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Saying Goodbye: How to cope as the ex-pat being left behind

Blog by
Dr. Nicola McCaffrey (DClinPsy.)
Clinical Psychologist

It is getting to be that time of year again when leaving drinks are being squeezed into every free evening and you hunt the shops for something meaningful and representative of the country and culture your friends are about to depart from. Almost all ex-pats have experience of being ‘left behind’ and likely have just as many ways to cope with this as friends that they have lost. Interestingly, many ex-pats attest to experiencing loss many months before their friends leave.

Living in Stavanger for the past five years I have not only experienced this kind of loss at a personal level but also professionally. I have met with many clients in my clinic who struggle with feelings of isolation and uncertainty when their friends leave. It can cause a great deal of frustration and worry about how they will cope as they see the support network that they have so carefully built over the past years, dissolve over a matter of weeks.

These experiences bring up a great many interesting issues from our childhoods including feelings of loss or abandonment, which can be particularly painful. We can get into an emotionally unhealthy place when we shame ourselves for feeling this way and tell ourselves that there is something wrong with us for feeling this way or we might try to cope using maladaptive strategies such as avoidance. It is important to notice and acknowledge the great many feelings you might be experiencing at this time from sadness, to anger, to warmth and relief. You might even find it surprising to realise that these feelings can all happily co-exist within this experiences. We can also do the same for our children who are likely to be going through the same process. Ask them how they feel and normalise these emotions in relation to the situation. If they do not have the words to understand these emotions you can even help by giving them a name. Remind them to look for the truth in the situation rather than jumping to unhelpful and unrealistic conclusions, such as “I don’t have any friends left now!”.
But what can you actually do for yourself not to just survive these experiences but perhaps to thrive through them?

One of the first steps is to acknowledge and experience the feelings for what they are. Often we push them aside or try to ignore them for fear that they will be too painful or you won't have the capacity to manage them, especially in the public arena. Remember it is likely that your friend is feeling this pain too. Remind yourself that there is nothing wrong with grieving the loss of this friendship. Sadness is a normal, universal and appropriate human response to loss that everyone has likely experienced over their lifetime. Allowing sadness to be present and acknowledging it can open us up to its healing qualities.

Even anticipating a loss can be painful and there might be a tendency to withdraw from the relationship before your friend actually leaves. If you notice this happening, you might want to ask yourself what the benefits of pulling away from this friendship prematurely actually are. Sometimes at the root of this behaviour is the beliefs that if we leave first (emotionally) then our loss will not be so painful. If you notice this in yourself examine it closely. There is quite a glaring hole in this logic. Quite simply no matter what when someone we love or care about leaves us, it is painful. But that pain does not have to be destructive or dangerous.

Another way of coping with the loss of friendship is to reframe it. If we always turned away from every experience that took us out of our comfort zone or had an element of risk then the depth with which we led our lives would be very shallow. So in answering the often pondered question in my sessions “what is the point in making friends anyway they only leave?” my answer is along the lines of the quality of life we live and the values with which we live it. Should you chose not to venture into new friendships then you undoubtedly will not have to experience the pain of loss and grief when it is time for them to move on. However, you also miss out on the joy, meaning, support and connection such friendships can bring. For me I am fully aware and willing to pay this price. What these friendships bring far outweighs any pain or sadness I experience at the other end.

If you are an expat, and if you have friends, then dealing with a friend leaving is inevitable. You may not like it, but for me it beats the alternative. At the same time, sadness and the wish to protect ourselves from feeling sad in the future is perfectly natural and understandable. We all want to enhance pleasure and minimize pain in our lives. Many have argued that these are core ingredients of being human. And for a period of time, it might make sense to retreat and nurse your wounds, being kind and gentle toward yourself during this time. You are in all likelihood preparing the ground for new friendships to blossom.
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