Expat Grief – The Ugly Side To Moving Abroad

I recently did an article on top tips to help children moving abroad.  That post was designed to help them settle in and make the move a smoother experience for them.  However, even if you follow all of these and more, you are likely at some point, for someone in the family to experience expat grief – the mourning of the loss of their old life.  For the adults who made the decision to move it may happen to them as well, but in this post I want to talk about the children, who moved because of their parents’ decision.  It is a scary and traumatic life changing event for any child. But generally, the older the child, the more they stand to lose, as the more they have built their little lives up where you were originally living.

What Is Expat Grief?

Expat grief is the mourning of the things you have lost by moving away from one country to another.  This might be friends, old homes, their hobbies, or family amongst other things.  Twin 1 desperately misses a certain play park we used to go to near where we lived.  It may be something totally unexpected and less obvious.  It is very important that these losses are worked through, and that time and energy is put into doing that, as and when it is needed.  From our experience with our eldest child, this doesn’t happen when there is a space free in the diary, it happens when you are up to your eyeballs in everything. But at that moment, the most important thing is to drop all the balls you are juggling and focus on that child grieving…be present right then.

Why Do Children Differ In Their Expat Grief?

Children manifest any grief in a different way from adults.  They live in the here and now, so while they play and laugh still, it would be easy to misinterpret that to mean that everything was rosy and the move had not provoked any emotional issues.  However, the sadness might still be there.  Their sadness is not as consistent as an adult’s, and we mustn’t forget it will still need handling sensitively and delicately even though it isn’t present and making its presence known all of the time.

Tips To Help A Child With Expat Grief:

  1. Recognise that they feel isolated in that moment.  Don’t say “but”, or try and remind them they have made new friends.  Their feelings of isolation are very real in that moment, and so trying to point out positives is not what is needed.  That is needed later, when they feel a little more positive, and then you can discuss what you do like about where you have moved to.
  2. Let them know they are not alone dealing with this, and that you are totally there with them 100% at that time (hence dropping everything for them there and then).  Be fully present with them.
  3. Tell them, that whatever feelings they are experiencing, whether anger, confusion, or sadness….(with our little lady at the moment she gets bouts of being very sad for her 2 best friends in the UK) that they are totally normal.  Don’t make light of their feelings or brush them under the carpet.  You need to be open and responsive to them.
  4. Be non-judgemental with your listening.  Be quiet and just LISTEN.  Don’t try and reason, justify, or explain. Just listen.
  5. Look for behaviours that flag up that your child is perhaps not coping as well as you thought.  This might be not wanting to do activities/hobbies they usually enjoy. They may be retreating away to their bedrooms and being less interactive with everyone else in the family. Or they may be suffering from mood swings that are unusual for them.
  6. When they are feeling a little bit better, and you have chatted about the losses that have happened, talk about the things that are not changing together.

It is so important not to leave expat grief unresolved or brush it under the carpet.  It will only rear its ugly head at a later date in the form of behavioural issues or emotional difficulties, or both.  Then as adults they may even suffer from difficulties connecting with others or depression.

I hope this post sheds some light on what your child/children may be going through after an international move (or even a move within the same country can have the same effects), and gives you some ideas of how to handle it.  Whilst I am not a psychologist or a counsellor, I am a Mamma that has three children that go through this in various ways or intensities.  I have felt the guilt all too strongly of taking them away from friends, family, much loved bedrooms, play parks, hobbies, and an area they loved when they hit a bout of sadness at their loss.  After all, I miss family and friends too, but at least it was mine and Dadda’s decision to move.  The children had very little say.  We have now been living in Sweden for over a year, but grief has no timeline and we are still coping with it and will be for a while.  Don’t get me wrong, they are very happy in between, but remember children live in the moment.  I can only hope that what we are doing when episodes do occur is helping our children to deal with their losses and come to terms with being an expat living in Sweden, and not giving them more issues to contend with as they grow into adults.

I would love to hear any comments or thoughts you have on this subject in the comments below.  Maybe you have made a move, international or otherwise, and you have some tips you can share on handling the grief when it arises.

Expat Grief - The Ugly Side of Moving Abroad, grief, expat grief, child grief, childhood grief, grieving child, www.mammasschool.co.uk

 

Comments 23

  1. I think I’m the one dealing with expat grief the most in our family. Our son has just turned 4 and has taken our move in his stride. I think he missed interaction with other kids in the first few months but now that he’s in kindergarten he has new friends and kids his own age to play with. I’m the one finding things more difficult but mainly from a language point of view. I think if we’d moved somewhere that was English speaking it would have been easier on me. That said I don’t regret our move.
    Cath – BattleMum recently posted…Tips for Visiting Disneyland Paris: The Ultimate How To GuideMy Profile

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      I can relate to that as someone who is trying to teach herself Swedish! My three children’s language is coming along so well and our little lady I am so proud of as she now reads and writes in it as well as speaking, just over a year on (the other 2 are a little small for that anyway!! But their language speaking is just doing great) I miss mummy friends. Mummy friends who have known me since my twins were babies and so they know what I am dealing with and how hard and stressful that can be and are always there without asking. It takes time to build up new relationships as an adult. Having said that I have met some lovely people and have some young friendships growing here….it all just needs time…..

  2. A little different, but I moved to the UK when I was 12. I made new friends but also kept in touch with my American friends through letters. And 25 years later I still have dear friends in New York.

    I still feel pangs of displacement in both places, sometimes two homes is not better than one.

    Thank you for sharing this, so others know it’s a real thing. I wish I had your words to read as a kid.

    Lorna x
    Lorna recently posted…How To Send Stuff To Your International FriendsMy Profile

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      I can see your point as my daughter emphasised she didn’t want to move back to the UK as that wouldn’t make it better either as she’d miss everyone here in Sweden now too. I hope it helps some others going through the same thing, and helps our three to settle too

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  3. I hadn’t considered this before and I think it is something we would struggle with because we have quite a few roots here! I do think expat life opens the door for excellent experiences and adventures though so I suppose there’s a balance! Excellent tips for dealing with it though.

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  4. Some lovely tips to help anyone dealing with this. I can imagine it being so difficult to relocate to another area, especially another country.

    Ami xxx

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      ah bless her. I’m not sure my little lady would move again now she’s experienced the upheaval once. I think the unknown helped us last time as they were just really excited to start with so it made them a lot more willing

  5. Love this article. So recognizable, having been an expat child myself and continuing that lifestyle as an adult. I still struggle with uncertainty, and often experience very intense emotions when people close to me have to leave for a while (even if it’s just for a couple of days and they’ll be back).
    Expat life is a wonderful experience – but it comes with complex emotions for sure.

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