peace Oncle Abdel Halim and may this be the last of our family sorrows for some time to come.


  1. Lou! This is a beautiful post! So touching and so true
    I can only say that it gets better ( talking about your posts not
    Iike in general) and it gets more and more personal
    Can't wait till I read a whole book written by you
    Keep it going cous
    Love you

  2. Heartwarming... Vraiment Chapeau... Keep up the good work... You are a terrific mother ;)