Staying Well: 10 Tips for Expats Who are Left Behind

Dub and EmmyLeaving is hard.  Being left is harder.


Transition is a huge part of life for an expat.  That’s understood.  By the time you sign on you’ve wrapped your head around the fact that you’re about to trade normal for unknown.  Returning home is the same story with a twist.  There are seminars for all of that.

What they don’t tell you in the brochure, however, is that the transition never stops.  Expat communities are a revolving door and just about the time you start to adjust to your new found normal, people leave, and your normal changes again.

It’s the Expat Exodus . . . transient people coming and going.  Tough all around.


Go here for some thoughts on going home (or elsewhere) after life abroad:

The often unmentioned casualties in the whole story however, are neither coming nor going.  They are staying.

The Stayers pain is less pronounced, less expected and less acknowledged than those who are leaving.  They’re not packing up and saying goodbye in a frenzied mess of dinners and parties and awkward, intentional eye contact.  They’re also not freaking out about the next thing, the new job, the overwhelming inevitables that are coming at the end of a long painful plane ride.

But when the goodbyes are over and the repats are gone . . . there they stand . . . in the exact same spot . . .

No exciting “next chapter.”  No happy family reunions.  No big adventure.  Everything exactly the same only much different.

Staying is the only expat transition with no honeymoon period.  

Leaving is hard on Stayers.

Here are 10 Tips for Staying Well:


Tip #1:  RAFT’s are not Just for Coming and Going

I am a monster fan of Dr. David Pollock’s model for transitioning well known as Building a RAFT (Google it).  It’s so simple and yet so comprehensive.

It is brilliant for people beginning their expat journey.  Brilliant again for those ending it.

Unfotunately it is all but ignored for Stayers.

Reconciliation  •  Affirmation  •  Farewell  •  Think Ahead

Don’t let people you love leave without walking through this process for yourself .  The beauty of such a transient life is the natural growth of a phenomenal, global network of true friendships.  Expats get to know people all over the world.  Leaving broken bits of relationship unattended to weakens that network.  Communicating — VERY SPECIFICALLY — how much you appreciate people makes it crazy strong.

Build a RAFT even if you’re not going anywhere.


Tip #2:  Flip the Manual Override Switch

Some people are phenomenal at gushing from the inside out.  They are naturally transparent and affectionate and so easily expressive it hurts.  This tip is not for you.  Sorry you only get 9.  You may skip to #3.

The rest of us live on the flip side of that universe.  We start sensing (consciously or otherwise) that something bad is about to happen.  Our internal systems go on red alert and start shutting down.  We ignore.  We pretend.  We may even drum up some conflict to make it less painful to let go.

Catch it early and force yourself to do what is NOT natural.  Go manual.  Say the things you want to say.  Get all awkward and nervous but don’t miss your window because it didn’t “feel” right.  And don’t make the excuse of “ehh they know how I feel.”  They do not.  People are dense.

Bonus tip:  It’s ok to acknowledge awkward:  Laugh about it.  Make a joke about it.  Sing a song about it (seriously, I met a guy who couldn’t work up the nerve to say good goodbyes so he grabbed his guitar and spontaneously sang songs to everyone in the room to tell them how he felt – genius).  The point is, when it’s over they need to genuinely know how you feel.  


Read this blog post:  My Head in the Clouds – If You’re Staying — Great advice for how you can love on your departing friends.  Good stuff.


Tip #3:  Go Away and Come Back

There are dismal days after the Exodus.  Personally it was always gut-wrenching for me to walk around my apartment complex and be painfully aware of who was NOT there and who was never coming back.  It’s like a ghost town but that sense is exaggerated in the moment.  I personally think it’s fair to change your scenery for a bit if your schedule and budget allow it.  Take your family and go visit one of the spots you’ve been wanting to see.  Grab some friends (if there are still some near) and hop a train to anywhere.

I don’t think it’s running away to run away briefly.  Give yourself a few days (or weeks?) to get your mind on something else BUT (underlined because this is a huge but) don’t stay gone (physically or mentally).  Make a plan to re-engage your real life.  Don’t pretend nothing is different . . . but take a break.


Tip #4:  Schedule your first Skype Call

Goodbyes are saturated with good intentions.  Non specific, ambiguous, unscheduled plans generally don’t ever happen.

“Keep in touch.”

“Talk to you soon.”

“Can’t wait to Skype.”

“Call us when you get there.”

All great thoughts but unlikely in the context of life.  Especially the life that your departing friends are about to encounter.  You don’t have to schedule the next six months worth of weekly calls.  But get the first one on the books.  Figure out the time zone difference.  Know where they’re going to be and when . . . and schedule it.  That first chat will be sweet.  Increase the liklihood of it actually happening.


Tip #5:  Grief is Not Just for Dying

Transition = Loss = Grief.  Leaving or being left is not death.  It’s not the same kind of pain.

That said, when something has been a rich part of your life and then it is no longer there, what often happens is very accurately defined as grief.  This is the kind of grief that sneaks up on you and smacks you from behind because you weren’t expecting it.  They didn’t die.  You didn’t get divorced.  The traditional grief rules don’t apply here but it’s the real deal and grief is a process.

Denial  •  Anger  •  Bargaining  •  Depression  •  Acceptance

Now is a good time to study up on grief.  You’ll not only give yourself the freedom to go through the process but you’ll make a little sense out of what is happening to you.  Grief is a real thing.  Don’t be ashamed about that and do everything (underlined for emphasis) you can to get the support you need.

Bonus Tip:  Scroll through the comment sections of the links listed above (Ten Tips for Leaving and Landing).  There are some really rich and vulnerable accounts of people who have dealt with the grief of transition.  Also some great extra tips and advice.


Tip#6  Get All Creative

Here’s my dream project that we haven’t done yet because we’ve been renting and landlords get kind of grumpy about stuff like this.  We paint a wall somewhere in our home with a world map.  The whole wall.  It’s huge (in my dream).

Then we hang pictures of all of our friends according to where they live in the world (at last count we had friends from 37 countries).  We also paint the countries that we have traveled to a different color and put pictures of our trips.  Then we paint the countries that we want to go to. How cool would that be?

This is what I want to happen as a result of my Global dream wall:

  • We are reminded every day of how awesome our expat experience was.
  • We never forget about those friends.
  • We never stop being a global family (big fear of mine right now)
  • We celebrate as a family when we get to hang new pictures and paint new countries.
  • We’ve got a huge conversation piece that let’s us talk about our story.

That’s one idea but there must be a billion more.  Get crazy creative to help yourself  (and your family) not lose touch with the pieces of your life that have moved on.  Share your ideas in the comment section.


Tip #7:  Michael W. Smith Was Wrong

Sorry – I know not everyone reading this grew up in the American, Christian 80’s like I did but if you did it’s likely that you have a love hate relationship with the song (it’s hard to even type it) . . .

Friends are Friends Forever

We sang this song at every camp, every graduation and every youth event we attended for at least a decade.  Each time the result was the same — dozens of violently weeping teenagers locked up in a gigantic group hug . . . then we played it again because whatever it was we were doing . . . was over and we couldn’t bear the thought.

Before I digress let me just take issue with one line . . .

“But we’ll keep you close as always . . . it won’t even seem (short pause) you’ve gone . . . “

Nope.  Not true.

When they leave, it most certainly does seem like they’ve gone and they are nowhere near as close as always.

It’s a great thought, but in the interest of closing the gap between expectations and reality.  I thought you should know.


Tip #8:  It doesn’t Get Better

Geesh.  This blog post is depressing.  Sorry.

I talk to a boatload of expats.  All of them hate June (click here to find out more)  but the ones who have the hardest time with people leaving are not the rookies, they’re the vets.  The  15+ crowd are the ones who ball like babies and say, “I am SO SICK OF GOODBYES!!”

You’d think they might have it figured out by now but they don’t.  Scratch that — some of them do — but for the ones who really get Tip #9, it never gets better.  In fact it gets worse every year.


DubandTashTip #9:  Never Stop Engaging

Saying Goodbye is hard.  It’s crummy actually (pardon my harsh language) and frankly saying goodbye to multiple friends every year (not just in June) can wear on a person.  It is normal and common to become callous.  Whether you consciously make the decision or not your brain is smart enough to make the connection without you.

“If I don’t get close to these new people, it won’t hurt so bad when they leave.”

Ding, ding, ding . . . you, my friend have figured it out.  The secret to the painless expat life.

One catch.  Write this down and then underline it . . .


It hurts because it is good.


The better it is, the more it hurts.   You can absolutely save yourself massive amounts of pain by not engaging in new relationships but as a trade off you will miss even more massive amounts of really good stuff.

And that’s only looking at it from a selfish perspective.  Long termers who hurt deeply when people leave have inevitably poured their lives into people who have grown by knowing them.  Those who figure out the secret, on the other hand, become bitter, closed off and have little impact.

Your choice.

Bonus Tip:  Don’t be who you’re not.  You may be a total introvert.  Staying engaged doesn’t mean you need to sign on to be the community welcomer extraordinaire.  However, when you are engaging at a level that is lower than your norm, you might be headed the wrong direction.

Tip #10.  (Wanna’ Guess?)  Grace — Give it Freely and Keep Some for Yourself

  • When you’re departing bestie makes up a reason to be mad at you so it won’t hurt so bad to say goodbye.  Give her some grace.
  • When a RAFTing departer “forgives” you for something you didn’t even know you did.  Give him some grace.
  • When you thought they were going to Skype and they didn’t.  Grace.
  • When someone plays “Friends are Friends Forever” at the goodbye dinner.  Grace.
  • When the new people think they can just come right in and be your friends.  Give them some grace and just be their friend.
  • When you watch your fourth good friend of the year wave from airport security and disappear . . . it’s for you too . . . Whatever happens next, give yourself some grace.


It hurts because it’s good. (underlined because it’s true)

If you are a Stayer, I hope this helps.

If you know a Stayer, please pass this on.

If you’ve been there and done that don’t be stingy.  Add your tips.  What worked for you?




  1. So true that the whole group needs to be RAFTing. I had a set of dormparents who set aside times during nightly devos at the end of the year for each person to be affirmed–not just the people leaving. There are always things that need to be said by and to both the people leaving and the people staying.

  2. I’m not sure if this comment fits here or in the Leaving Well post, but it’s necessary for everyone that a leaver say goodbye. I’ve had friends try to leave very quietly because saying goodbye is so hard. But then the stayer misses out on the necessity to say goodbye. And it is a necessity. I’m not leaving after 8 years and reminding myself of this. It’s been hard saying goodbye each year and the last been the hardest as good friends have left each year before me. God has been preparing me for being ready to leave myself. There are hard parts to staying and leaving.

    • At our International school, we had a Jan-Dec school year but started counting graduation credits mid-Year 8, so everyone graduated in June & then the Aussies, Europeans etc finished out the school year. I saw off all the N. Americans, then found out that I was being sent “home” to boarding school to repeat Grade 12. I left 2 days before the rest of my class started arriving back from their villages, and never got to say goodbye to any of them. It was excruciating.

  3. Thank you, thank you, thank you!! I grew up as a TCK and am now living overseas again as an adult. It’s June and so many are leaving AGAIN. And, it hurts, you’re right – it NEVER gets better!! (So, I must be doing something right.) Everyone is sharing all the articles about how to transition well, and I was just saying that someone should write an article about “Staying Well”. So, thank you for doing it, and doing it so well. Something that worked well for my mom and I when I was in high school – when “everyone” left, we would look for someone in need and do something for someone else – whether that meant cooking them a meal or visiting them in the hospital, whatever they needed. But, it helped us get over the pain of grieving to focus on someone else’s pain. I wouldn’t recommend it as a way to avoid or run away from the grief, but maybe to help see beyond our own grief and make sure we keep our perspective in that there are others hurting around us.

  4. Excellent tips!
    I agree that the line from Michael W. Smith’s song is unrealistic. But I do want to share some hope that sometimes there is a special relationship where “Friends are Friends Forever if the Lord’s the Lord of them.” When I was about 12 years old some very good friends relocated to the USA. Our friendship changed of course in that they were no longer “close” in location, and they were clearly “gone”, but we kept in touch. As a teenager I spent two summers with them in the USA; when I went to the USA to attend college they became ‘my family away from home’; and even years later, several more countries in-between, and back to the USA again living in the same area, I was in one of the daughter’s weddings and a year later she was my matron-of-honor. Now we are separated again, and although we do not talk regularly, there is a bond that will always be there and is always rekindled when we are together again. I am thankful for my parents who were discerning enough to know that this was a friendship worth fostering, were willing to pay for and let me spend two summers with this family, and to invest in our families’ friendship over the years. So thankful that when they said goodbye so long ago that our friendship was not final, just different. Now as a parent, I want to encourage those unique forever friendships for my children, even if distance now separates them. I can not force it, but I will encourage it, and let time guide their future friendship. It is definitely worth it to “not lose touch with the pieces of your life that have moved on”.

    • Love this Beth.

  5. I am the one being left behind. My peace comes by knowing that as much as I love my family;I know that there is someone who loves them more than I do. Also I am not able to see the future,but He can .I

    feel safety because they are in His care and doing His will. No I am not super human and yes I will miss them like crazy but We can all do this in His power!!!!!!

  6. Just what I needed! Thanx! An for tip #6: i’ve purchased a homemade desk that my “leaving” friend has had for years. i can picture her sitting at it, doing so many different things. it will be a constant reminder of my friend.

  7. Oh how I laughed at the “Friends are Friends Forever” point. “Each time the result was the same — dozens of violently weeping teenagers locked up in a gigantic group hug.” So true 🙂

    Excellent post, which I’ve shared on FB.

  8. Thank you, Thank you! I have Good-bye exhaustion and old-expat syndrome. I hesitate to engage the newbies and wonder if they will survive their first year. But I know I need to welcome them into the expat community and perhaps find a new friend.

    There are SO many article for expats returning to their passport countries and even articles for the people welcoming them back. But this is the very first article I have seen that address what the “stayers” experience.

  9. Thank you, such good tips! To #10, I would add give grace to yourself. I’ve been staying for 10 years, and sometimes giving myself the grace NOT to engage quite so fully with newbies who I know are only going to be around for a year or two is simply a matter of survival.

    I appreciate the realism of #7, too. And not only do friendships NOT stay as close as before, some of them simply end altogether, despite your best efforts to plan skype calls etc., and it’s not always predictable which relationships morph and which ones just end (until heaven). When relationships end (especially if they end unexpectedly), I try to remind myself that we as humans weren’t created to maintain an infinite number of close social connections anyway, and the new ‘hole’ in my emotional world is also space to make a new friend (maybe even one of those one-year-term newbies). 🙂

  10. RAFTing my whole life. It does not even easier and I refuse to not engage so I embrace the new relationships and keep the old. Now my older friends are beginning to die. And I drive as far as I can to go the funerals because I need to say good-bye well.

  11. I will be looking up RAFTing. I am a mom whose daughter is leaving for a 2 year stint in the Peace Corps. She is leaving in November and I’ve been crying since I found out 5 days ago. I know this post wasn’t aimed at families left in the US but it really did help, thank you.

  12. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I am in my 13th year in Beijing, and once again watching so many leave. This may be the first thing I have seen anywhere about those being left. The school has welcome parties and leaving parties–nothing for those staying year after year. I attended a lecture on TCKs by an author, spoke with her afterwards about the glaring gap of TCKs who aren’t moving every few years. I got the impression our crowd didn’t interest her. As for the positives, our trip to the US this summer will include visits with many friends scattered all over the US.

  13. I would probably add another very important tip-balance your life and relationships to have lots of local friends too. They generally don’t go anywhere (except maybe the beach for a week in august!).

  14. I can’t stop crying. I’m in my 7th year. Call me slow, but I just this years started putting together how much it hurts to be a stayer.Thank you for all the ideas and help.

  15. It’s June and I am doing this right now. I read this a few months ago, now re-reading as I actually walk the reality. It’s my second year, and I hate goodbyes and being the stayer. In ways it is much harder than being the go-er, at least in my experience. Thank you for validating this and for the words of wisdom here. My heart needs to be reminded of all of these, and especially to continue to engage well, because it is worth it, even with the accompanying pain. Thanks for this goodness!

  16. Hi Jerry. I was looking for a way to contact you personally. I’m the editior of The Global Teacher, a digital magazine for international teachers. I’d like to ask you some questions about your work. Our email address is or our Facebook page is – you can send me a message either way. Cheers, Nicole.

  17. Sigh–it gets harder each time. I even find now just saying goodbye when family and friends visit sends me into that same grieving as the summer exodus goodbyes do. I never imagined a global life would include so much pain and so many goodbyes. Thanks for the great article.

  18. One obvious gap in this article…if you make friends with the people from the country in which you are living your life will be richer and more meaningful. Expat friends are great and leave, host country friends are great and stay. Why not have both? This would be my tip #1.

  19. a tangential comment … how about those who return to their passport country, who’s friends are all ex pats and the friends keep on with their ex pat life and postings … and you’re left behind, not in the host country but in the passport country that doesn’t feel like your own. very very painful … i comment from experience! gill

  20. Jerry, my name is Katie Coons and I’m a friend of a friend. Actually lots of friends:) (you can ask Dan and Sara about me:) Anyway, we live and work in Shanghai pastoring an expat church near the Shanghai American School, British School, and 5 other international schools. I would love to do a leaving well seminar for our congregation as many will be repatriating this summer. I would also love to do a TCK seminar in general as I’ve gotten the feeling so many people haven’t had much in the way of information and help for parenting TCKs in this little area of the world. By any chance are you going to be in China this spring? A pipe dream for sure, but if you are near Shanghai next month, please let me know! Thanks!

  21. What I find most difficult is to put together the energy to meet new people after friends left, especially if I am up for a transfer any time. I always wonder: is it worth the effort?

  22. Still trying to wrap my head around how to do this well, but all of these tips resonate deeply. It’s graduation day at our international school in Germany, and I’m feeling this keenly at the moment. I have to continually remember that it’s so much better to stay engaged and invested than disengage and live with that regret. Thanks for the perspective!

  23. While I appreciate your comments, may I say that you seem to be taking life way too seriously. Proximity relationships (where we bond with people at work, at school, in our neighborhood, etc.) are “for a season, ” and are generally not lifetime bonds. We may have some folks who stay in touch, but the vast majority move on to relationships in their new proximity and are far too busy or lazy to do much more than look at facebook. After a five-year stint as an ex-pat in Costa Rica, I am simply grateful for the experience and have no time to lament about who does or doesn’t stay in touch. There is an old truism — “Because we met, we are both different.” Celebrate the fact that you have touched lives and that others have touched yours.


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