This is the time of the year when many internationally living families are preparing for their next move. They will soon leave the place they called “home” for the last few years and conquer new frontiers.
Leaving is never easy, but we can learn how to do it in a healthy way
Especially when we leave a place where we have invested in friendships, learned to belong, and built a “home”. Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things expats need to learn. And it’s one of the things their children (need to) learn at a very young age. We all know: transitions are part of the expat life.
The cross-cultural trainer Tina Quick, popular international speaker, transition expert and author of The Global Nomad’s Guide to University Transition states that:
“Leaving a place you have been rooted in for any amount of time is never easy, but making the time for proper farewells is something no one has ever regretted. Proper closure and forward thinking help pave a smooth road to transition and reduce the stumbling blocks of adjustment…”.
How does a “proper closure” exactly look like?
In their book “Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up Among Worlds”, David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken suggest to build a R.A.F.T. in order to have a proper closure:
R for Reconciliation
During the leaving stage we tend to deny or avoid confrontation with those we had disagreements with. We think we won’t see this person again and since we are going to leave anyway, why bother? Fact is that unresolved problems will stick with us like a mental baggage.
It happened to me with someone I had a problem with in highschool. 20 years later I happened to run into her on a train station. We only had like 5 minutes, but I felt like 20 years before: all the bad feelings were there again, like if all these years hadn’t passed! Instead of a quick smalltalk, I chose to put our problem on the table, right there. It was an awkward situation and at the meantime very revealing because we both realized that we had experienced this time in two completely different ways and we both had outgrown this moment but needed a closure. I never felt the bitterness that I used to feel when thinking about her ever again.
Avoiding reconciliation is an unhealthy habit because it can cause bitterness and our discontent can affect our future relationships. Therefore it is important to resolve any problem and to forgive and be forgiven before moving. – And so do our children! They may need a mediator for this.
A for Affirmation
The key is to leave in peace. We’ve encountered and befriended many people over the years, and in order to be really emotionally and mentally moving on, we need to let them all (!) know that we appreciate them.
Many fear the tears and the sad feelings that leaving entails. But we have the choice to focus on the positive moments we have shared together and to solidify our relationship with them. – Closure doesn’t mean that we have to say goodbye forever. We say goodbye to this phase of our life they were part of. But they can remain our friends.
If we look at the terms used in different languages to say “goodbye”, they are not forever but usually mean “see you again”: auf Wiedersehen, arrivederci, au revoir, hasta la vista, now vemos etc.
By planning a gathering together after our move or regularly scheduled skype-chats can make it easier to say goodbye. We might not meet as frequently as before, but there’s still a chance to keep in touch. Social media are a great invention for internationally living families: you can still share happy moments with friends living on the other side of the globe.
I have said goodbye many times and I am always amazed to see that really good friends stay with me no matter where I live: they’ll always call me, meet with me in whatever places and will be part of my life.
We can help our children to do the same with their friends by letting their favourite friends, teachers, neighbours know that they like them and that they want to stay in touch. Throwing a farewell party in the middle of all the preparations for the move seems overwhelming, but it’s really worth the effort! If you want to keep it simple, a kind of gathering in one of your (or your kids’) favourite places with these special friends will do it.
Affirmation is important also among siblings. When one of our children leaves for college or boarding school, it’s important that the siblings are reassured that they’ll still keep in touch. A commitment to call, skype or regular visits will reassure everyone that this is just a phase, a change and not an ending.
F like Farewells
Most of us try to avoid the word “goodbye”: it hurts since it marks an end. It’s the end of a chapter in our life. It’s important to take the time to pay attention to things we’ve enjoyed. Taking pictures of places, doing things we’ve enjoyed, meeting friends: every member of the family will benefit from gradually saying goodbye to the 4 “p’s”: people, pets, places and possessions. A good way to remember them in the “old” place and “life” is to take pictures. We and our children can make a goodbye book. They can collect pictures of their friends, the favourite areas, pets, possessions and assemble them in a scrap book. They could also insert a small thing which reminds them for example of their home, like a piece of bedroom curtain, a scrap of wallpaper, a pressed flower from the garden or a ticket to the cinema. Or they can make alternatively a short movie of their friends. A friend of mine once gave me her favourite soap. Every time I smelled it, I thought of her and still do. – Let your children guide you as they have an eye for the small details we adults often miss.
T like Think destination
What do we need where we’re going? What are the drawbacks and benefits to expect? How will our life look like in the new place? – While saying goodbye, it’s also important to focus on the future and to prepare ourselves and our family for the approaching transition.
Thinking about practical aspects of leaving will help us to be more balanced emotionally. – We can help our children in this by involving them in the planning by taking pictures of the new house or area we’ll live in, studying maps of the city and collecting information and details of the new school. Maybe we can even meet new classmates before the school starts. All this will help them (and us!) to plan ahead, to picture us in the new place and get the impression of how we’ll feel in this next place.
Children have a peculiar outlook on life. Parents should try to answer their questions unambiguously and clarify that nothing will change within the family. During the whole transition, our children need to be repeatedly reassured that all is well. You should expect to have (many) ups and downs.– This is all perfectly normal since (young) children thrive on routine and stability. If you can keep up normal routines in your new home, such as the way of having breakfast or dinner, the bedtime routine, or certain other habits, you’re halfway through the battle. Especially new routines need to be introduced gradually such that the children (and we too!) can adapt easier to our new life.
I would add another “T” to the RAFT: T like Time. During this part of the transition stages we easily run out of time. Therefore, planning extra time to slow down and build the RAFT helps everyone to have a smoother ride.
We can avoid goodbyes by just ignoring them or we can consider them instead as a chance to re-center ourselves and to focus on what is really important in our life. – Allowing ourselves and our family to create closure in whatever way will help us all to say happy and healthy hellos in the next phase of our life.