During this time of the year, many internationally living families are preparing for their next move. They tick off the list of “things to do”, preparing for the move and the next chapter in their life.
Internationals are used to saying goodbye and you would assume that they’re very good at it, but, in fact, it is one of the most difficult moments for them. They may need to learn it and it’s one of the things their children will need to face from a very young age. – We all say goodbye to some extent ever day. Either to a project, a wish, a thought: the only constant thing in life is change.
While busy organising a move and everything that’s related with it, parents often forget to sit down and listen to their children, partners or friends, or observe them during the last months (or weeks) in the old place – and the first ones in the new location.
It is very common that during the last phase in one place and at some point when we’ve moved abroad, we all experience what has been called the “expat grief. It doesn’t only affect adults, but also children and it is a myth that “children don’t grieve like adults”. They might live more in the present than their parents and seem to cope very well after a loss – and leaving a place and moving to another is a kind of loss! , but assuming that grief in childhood is short-lived, is a major mistake. Children don’t exhibit “the stigma of sadness and despair, but they grieve”; often in silent because they’ve learned to be resilient.
Fact is that transition always involves loss, no matter how good the next phase will be. And loss “engenders grief and the greater you have loved a situation or place or people, the greater the grief”.
“The layers of loss run deep: Friends, community, pets. Family, toys, language. Weather, food, culture. Loss of identity. Loss of a place of comfort, stability, a safe and predictable world. Home.”
Children on constant move lose the worlds they love, over and over again. They go through the stages of grief each time they move. And if they don’t take the time to grieve, if they push it down and submerge it, it surely will bubble up later in life, unexplained.
This is the main reason why when moving abroad or having friends who are moving, we want to make sure that we say a healthy good-bye by thinking forward and having a proper closure.
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 them again and since we are going to leave anyway, why bother? Fact is that unresolved problems will stick with us like a mental baggage.
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, but 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. – Through social media we can still stay in touch and share happy moments with friends living on the other side of the globe.
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 who are left behind are reassured that they’ll still keep in touch. A commitment to call, skype or regular visits will reassure everyone that this is a phase, a change and not an ending.
F like Farewells
Saying “goodbye” can hurt since it marks an end. It’s the end of a chapter in our life. Denying this will not make it any better. It’s important to take the time to pay attention to things we’ve enjoyed. – Doing things we’ve loved, 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, teachers, 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
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
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.
** Book: Third Culture Kids: The Experience of Growing up Among Worlds -David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken
(parts of this article have been previously published on www.expatsincebirth.com)
Previously a lecturer in Linguistics and Literature with a Dr. in Romance Literature and Linguistics and a Master in Bilingualism, Ute Limacher-Riebold is now multilingual coach and trainer for internationally living families and owner of “Ute’s Expat Lounge” in The Hague where she lives since 2005. She is a writer, researcher, language trainer and blogs about expat life, multilingualism and raising Third Culture Kids on Expat Since Birth, Ute’s Expat Lounge and Expat living in The Hague on Angloinfo. She holds regular workshops about parenting multicultural and multilingual children, and topics related to international life.