When international friends come and go

Q: I have made many wonderful, close friendships with other English-speaking expats, which has not only broadened my mind to new cultures, but has been a source of great comfort. The problem is, many of them are here for only a short time, or they suddenly leave and I feel bereft and somewhat cheated by having someone close move away. Do you have any advice on how to deal with this? (abbreviated)

international friendshipsDear C.

You are describing a process that has everything to do with grieving and loss, although we seldom think of it in this way. When a loved one dies people expect us to be sad and down for a while. When we grieve we are finding a new way to fill the aching hole left behind as well as trying to envisage a revised future.

However, when it comes to suffering from a loss inflicted by moving away or being moved away from, grieving seems like an overreaction. And yet, in all the literature about Third Culture Kids and the effect of multiple country moves on children, grieving is one of the top two concerns.

Disenfranchised grief

Kenneth J. Doka, PhD, is a professor of gerontology at the College of New Rochelle in New York. He says that the term disenfranchised grief “describes the pain of a significant loss that is not openly acknowledged or socially supported.” Disenfranchised grief can result from a number of situations such as the loss of a pet, a termination, miscarriage, the death of an ex-spouse, etc. Because other people can’t comprehend our sadness, and so don’t show empathy when we express it, we believe we ought not to be sad and bury our feelings. We may also feel judged, which further discourages us from sharing our feelings.

Grieving is not something you actively ‘do’, it is something that happens to you, whether you want it to or not. You can invite yourself to be part of the process, or you can try to fight against it.

Classic signs of grieving include a constant feeling of malaise, a tendency to become introspective to the point of self-obsessed, feeling angry and resentful and (as touched on in the original question) somehow feeling cheated out of something that you felt was your due. Engaging with the process means respecting the fact that this outcome is one of the tougher aspects of the life decisions that we have made. But just because it is the result of an active choice, doesn’t mean you can’t let yourself feel the hurt. Layering guilt on top of the grief is really not very kind to yourself.

When you love them more than they love you

 In your letter, you mention a sense of betrayal, as if expectation and reality are discordant. This leads me to wonder whether you’re getting to the stage where, subconsciously, you’re trying to protect yourself from further hurt by avoiding making new connections because you will eventually have to say goodbye to them too. Indeed, it is hard to connect fully to someone while at the same time knowing, and anticipating, that the friendship won’t last?

It demands from us that we truly live in the ‘here and now’; in this moment, at this time, this particular person plays a role in my life, and I fully engage while knowing it is not going to be forever.

Just as, in being an expat, we are pushing geographical boundaries, so too are we pushing the boundaries of our emotions. So how do you deal with this gradual onset of ‘hello and goodbye’ fatigue? And how do you get to the ‘here and now’ without losing the richness and the depth of a relationship?

To begin with, it helps to take a long, hard look inside and explore all of the feelings of loss that you have been experiencing, both short term and long term. You may want to write a list of everyone who has touched your life as an expat, and write a few lines on what each of them has meant to you (whether you share these thoughts with others is up to you).

I would also invite you to reflect on the nature of different kinds of friendships. There are friends with whom we share deep, long lasting connections that transcend geographical boundaries; friends that we may not have seen for a while, but who are so familiar that we can instantly pick up where we left of; connecting on a level of who we are, rather than what we’re doing. Then there are friends with whom we can easily spend a few delightful hours, but who don’t necessarily get to see the depth of our soul. Sometimes these friendships grow into the kind of intimate, long distance relationships that are not determined by frequency, but by intensity. Being an expat means that part of the grieving process is the realisation that some friendships may have developed into something more meaningful, had they only been given time.

Some people crave friendships that are deep and meaningful, where you can truly reveal all of yourself without having to be afraid. Others are happier with a large crowd of friends, saving their innermost selves for their partners or siblings.

So explore what you are looking for in a friendship, be realistic about the likelihood of it happening with this particular person, and thus enjoy it for what it is. This may help with your sense of betrayal.


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