Its That TIme of Year Again, When Expats Say Goodbye
It’s getting to be that time of year again, when expats
say goodbye. Many friends may be getting ready to move on, either back to their home countries or to other postings. And those of us who are staying here are starting to feel their loss, even while they’re still here.
We may even feel the loss of people we haven’t been particularly close to. But somehow their presence, knowing they’re here, has been a comfort, a familiar face that will no longer be with us.
Many expats who have been at a posting for a long time, either because they’re married to a person from their host country, or because they have thriving businesses there talk to me of this phenomenon. It can bring up sadness, and sometimes a strange sensation of missing out, that everyone is moving on except them. They tell me it’s difficult to have to keep making new friends, especially when they know that even these new friends will leave.
And this year, I too am sharing some of these same feelings. I’ve been in New Delhi for almost 8 years, and am not ready to leave. Because I have an adopted Tibetan daughter here at university and a thriving business doing work I love, I’ve decided to remain here at least for the foreseeable future. I am happy here. Yet even when casual friends tell me they’re leaving, I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach.
There’s a child inside who wants to cry, “Oh no, not again!” It’s the child inside of us that feels loss most acutely, probably because we felt abandoned by someone at some time during our childhood, and no one tried to help us deal with the loss in a healthy way. And I’m not necessarily referring to physical abandonment. An adult or childhood friend may have emotionally withdrawn from us for a variety of their own reasons.
As young children, we always prefer to believe that it’s something about us, something we did wrong or didn’t do, to explain why we’re being treated in a way that doesn’t feel good. For children who suffered physical or emotional abuse, this is particularly evident. But the same dynamic is at play for those of us who weren’t abused, but perhaps not always treated as tenderly as we would have liked.
The reason children believe this is a simple logic. If it’s something I’ve done, then I can change and do something differently. If it’s not about me, but about the other person, then there’s nothing I can do, which would feel too hopeless for a child to consider.
So getting back to loss, if someone in our life left us during our childhood, either physically or emotionally, we believed it was because of us, even if we were told differently, which most of us weren’t . Children have a kind of “magical thinking” which serves them in many ways. If only I do_______, then the person will come back, or this won’t happen again. It actually helps children to mitigate loss.
The problem is that unless we become conscious of these old outworn beliefs, they operate on an unconscious, “auto pilot” level into our adulthood. So even though we know intellectually that a friend is leaving because she has a new posting, it can trigger old feelings, and we have that sinking feeling that we can’t quite explain, and that seems out of proportion to the actual loss.
So what to do? The first step is to allow yourself to experience your sadness or whatever feelings you’re having. Then we can ask ourselves, what we believed about ourselves when people left in our childhoods. It’s usually something like ‘I wasn’t good enough, loveable, beautiful, smart or whatever enough’. Then we have to see if these old beliefs are still present within us, perhaps in a different form, or with different words. The next step is to see what is actually true in the current situation, and in so doing, a healing starts to take place. We replace the negative belief with the truth.
We can also help our children with this same process. By first normalizing their feelings, and then asking them how they feel or what they think about themselves in regard to a friend leaving, and finally asking them to look at what is actually true in this situation, the healing can take place on the spot. And hopefully there will be no need to carry the feelings over into adulthood.
A word about sadness: there is nothing wrong with feeling sad. It’s a universal human emotion; one that everybody experiences at some points in their lives. We need to allow this feeling in ourselves and our children, and validate the feeling as normal and natural. I find that when I can allow sadness to just be present, it quickly transforms itself into something quite pure and rich.
We get into emotional trouble when we judge ourselves for having the feelings we have and tell ourselves there’s something wrong with us. We need to be kind to the small child who still lives inside of us, and who needs to be acknowledged, valued and loved in the same way that our real life children do.
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