How to Process Goodbyes With Art—5 Powerful Ways

Photo by  Oskar Kadaksoo  on  Unsplash

The "revolving door" is beginning to spin—I can feel it. Our expat friends are getting ready to move. They are busy packing up, selling their things, and heading to their flight. They are moving on to their next home while we wave goodbye and tearfully watch them leave.

Will this "revolving door" also bring some new people, potentially new friends? We hope! It often does, but right now we focus on the faces of those getting ready to go. Goodbyes to people who have impacted us, who we've shared meals and struggles with, whose children played with ours.

Adults can often process these goodbyes more easily than children. It's hard for children to verbalize their different emotions or know what's causing them to feel a certain way.


Expatriate children, also known as TCKs (Third Culture Kids), say a lot of goodbyes during their early years. Goodbyes to homes and possessions, friends and nannies, cultures and familiar routines. It's healthy to process these goodbyes so they don't struggle with "unresolved grief," common to TCKs.

Our deep feelings are housed in the creative right hemisphere of the brain. Often, art and pictures help release these emotions so words can be attached to them and understanding can be reached. We encourage you to try out these creative ways to process goodbyes with the expatriate children in your life, and you might find you enjoy them just for yourself as well.


Bring out some fun crayons or markers and invite the child to draw or color.

An indirect approach invites them to draw whatever comes to mind. A fun way to do this is to have them scribble on a blank page. No right or wrong here. When they are done, have them turn their page around different ways and see if they can see something. A lion? The ocean? An eyeball? Then, they color in what they see, and you discuss it together. This tends to encourage creativity, and sometimes, emotions flow.

A direct approach is to give them categories to draw. For instance:

  • Draw a memory you have with the person or family that left.

  • Draw a picture of your home.

  • Draw a picture of your feelings.

  • Draw a picture of what you like to do.

Observe what colors they chose to use and what people were missing or present. Invite conversation over their drawings.


Allow the child to take photographs. Invite them to choose a theme for their pictures like, "See if you can take a few pictures that show "goodbyes." Other categories can include happy photos, angry photos, sad photos, hopeful photos. See what the child captured and invite him or her to, "Tell me about this one" to open conversations.

Use online pictures to help them describe how they are feeling. Ask, "Which picture describes how you feel right now?"


What music does your child enjoy listening to? What do they like about the songs?

Some songs have goodbye and grieving themes. A song by Michael Bublé entitled Home has lyrics which may awaken emotion in TCKs.

Photo by  Alireza Attari  on  Unsplash

"Maybe surrounded by

A million people,

I still feel all alone.

I just want to go home.

Oh I miss you, you know."

Listen together and talk about the memories these words evoke.


Soon after our return to our passport country, our 15-year-old son invited over a new friend to watch a movie. From the other room, I heard teenage female bickering coming from the television. Surprised because my son prefers adventure thrillers, I came into the room and asked what they were watching.

"Mean Girls," my son said.

"What? Hmmm, I never heard of that one," I said confused, "What spurred you to watch it?"

"It's about a girl who was homeschooled in Africa and now goes to public school in America—just like me."

Ahhh, I got it now! He wanted his new friend to better understand some of his experiences, portrayed through movie form. Maybe he also wanted to see if her experience was similar to his.

Search for a film or movie that deals with transition and goodbyes and discuss it with your child. The Karate Kid (1984; story of a boy who moves to a new city) and Neither Here Nor There (2011; short documentary about TCKs) are two to consider. (Though, peruse movies first to see if they are appropriate for your family.)


1. Make print copies of some photos that capture some past memories—both important events (ex. when the exiting expat friend came over for a barbeque and a soccer match) and daily events (ex. when Fatiha came over for tea and brought a beautiful cake). If print copies are hard to get, pull up the photos on the computer. Have your child pick one that strikes them at that moment. You choose one too. Grab pieces of paper for both of you, and set a timer for seven minutes (or the time you prefer). Enjoy writing whatever comes to mind when you look at the picture.

You'll find what you think about might not be what you expect—how sticky the tablecloth felt during the snacktime, where did that stuffed bear go that I see in the corner of the picture?, how I miss strawberry season, my friend's hair always smelling like onions, etc.

Read through your pieces together and enjoy.

Photo by  Tyler Nix  on  Unsplash

Photo by Tyler Nix on Unsplash


2. Pick a writing prompt, and again, set the timer for seven minutes and write (or if they are too young to write or they write slowly, be their secretary while they speak).

Some prompts to consider:

  • List words that feel sad (could be adjectives, memories, people names, news stories, etc.).

  • What's a memory that had the color red in it?

  • What's a time that you laughed really hard?

  • What's one of your favorite desserts? When's the last time you ate it? Tell us about it.

  • What's a smell you like?

  • What's your favorite character in a book? What do you like about him or her?

Even though you may have helped your child say "goodbye" well, grief may cycle through again a few weeks later. Provide a listening ear, try another art activity, cry along with them, and give them hope.

Are you a parent of TCKs who is looking for resources, tools, and materials to help them thrive? We recommend Kaleidoscope’s monthly Parent Chronicles Community here.


The art categories and ideas come from the influential book, Belonging Everywhere and Nowhere: Insights into Counseling the Globally Mobile by Lois J. Bushong, M.S.

The Art Therapy Sourcebook by Cathy A. Malchiodi, ATR, LPCC