Being expat

Good-byes are hard for leavers and stayers!

To all those who left, to all those who will leave, and to all those who will stay…

I don’t know how many times I had to say good bye to friends in my life. It started when I was very young and it never stopped, it never will.

We can find many advices for people leaving, how to organize a moving and how to make the move smooth for children, family and friends. But what about those who stay? I’ve been the leaver so many times and I found that when you’re preparing for a move you go through several phases that can even help you to cope with this change. But what about those who stay? They feel left behind.

I find that the stages a staying person is going through are very similar to those of the person who’s leaving. In his classic model of the normal transition cycle, David Pollock notes five predictable stages for leavers. I base this post on David Pollocks chapter “The Transition Experience” (in  Third Culture Kids. Growing up among worlds, David C. Pollock and Ruth E. van Reken, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009, pp.66-73), trying to consider the stages from both point of views, the one of the leavers and the one of those I call the “stayers”:

1) Involvement

This first stage of transition is quite comfortable as everyone still feels settled and comfortable: “we feel a responsibility to be involved in the issues that concern and interest our community, and we’re focused on the present and our immediate relationships rather than thinking primarily about the past or worrying about the future” (p.66). Leavers don’t yet know that they will be leaving.

2) Leaving

In this second stage, life begins to change. The leavers learn that they’ll be leaving and start to prepare. If the departure date is not too close, they begin loosening the emotional ties, they back away from relationships and responsibilities. They call less frequently and don’t start new projects at work. Leavers will start to deny feelings of sadness or grief in order to avoid painful moments, but the grief won’t go away, it will hold on until the next stage of transition.

This detaching process is really hard for the stayers. They are confused and can feel anger or frustration.

Leavers will realize that they won’t be part of future plans of their community  and they will feel left out; they will feel invisible, rejected. The feelings of resentment and rejection can produce anger and cause conflicts. Therefore it’s important to let others know about these feelings: “Failing to acknowledge that we are beginning to feel like outsiders (and that it hurts) only increases the chances that we will act inappropriately during this stage” (p.68).

Leavers in this stage will also be more reluctant to reconcile conflicts with others, risking to arrive to their “next destination with this unfinished business clinging to (them) and influencing new relationships” (p.68). Bitterness can be the consequence. Some even deny any secret hope in order to prevent disappointment.

As stayers, we loose our ties and tend to exclude the leavers from decisions about future events.

If the community gives a special attention to the leaver at this point, through ceremonies of recognition etc., thanking for being part of a team or a group, this recognition helps the leavers to forget that even if “they promise to never forget each other, already there is a distance developing between (them) and those (they) will soon leave behind” (p.69).

3) Transition

The transition stage begins the moment leavers leave the place and ends when they arrive at their destination and make the decision (more or less consciously) to settle in and become part of it.

During the move, usually we “lose our normal moorings and support systems” and in this sense of “chaos makes us more self-centered than normal” (p.69). The only things who matter to us in this first part of the transition stage is our health, finances, relationships, personal safety etc. Parents in this stage often forget to take time for their children to read stories, to pick them up or sit with them for a few minutes. This causes insecurity and contributes to the chaos and family conflicts are very frequent in this stage.

It’s the stage of highest stress: how is the new community going to take care of our everyday aspects of life like banking, buying food, cooking? How will the school be, the new working environment, the neighbours etc.?

Especially in cross-cultural moves adults have to learn life practically from scratch: “As teenagers and adults, probably nothing strikes at our sense of self-esteem with greater force than learning language and culture, for these are the tasks of children” (p.70). Sometimes, our cultural and linguistic mistakes embarrass us or make us feel ashamed or even stupid. We easily feel upset, angry and some may even experience depression.

This stage is the first stage the stayers are not directly involved. They may try to cheer up their friends who left by calling, skyping etc. but they can’t really help them directly. Stayers feel the grief. Their friends are gone. The house is empty, they are not there anymore. They realize that life has to go on. Especially for children this is the hardest time. At school, the seat of their friend is empty and they often physically feel the loss. They are sad, some will talk about it, some won’t. It’s important for the parents or caregivers to be aware of the grief these children are feeling and to give them the support they need.

4) Entering

The entering stage, leavers start to accept that it’s time to become part of the new community and they begin to figure out how to do it. They still are vulnerable. People feel a lot of ambivalence in this stage. They start to learn the new job, the rules at school, they start learning the new language. “Emotions can fluctuate widely between the excitement of the new discoveries (…) and the homesickness that weighs us down” (p.72). We feel how different we are in this new place and wish to go back where we were “normal”. But we are in the learning process about how life works in the new place.

“Entering is the stage where leavers need good mentors, someone who can show us how to function effectively in this new world”

At the end of this stage, hope begins to grow and we feel the first sense of belonging to the new community.

For the stayers, this is a sort of entering phase too. The entering and readjusting phase. The phase where they have to go back to their lives without their friends. In this phase they can also will have moments of homesickness: they will miss their friends and would like them to come back. It will be an up and down of emotions, but they’ll finally adjust.

5) Reinvolvement

This stage is like the light at the end of the tunnel: reinvolvement is possible. Every “leaver” will need some time and willingness to adapt before becoming part of the permanent community in the new place. Some may even feel a sense of belonging, of intimacy and that their presence matters in the new group.

Those who were left behind (the stayers) will have achieved a new balance, without their friends. They will have found other, new friends and carry on.

Time feels present and permanent

as we focus on the here and now

rather than hoping for the future

or constantly reminiscing about the past. (p.73)

Knowing about this normal process of transition, about the various stages helps to be prepared, to recognize where we are, what will come next. It also helps to make the decisions and choices that help us to benefit from the new experiences “while dealing productively with the inevitable losses of any transition experience” (p.73).

English: Cover of book Third Culture Kids: gro...

English: Cover of book Third Culture Kids: growing up among worlds, by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

17 replies »

  1. TCKs… I’ve not looked into this yet, but I’ve been wondering whether there’s any literature for “TCAs” (Third Culture Adults). I never moved as a kid, it all started when I was already an adult, albeit still a teenager. I don’t feel like an ‘expat’, probably because I haven’t been sufficiently ‘inpat’. I’ve not lived in my country of origin for well over half my life, and my ties to it, at this stage, are pretty sparse. I guess it’s a weird position to be in…

  2. Thanks for sharing this! I’m right in the thick of the transition and am feeling all of the described feelings! It’s helpful to label the feelings and to know they are normal.

    • Hi Adriana, yes, I know. You’re probably in the middle of the transition phase. It’s quite hard. Especially the continuous ups and downs can be daunting. But I think it helps to know that all this is “normal”, that it is a phase and it will end. Hang in there and try to help your kids too. It’s difficult to focus on all the things that need to be done. You’re writing a blog about your experiences here in the NL, will you keep writing also about this phase ? It would be very interesting. – Maybe when you’ve reached the last phase and are settled again 😉 Meanwhile I wish you and your family all the best, that you’ll have a smooth transition. xxx

  3. I do like your posts. I always feel identified or I learn something new. My husband is reading your blog too as well after he read the interview I published this week. You have at least one new fan!

    Have a great afternoon and evening!

  4. Well written and interesting, Ute. I remember several of these feelings when I moved from the US to England years ago. I plan to move overseas again some day and will keep this book in mind.

    • Thank you, Nate. Especially if you are in one of these phases it’s really helpful to know what comes next (and that is very normal). If you are a stayer and have many friends leaving at different times, you can even experience to be in more than one phase at the same time…

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *