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Third Culture Adulting

By Caitlin Tegenfeldt and Tabitha Davis
Third Culture Adulting

As international teachers, we have all experienced the loss of a close friend, whether they moved on to another school or they returned to their home country. One teacher expressed our shared experience perfectly—at least for those of us who are Harry Potter fans—when he said, “It’s like horcruxes; I’ve left my soul with different people in different parts of the world.”
As authors, we wanted to address this phenomenon having ourselves experienced challenges related to desperately missing our close friends. According to one teacher, after her best friend moved, “the challenge was to know where my space was in the school. I didn’t have a safe place.”
What stages do adults experience?
There is no right or wrong way to deal with this sort of loss. Adults, like children, develop various coping mechanisms, rituals, and patterns that we follow in order to prepare for the loss and maintain the relationship after our friend moves away. In other cases, we allow the relationship to come to an end.
According to Tanya Crossman, we typically go through four stages: isolation, engagement, enjoyment, and settling. Most of the teachers we interviewed never fully settled back in after having lost a best friend.
Sometimes, we feel burned out after investing in relationships time and time again, only to have our best friends move away. Some teachers let go of the relationship once their friend has moved away. They stay focused on the relationships that are available and present on a day-to-day basis. One teacher expressed this by saying, “I compartmentalize loss and pain. My grieving process is to move on. I like the idea of saying goodbye in a nice way. I don’t have time to do it or the mental capacity.”
Before your best friend leaves
Leading up to the move, many educators make a point of having “lasts,” whether that means a last drink at your favorite spot, watching a final Liverpool game together, or going for one more run around the lake. One teacher assists her friends with their transitions, making sure she’s there to support the packing and moving process, as well as helping to research their new home.
The last few months of school for a teacher that is leaving can be filled with negativity, as they are trying to emotionally separate. There is a reason why the first step in building a RAFT (reconciliation, affirmation, farewell, think destination) is reconciliation. One teacher reflected on this saying, “It is a drain when other teachers are preparing to leave. April and May—the negativity is too much. They find everything they can to emotionally separate.”
The greatest difference we have noted between third culture kids and adults is that adults are in control of their moves and how they process their emotions and thoughts around their transitions, whereas children experience transitions as happening to them.
Our advice? Be open to new relationships, no matter your age. We’re here because we have somewhat adventurous spirits. If we feel the need to be hermits for a while, so be it. Eventually, we try to find people with shared values. We know that there is a possibility that we will meet our friends again in a different setting. Friendship and loss come and go in cycles, so we try to go with the flow, as we extend our global networks. Life carries on, regardless of who’s there and who’s not.
A middle school teacher says she copes with a friend’s move by engaging in the community by taking up new hobbies, such as painting classes or yoga. Another secondary teacher organizes book clubs and informal gatherings among newcomers and returnees.
While social media makes it easier to keep in touch, leavers and stayers still need to make the effort to maintain a long-distance friendship. A number of teachers meet over school holidays, while others continue their shared experiences through Skype calls, over a glass of wine, or an afternoon tea, or coffee.
Each teacher we interviewed recalled close friends who moved on, leaving the stayers feeling a void. Whether or not that void is to be filled is up to the stayer. Some of us see the evolution of these significant relationships not so much as a void or a loss, but rather as a chance to express our gratitude not only for their friendship, but also for the roles these individuals have played in our lives. For many of us, it’s more of a “see you later” than a “goodbye.” Life goes on.
Caitlin Tegenfeldt and Tabitha Davis are colleagues at the International School of Yangon and have gravitated to each other through their passion of understanding and supporting Third Culture Kids.

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