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When Christmas Is Not Merry

Background Image, “Christmas Bokeh” by Freddie Brown, used with Creative Commons license


This holiday season is not necessarily a time full of joy and giving for everyone.  Some may be grieving and need to have the time, space and support to do so.


None of us have put up a single Christmas decoration or played a single Christmas tune in the house and this is perfectly okay.


Some are grieving a loved one they have lost or, due to their stage in life, multiple losses of peers contemporary to their age as well as family members.   Some may be experiencing a bittersweet last Christmas with someone who may not have long to live.  Some may be trying their best to move through the holidays with a condition that incapacitates all efforts to celebrate the way they used to.  Some are not able to give of their time, presence or resources because of financial struggle.  For the global nomad or expat community, financial difficulty can mean being far away and isolated from dearly loved family members or friends.

For my readers who are experiencing any of the above or similar situations, please know that you are not alone.  This is my family’s first Christmas without my mother.  None of us have put up a single Christmas decoration or played a single Christmas tune in the house and this is perfectly okay.  This is just how it happened.  I did not plan it, but it was my mom who looked forward to putting the Christmas decorations up and playing the Christmas songs.

Growing up as a Third Culture Kid (TCK), there were times when Christmas did not look like a greeting card or the happy endings in Christmas movies.  There were years I lived separately from my parents and sometimes only one parent could visit for Christmas until I was old enough to travel by myself for an international holiday visit.


 I had seen news images of the revolution and damages in the city, not knowing my parents lived in a crossfire, before I knew exactly where they were and before I could even say “Merry Christmas” to them over the telephone…


The first year I was not together with both my parents for Christmas was my first year as a college student.  I was in California and my parents, who were assigned to Bucharest at the time, were travelling between Eastern European countries to get out of harms way during the Romanian Revolution of 1989.  They experienced difficulties from a car breaking down after hitting a large deer, to not knowing if they were about to be ambushed, to driving without visibility.

They later returned to their residence with the front outside wall of the house riddled with bullet holes and bullet shells scattered across the driveway.   I had seen news images of the revolution and damages in the city, not knowing my parents lived in a crossfire, before I knew exactly where they were and before I could even say “Merry Christmas” to them over the telephone (remember, there were no mobile phones, GPS, commercial use of the internet or data plans at the time).

Christmas has not always been picture perfect, but nothing prepared me for what I am experiencing as well as what the rest of the family is experiencing. Days are tolerable.  I have many funny memories of my mom’s cute and funny statements and ways, but there is a void that will never be replaced.  It is a void that I, on a daily basis, intentionally do not let myself drown in because it would engulf me.  

So it is okay if I do not display the Christmas decorations that remind me of where my mom wanted them placed last year.


Even the simple act of acknowledging someone’s loss and recognizing the value of the loss helps greatly.


My father has been staying afloat with his faith as his primary vessel, even through the moments he keeps to himself, but, I can tell, are less tolerable.  A neighbor who lost her husband several years ago once described the loss of a spouse, different from the loss of a parent, as feeling like a literal “hole in (her) heart.”   For my dad, this holiday season involves memories like exchanging simple Christmas gifts and greetings in a car stranded in a blizzard somewhere in Eastern Europe, when the most valuable gift is each other’s life.  

So it is okay if my dad does not switch the radio to tune into Christmas songs the way he used to every year while my mom was no longer able-bodied.

My son also keeps his emotions to himself, but I know he also feels the void and misses his confidante.  I am witnessing how he, as a teen, does what he can to be as supportive as possible of his grandfather and mother through this season.  His growth into adult years involves the lasting impression if my mother, whom he came to know not only throughout his childhood, but now through the stories we tell about her.  

So it is remarkable that my teen son even thought of using his hard earned money from his part time job to buy Christmas gifts for us.

For my readers who know families who may be experiencing a loss of some sort at this time, I hope you can offer some support.  Even the the simple act of acknowledging someone’s loss and recognizing the value of the loss helps greatly.


 The pace and expression of grief is different for everyone, especially during the holidays.


There is no benefit to expecting or pressuring anyone to demonstrate emotional or spiritual strength by acting joyful at this time.  There is a difference between letting someone know they are not alone and offering support in the form of company or sharing a meal, and expecting changes as a result of your support.  The pace and expression of grief is different for everyone, especially during the holidays.

A member of a family that was at least at one point globally mobile can be experiencing more than one of the grief situations I mentioned above.  Thus, it is important that we, a community of globe or cross-cultural trotters who most likely have said more goodbyes than we wanted to, honor those who are grieving and the way they wish to grieve this holiday season.

This season may not be picture perfect or resemble happy endings in Christmas movies, but it can be a time to reflect back and honor the perfect and happy memories of loved ones.

I leave you with this holiday greeting I posted in social media on December 24, 2013:

Moments are never repeated again. No matter how routine or tedious some things in life can feel, our days are never on auto-repeat. 

Whether we feel invested in or detached from each moment, we will never be able to go back to it.

Taking a mental snapshot of this time when I can embrace both my parents, my son and our dogs.

Sometimes it takes a painful looking back at the past to realize things were never the same again.

May we all have more of the gift of consciousness of what we’d miss, looking back, in each “now” moment…my hope and prayer for all of you out there this holiday/ Christmas season.


Thank you all for reading and following my blog posts.

Until our next hello in 2015,

Myra Dumapias

Background Image, "Christmas Bokeh" by Freddie Brown, used with Creative Commons license

Background Image, “Christmas Bokeh” by Freddie Brown, used with Creative Commons license

Expat Aging, Caregiving and Related Journeys: Why Bring Them Up

Photo credits: Juangiahui used with Creative Commons

Photo credits: Juangiahui
used with Creative Commons license

Thanks to decades of hard work of committed researchers, authors, speakers, voices and communities in social media, and the sheer power of individuals sharing their stories, what the world knows today about expatriate (expat) life and the globally mobile family is increasingly moving out from under the shadows of stereotypes.  

The population of expats or global nomads, estimated to be 220 million by Pico Iyer in his 2013 TedGlobal Talk, is not a homogeneous group.  Global nomads represent a variety of backgrounds and are more than just the face of pampered global citizens glamorously living in exotic lands.

We have now begun to recognize, even in mainstream social media, the issues common to Third Culture Kids¹ and Cross Culture Kids²:

–  The sense of dislocation in defining, “Where is home” and finding where you belong

–  The struggle to explain your identity and “where you come from in a world that only justifies rigid identities and is impatient with grey areas

–  The impact of unresolved grief in relationships as an adult and how it is invisible in childhood

–  The urge to move frequently or need to withdraw, which can be dismissed as mere negative or irresponsible personality traits by non-TCK’s

– The compatibility of TCK’s and non-TCK’s or First Culture Kids in relationships 

–    The question of whether or not TCK parents should raise a new generation of children as TCK’s, knowing the challenges that come with it

…among others.

The Elephant in the Suitcase


[Photo credit: Tara Birds/indigoinkreations]

Yet there is a journey that not many global nomads have begun to speak about: the life stage that includes aging, sudden health or mental health related disabling conditions, and dying.

It is uncomfortable, morbid, and intrusive, and seems rudely inappropriate or cold.  However, it is absolutely necessary to discuss to avoid negative experiences for everyone due to lack of preparation.  Why? Simply because we, as a tribe of global nomads, have already come to understand the importance of healthy goodbyes.

The experiences of expats leaving aging parents behind or suddenly repatriating to care for them may be familiar to my readers who are expats, especially the women.  It goes even deeper.  Now, we are living in an age when there can be two generations of expats above the age of 55.  Seniors are living longer (see these recent articles from Australia and the U.S.).  The proportion of seniors are also about to increase.  While there are 600 million people aged 65 and over today, according to an article with United Nations statistics, by 2035, that number will increase to 1.1 billion.  With these trends, it is necessary to get deeper into the picture of what expats go through as expats themselves age or retire. (Please see links below)

A globally mobile past can make for difficult and complex decisions surrounding caregiving support, place of residence for retirement, and death and burial planning, especially when adult children are still relocating.  Even more complex issues arise when health or mental health related disabling conditions happen at a younger age than expected.

With the extreme disparities in the cultural expectations, economic status, safety net for retirees, and other factors among the expats’ host countries, expats can experience aging differently from one another.  Certain populations of global nomads can easily fall through the cracks without sufficient social support, financial backing or the mental preparation for the stage of life that non expats struggle with as it is.

It is an uncomfortable topic, but a high ranking diplomat, for example, can experience a sudden plummet in his or her socio-economic status if faced with a sudden health crisis around the time of retirement. If that diplomat serves an economically poor country, chances are the retirement pension cannot provide adequate support to recover from any sudden crisis. Military veterans, retired missionaries, corporate expats and other global nomads are not exempt from this. No matter how much one saves or plans financially, a perfect storm of unexpected events may quickly wipe it all away because a crisis can be just the beginning of a tough road.  Suddenly, the whole family and potentially three generations can become drastically impacted by what would otherwise be mostly affecting the elderly.

Despite the misconceptions and stereotypes about expats and Third Culture Kids, social workers, counselors, psychologists, faith-based ministries, teachers, human resource staff and others must recognize this reality:    Expats have a wide range of genuine needs distinct to individuals and families with a current or dormant globally mobile life, and the life stage of aging or sudden disability is a significant transition.

The juncture at which converge the decision on which country to live for retirement, policies regarding government benefits intended for nationals with a long work history, and the timing of possible migration for family reunification is very complex and unique to baby boomers who are globally mobile.  Because of this, the journey of aging and retirement can be one of the most drastic life transitions in an expat’s life.

This also has implications for one of the most discussed topics addressed in the existing literature on Global Nomads or Third Culture Kids and Cross Culture Kids thus far: unresolved grief. Unresolved grief, has had a dramatic impact on the lives of expats and the global family who did not have the proper support through the multiple life losses that come with an expat life.  The life stage of aging and retirement, with all its final goodbyes, is one that individuals and families with either an active or dormant globally mobile lifestyle, must be well prepared for.  Those who are left behind at this life stage need to prepare to grieve with hopefully the least regrets as possible.  Those who are departing must rebuild the “RAFT,” coined by the late author David C. Pollock and co-author Ruth Van Reken, needed for the final goodbye.

For all these reasons, I hope to be able to join the ranks of those who have come before me and add my contribution using my own personal story.  My other blog posts will focus more on specific topics and insights.  After years of serving the global nomad community through TCKid: A Home for Third Culture Kids, I hope now to also offer my insights from watching my expat parents age, one parent’s life end, my son’s struggle as a 3rd generation TCK and my own TCK journey as a caregiver with obligations to stay when I felt itchy feet the most.  

My goal is to help other families prepare and make the most of their time together in this journey where there is no turning back.

Until our next hello,


Photo: “Last Call” by Juangiahui, used with Creative Commons license 

Please click here for more information about why this blog was started.

1 –  “A Third Culture Kid is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside their parents’ passport culture(s).” The experience includes “frequently build(ing) relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any. Although elements from each culture may be assimilated into the TCK’s life experience, the sense of belonging is in relationship to others of similar background.”  
2 –  “A Cross-Cultural Kid ( CCK) is a person who has lived in—or meaningfully interacted twith—two or more cultural environments for a significant period of time during developmental years.”
Source of definitions: Pollock, D. and Van Reken, R.E. (2009) Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds. Boston: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

 See – UN World Population Aging 1950-2050, and  UN World Population Aging 2013 ; how Australians are living longer but suffering more from chronic diseases, and how elderly in the US are living longer.

© Myra Dumapias and The Last Boarding Call, 2014-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Myra Dumapias and The Last Boarding Call with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.