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.
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.
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?