• One thing no HR Manager will ever tell you when relocating

    Posted by Dannielle Noonan

    grief edit.jpg

    There's an aspect of moving abroad that nobody likes to talk about, and while 'Expat Spouses' are possibly most at risk of suffering from this symptom of relocation, those who are moving overseas either alone or with their families can also experience Expat Grief. Medibroker's health insurance advisors speak to expats about their health every day, but are you taking care of your emotional well being? We asked an expert how expats can identify and cope with Expat Depression.

    A guest post by Anne from Expatriate Connection.

    Frank gazes through the window. A wrinkle crosses his forehead. In his previous office, he used to see the park with beautiful trees, changing colours with the seasons.

    Now his view is the wall of another building. It doesn’t matter so much anyway. In this new country, thousands of kilometres away, there is no season. Only sun and sand.

    A look at his watch, it’s noon. Lunch time.

    He hesitates.

    ‘Shall I go down to the cafeteria, grab a sandwich and eat it alone in front of my screen? Or should I go out and have a little walk to stretch my legs? Each day, I face the same dilemma. Many colleagues here just take 10 minutes to eat a sandwich at their desk. And when they occasionally gather, they’re speaking so fast that I’m always left out. I just feel so awkward watching them laugh without understanding why.’


    Frank’s heart twinges.  He misses his friends and colleagues back home but especially the jokes exchanged at lunch time. It was so collegial, they all took an hour lunch break at the company’s catering facility. He loved the informal chat around the coffee machine, and the more personal evening discussions when nearly everyone had left the office.


    He misses the sound of his language, the smell of fresh bread, the social aspect of his previous work culture, even watching a soccer game with his dad!


    ‘Of course, I’ll never admit it in front of my wife. I can’t: I’m the one who dragged the whole family along. If I start to show the least sign of weakness, she’ll want to go back. Also, the truth is I get so busy with my work and tired by the frequent travelling that I don’t have to think about it too much.’


    Frank believes he might be a bit homesick, that’s all. And it’ll go away from itself with time.


    What Frank doesn’t know, what his HR manager – who explained to him everything about his relocation package, his extra-legal benefits, his retirement plan, his health insurance scheme – didn’t tell him and maybe didn’t know either (!) is that every expat suffers from expatriate grief.


    What is expatriate grief, you may wonder.


    Expatriate grief is the ‘multifaceted response to loss when moving abroad. Although conventionally focused on the emotional response to loss, it also has physical, cognitive, behavioural, social, and philosophical dimensions’ (adapted from the Wikipedia definition).


    Leaving a country where you’ve been living for some time triggers both losses and gains. But in order to appreciate the gains, you first need to mourn the losses.


    The brutal severing of ties with people, places, occupations, language, culture, food, climate - as experienced in case of an international move - causes 2 types of losses: the definitive ones and the ambiguous ones.


    You’re familiar with definitive losses: the sale of your house or the resignation from your job. Once they’re gone, you can’t get them back. A definitive loss is irreversible and there can be closure.


    But ambiguous losses are less widely recognized and labelled as such. An ambiguous loss, as defined by therapist Pauline Boss, who coined the term in the 70’s, ‘feels like a loss’ but is not a real, substantive loss. The best example for expats is leaving the extended family and friends behind.

    You miss them, they’re present in your thoughts but are physically absent from your daily reality. There is no ‘closure’.


    Losses – no matter how big or small – need to be grieved, a healthy reaction that requires validation and work within yourself to unfold and resolve.

    Note that grief in this context is distinct from the death of a loved one as is often associated.


    Why is it so important to know about expatriate grief?


    If this process is not unfolding as it should, you or your family members may suffer from unresolved grief that can take its toll decades after the event of separation. You may develop ‘overactivity without a sense of purpose, lasting loss of patterns of social interaction, agitated depression with tension, insomnia, feelings of worthlessness, self-accusation, obvious need for punishment and even suicidal tendencies, furious hostility towards someone connected to the loss, symptoms of guilt and self-reproach, panic attacks and somatic symptoms.’ The list is not exhaustive!

    Now is that starting to sound more serious?


    Moreover, naming what you feel as ‘expatriate grief’ gives you some clues to deal with it. Considerable work has been done on grieving. Expatriate grief encompasses much more than homesickness, a term that everybody can relate to and picture in their mind but may too easily dismiss.


    If you suffer from expatriate grief, what can you do?


    The 4 tasks of mourning are 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 – give it a little place in your heart – and/or reinvesting the energy in other activities  (adapted from the work on mourning the death of a loved one from Professor of PsychologyWilliam Worden).


    To perform those tasks successfully, you need to be heard without judgement.

    And this is extremely rare because few people – even among expats – can grasp what you’re going through. A US expat friend of mine didn’t think I could suffer from grief when I moved from France to Belgium – 250 km away. Western culture, similar food, comparable climate….

    Expatriates themselves may deny their feelings by classifying their losses as ‘first world problems’, wondering whether they’ve become ‘spoilt brats’. They've often experienced an increased quality of life, or at least income, by taking the new job. So what is to complain about?


    Unfortunately bottling up negative feelings doesn’t help. Worse. It’s a sure recipe for long term damage.


    Your suffering needs to be acknowledged and validated by supportive people.

    This can be extremely difficult for expats who are living far from loved ones. But the latter - those seemingly obvious support people - might not be the best choice because they’re emotionally affected by your departure.  They need to grieve too (!).

    And can they really wrap their minds around your experience?

    ‘What? You seriously miss the coffee machine?’


    On the other hand, expatriates may still be too new to have a local support network. It takes time to establish contact each time from scratch when you move. You're probably a bit fragile too. These challenges make the grieving process even more difficult to successfully resolve.


    What finally draws Frank to pay attention to this situation is not himself. It’s his wife. She’s drifting. Seriously.

    Since he has found out about expatriate grief, he’s able to look for help more efficiently. He’s now offering her several options to choose from. Counselling and support groups are available either locally or online. 


    Have you ever thought about grief in relation to your move abroad?

    If you’d like a taste of what it looks like to tackle expatriate grief effectively, you can take this free mini-course I've put together to help fellow expats through Expatriate Connection.

    Anne Gillme founded Expatriate Connection, a free online resource for what's missing in expatriates' lives: how to deal with loneliness, expatriate 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 behavioural sciences. Her dream is to build a supportive online expat community and make the world a more sustainable place. She's got 4 children but only one (Muslim) husband.

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