Outside, you do your best to look good. You greet your neighbors, you engage with your children’s teachers, you’re curious about the new surroundings. You want to keep your spirits up. You consider yourself as brave and determined in your new country.
But suddenly, you hear an old song on the radio or you pick up a familiar smell. They immediately trigger vivid memories: your family and best friends left behind, your previous house, familiar places, your former job. You can’t help but feel the tears welling up…
It’s hard to live in a new world: going outside and feeling out of place, out of sync, bathed in a hubbub of sounds you can’t make sense of, meeting strangers oblivious to what you’re feeling.
You get tired of making so much effort: building new relationships, learning another language, figuring out the cultural habits. You can’t help but compare between what you were used to, what you knew and what you don’t have any more.
You long for your favorite dish or a familiar flavor.
Even if you knew you would come to the US, even if you chose it, you often feel as if you had lost instead of gained. You miss your parents, your friends, your house, your job, your identity.
This highly emotional state is a condition that all expats suffer from at various levels of intensity.
The shocking truth is that all expats suffer from grief: expatriate grief.
But – you’ll argue – grief is usually employed to describe the pain associated with the death of a loved one!
That’s how you’re used to thinking of it. But in fact grief occurs each time there is a loss of any kind. Here is the accurate definition from the dictionary “Deep mental anguish, as that arising from bereavement.”
Mark Twain summed it up beautifully:
[blockquote align=”left” cite=”Mark Twain “]Nothing that grieves us can be called little: by the eternal laws of proportion a child’s loss of a doll and a king’s loss of a crown are events of the same size.[/blockquote]
Expatriate grief includes numerous losses but not the death of a dear one.
As an expatriate, you may grieve for loss of property (house, furniture, clothes), loss of your job, loss of your identity, loss of your routine, loss of a pet, loss of your hobbies. The list may seem infinite…
It’s important to recognize when you suffer from grief. Grieving is a healthy process. But grief needs to be dealt with. It doesn’t “just go away.”
Roman Poet Ovid wrote 2000 years ago:
[blockquote align=”left” cite=”Ovid “]Suppressed grief suffocates, it rages within the breast, and is forced to multiply its strength.[/blockquote]
Ruth Van Reken, expatriate since her childhood, explains in her book about Third Culture Kids (TCKs): “TCK, growing up among worlds” that she suffered from unresolved grief for years. It’s only when she was in her early forties that she finally grieved the separation of her parents experienced when she was sent to boarding school at 6 years old.
So how can you best deal with grief?
Let’s first define what healthy grieving is.
I draw here upon the work of renowned psychologist John Bowlby.
Healthy grieving is first to accept the move and thus to consider that going back is not an option.
Second, it’s to make appropriate changes in your inner world and find a new balance.
As a result, you can distinguish 4 tasks in the mourning process (adapted from professor William Worden’s studies):
- Accepting the reality of the loss
- Working through the pain of grief
- Adjusting to the new environment after the loss
- Emotionally “integrating” the loss inside yourself – giving it a little place in your heart – and/or reinvesting this energy in other activities
To work through your grief, you need to express yourself and to be HEARD.
As wrote William Shakespeare in MacBeth:
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the over wrought heart and bids it break.
But can you always speak so freely? The answer is no, and for various reasons.
- You don’t dare to “complain”. You may even be the one who pushed for the move.
- You’re scared to show you’re vulnerable. You don’t want to lose your pride and disappoint others. You feel you have to stay strong for the children.
- As soon as you try to speak up, people deny your feelings “Oh, it must be so exciting to be there. You’re so lucky. You’re not missing out on anything. Still raining here.”
- As time passes by, it becomes more and more difficult socially to admit that you’re still longing for home. After a few months or years, people can become impatient or irritated “Get over it, once and for all. You’re now in this country for more than 4 years!”
- You want to avoid an argument with your parents “We told you it was crazy to move over there!”
Each grieving process is unique. And there is no standard grieving period. All the more because moving country encompasses two types of losses: definitive loss and ambiguous loss. Both produce different effects.
A definitive loss is a clear-cut loss like selling your house or giving up your job.
While there’s no doubt that such loss can be extremely painful, there is closure.
An ambiguous loss, a unique concept developed by family therapist Pauline Boss in the 70’s, is characterized by a physical absence and a psychological presence or vice-versa.
Leaving your parents behind for example is a typical example of ambiguous loss. You lose the proximity of the relationship (meals taken together, daily encounter, birthday celebrations). You don’t have the physical presence any more. On the other hand, you keep your parents in your mind. They’re always psychologically present.
Pauline Boss, who has been studying ambiguous loss for more than 3 decades, argues that ambiguous loss is the most stressful type of loss because there is no closure.
The ambiguity generates a mix of emotions, often opposite like love and hate, hope and despair.
You may resent your parents because they’re far away and can’t travel easily or because you feel guilty. You love them for their support, their kind attentions and the comforting moments you spent together. They will actually experience the same type of ambiguous loss towards you.
Living in uncertainty (not knowing whether you’re going to see them again one day or when you’re going to be reunited again) can be so disorienting that you get “frozen in your tracks”, as if you were paralyzed.
Worse of all, your pain may likely not be acknowledged.
It’s common to hear comments like: “Why are you sad? Be grateful that you still have your parents! Nowadays with modern technology, you can talk to them and even see them every day if you want to”.
And that only can launch the downward spiral.
You start thinking how incompetent you are. You feel guilty. You may fall into depression.
Beware: while depression and grief often show similar symptoms, they are very different.
Grief is a normal and healthy process resulting from a loss.
Depression is a clinical disease and as mentioned in the dictionary:
A psychiatric disorder characterized by an inability to concentrate, insomnia, loss of appetite, feelings of extreme sadness, guilt, helplessness and hopelessness, and thoughts of death.
But, the difference between grief and depression lies in the sense of self: grief does not damage your sense of self but depression does.
As Freud wrote:
In grief, the world looks poor and empty. In depression, the person feels poor and empty.
It’s important to understand the difference because depression can lead to commit suicide. It’s your life that’s at stake.
If you have suicidal thoughts, you should immediately consult a health professional. Only a qualified medical practitioner can provide you with the right diagnosis and the appropriate medication.
In case of emergency – intention to take your life off – call immediately Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK(8255), the national suicide prevention center. It’s available 24/7 and offers a free, anonymous and immediate assistance.
The number for Spanish speakers is 1-888-628-9454.
Lifeline also provides tele-interpreters and covers 150 languages.
Now, over to you: Have you ever thought of grief in relation with what you’re going through? We’d love you to share your experience in the comments below.
And if you want to deal with your expatriate grief, take the course here. It’s free.
We are pleased to welcome our new guest blogger, Anne Gillme. Anne founded Expatriate Connection, a free online resource for what’s missing in expatriates’ lives: how to deal with loneliness, expat grief and uprooted children. She has been living abroad for 20 years but she’s constantly looking for more answers in the latest developments of psychology, anthropology, social and behavioral sciences. Her dream is to build a thriving and supportive online expat community and make the world a more sustainable place. She’s got 4 children but only one (Muslim) husband.