Life Transitions with Parents

tina quick intercultural transitions.jpg

By Tina Quick

There they were, the telltale signs that my parents were squarely planted in the “leaving stage” of their upcoming life transition. We, their children, had been trying for years to get them to think about the inevitability of having to leave their beloved home for the security and stability that an assisted living facility could offer them. The two separate incidents which brought them to share a room in the skilled nursing rehabilitation facility also brought them to the realization that they could never manage on their own again, even with outside help.

As my brother and I managed the details of their move, I was struck by how acutely the stages of Dr. David Pollock’s (co-author with Ruth Van Reken of “Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds”) transition cycle were playing out for them. The stages were applying not solely to their physical relocation, but to their life transition as well – from independent adults living out their retirement dream to aged parents requiring assistance with daily living.

The circumstances could not have been more convenient for the arduous task of packing up their belongings, clearing the no longer relevant, finding their small dog a new home (dogs are not allowed in this facility), and getting their new apartment set up and turn-key ready for their move-in.  They would be in the rehab center for one month. The denial was thick in the air as I expressed frustration with their inability to follow through on the one simple instruction I had given them. They had a whole month to review all the photos I had taken of their home – furniture, closets, corners, shelves, insides of cabinets and more – and decide what they wanted to keep and what could be let go. As we prepared to go back down to Florida for the big yard sale we discovered they had done none of it. Perhaps by denying it, it wasn’t really happening.

Then a neighbor had the bright idea of driving them to the house on the day of the yard sale! Pandemonium ensued. My mother was talking prospective buyers out of their new-found treasures while Dad was telling us we weren’t charging enough for the priceless items that were practically flying out of the driveway. We finally convinced the well-intentioned neighbor to take them back to the rehab facility so we could finish out the day. Letting go while holding on was not easy to witness. We saw it again when they insisted we drive them by the empty, lifeless house with the “For Sale” sign predominantly displayed in the front yard. Their grief could not be contained as the memories and tears flowed equally.  This was tough. Besides dealing with the pain of moving my own family around the globe on several occasions, this was one of the most difficult things I ever had to do.

I experienced a déjà vu of sorts when I walked away, leaving them in their foreign surroundings. What was it I was feeling? What was that familiar emotion so palpable in the pit of my stomach? I’ve had it before, so many times. Then it comes to me. I’m feeling the guilt that comes with uprooting people I love; watching them grieve and not knowing how to comfort them. Instead I find myself mouthing empty phrases like, “Don’t worry, you’ll make new friends here,” or “Be sure to get involved and don’t just stay in your apartment all the time.” I haven’t comforted them at all. I understand that if I were to comfort them I would be admitting my own pain and sadness. So I encourage them instead. Something I used to do with my own children in their transitions. There it is again, the guilt.

I imagine my parents too, must have gone through these feelings each time they moved me and my brothers. Now it has come full-circle.

I shared these feelings with another adult third culture kid who had gone through the same experience with her parents. This TCK had the added dimension of having grown up in boarding schools.  It hit her hard when she had to leave her mother in a nursing home and was given a list of needed clothing items with strict instructions that name tags be sewn on everything. As my friend sewed name tags onto her mother’s clothes, she was haunted with flashbacks of being dropped off at school and wondered if her mom and dad had felt this strong battle of responsibility of giving her the best education mixed with overwhelming guilt for not keeping her at home. Again that déjà vu feeling that our generation of expats experience as our parents age and we are called on to help them manage their life transitions.

I watched and marveled as my parents experienced the predictable emotional highs and lows of settling in to their new surroundings – the transition stage. I braced myself for the dip in the ‘u’ curve of what I like to call “transition shock.” It’s the culture shock that comes with any life transition, whether it be transition to a foreign country, repatriation, or other major life change. And come it did. Both Mom and Dad dealt with bouts of anxiety and depression, but to their credit, they rallied to force themselves onto the new scene by engaging in the activities on offer. This is when I was reminded that though they may not realize it, they too, have been through this many times before in their lives. While it may seem a lifetime ago, they packed up and unrooted themselves and their children time and time again during my father’s 22 year-long military career. Mom quickly made Quonset huts in Japan, high-rise apartments in Turkey, and temporary housing units all over the U.S. feel like home to us kids. By placing familiar knick-knacks and wall hangings around our new digs and getting us into our regular routines as rapidly as possible, we felt the security of home with our parents at the center of our world, there to care for and protect us.

What may have blindsided them in this transition, is the very thinking that throws expatriates off-guard. When we move to another country where we look and sound like the surrounding dominate culture, we just assume we will adjust very quickly. We, in the inter-cultural world see U.S. expatriates to countries like England and Australia, thrown completely askew when the transition does not go as smoothly as expected. Thankfully my parents did not have to leave their community where they had good neighbors and friends from church who regularly stop in to visit, but their entire lifestyle is different. “It’s just not home,” my father would say.

I was surprised but relieved when Mom called not long ago to say, “Thank you.” She unmistakably verbalized all the proof I needed that she had reached the entering stage. She thanked my brother and me for instigating and orchestrating their move. She had come to accept the realization that due to their medical conditions, they would never have been able to live on their own again. She now appreciates all the assistance and support they are receiving in their new environment and have even made some friends and found new routines to enjoy. But true to the emotional instability that continues through the transition into the entering stage it is no surprise when she calls to say that while she knows they are right where they need to be, she is overwhelmingly sad. Through conversations with FIGT colleagues I have come to understand that this is not an “either / or” situation, and I am pleased to see how she has been able to embrace the plethora of emotions all mixed together – good with bad, happy with sad.

I encourage her in her grief. I tell her to get all those photos out that I took before we disassembled their precious home and to spend time with them. Remember what they had in that place; not just the possessions, but the memories as well, evidence of a life well-lived in a place well-loved.

I won’t say my parents have come full-cycle to the re–involvement stage, but I am hopeful. They just commandeered the corporate top brass of the assisted living conglomerate to change their policies and allow pets. The day after the ruling came through, they brought home their new housemate – an adorable Chihuahua!

The globally mobile lifestyle I have led with my own family reminds me that life is really just a series of constant transitions and I must prepare myself for the possibility that just when it seems they have finally reached adjustment, something else will transpire (another major health incident or even the death of their life-partner) to start the transition cycle all over again. As I like to say, “Life is a chapter book. The trick is in knowing which chapter you are in.” I’ve come to realize that you can’t fight change (transition) but if you know what to expect, you can get through it with as much grace as my parents are attempting to do right now.

Tina Quick, an Adult Third Culture Kid and author of The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition.