Honoring Your Goodbyes

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

It’s often said after a death is announced, but rarely is it talked about in other contexts. Like this context.

Across the world, our lives have been changed. Permanently? Who knows, but certainly in a very visceral and in-the-moment, way. Weddings have been canceled or put on hold (hopefully just put on hold). We can’t attend funerals of our loved ones, or tend to them on their sick beds. We can’t meet up with one another. We can’t see one another. We can’t say goodbye to one another.

My family and I will be heading back to the US after about a year of living here in Uganda. There are a lot of mixed emotions with this move as I’m sure anyone who has experienced a relocation will attest. But the feeling that is most prominent right now is just sadness. Sadness over the loss of this life. Sadness that our “once in a lifetime trip” to stare into the eyes of a mountain gorilla have been canceled (gorillas can get covid too). Mourning what we created here.

I’m no stranger to moves. I was in the military in my 20s, in the 7 years I was on active duty, I packed up my stuff and moved 12 times. Back then, I had a tendency focus only on 25 meter targets (ie, things that are right in front of you). What did I need to pack. What paperwork did I need. What housing could I find. I hugged my friends from the losing post as If I’d see them all again in a week or a month, but in the back of my mind, I knew that that wasn’t super likely. But when you move around a lot, this is part of the survival strategy. In part because there are practical steps you need to focus on in order to settle in, but also because acknowledging loss doesn’t feel good.

As I’ve gotten older, good byes have taken on more importance. I’m more aware of the permanence of them. Even if we kid ourselves by saying that we’ll keep in touch or that we’ll see friends again, the dynamic you once had in a specific place will never be the same. Whatever you had with your coworkers, friends, family – that’s gone. There be a new dynamic in place later, maybe even a better one, but the old one isn’t coming back. And at least for me, that’s sad.

There may be new opportunities and new friends and that’s all great. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of ignoring the sadness of losing what was important.

As expats, we may look at ourselves as champion good-byers. We’ve done this before. We know how to move and start over again. But sometimes the focus on survival causes us to forget the emotions that come with the starts and stops. And I’m here to say, that those emotions are important and shouldn’t be forgotten. Focusing on the ‘what’s next’ shouldn’t come at the expense of acknowledging what we’ve lost. It’s okay to feel sad. It’s okay to think that this change thing sucks and maybe we don’t want it to happen. And it’s also okay to be happy or relieve that this change is going to happen. Maybe we also want it to happen. Emotions aren’t mutually exclusive, nor do they happen on a polarized spectrum.

So for anyone out there dealing with emotions associated with change, I feel you. I feel my loss acutely. I’m sad and that’s okay. Nothing I can do and nothing no one else says or does can make the sadness go away. Sadness is not a bad thing. Sadness is a message for us, just like all the other emotions. My message is that there are aspects about this current place and this current life that I really value. I want to remember the comfort and ease I’ve experience while living here. The warmth and openness of the people. The feeling of being accepted quickly by a community. The general vibe of “It will be okay. We will be okay”.

So my advice to others experiencing some kind of loss – be sad. Allow yourself to grieve. You lost something important and that deserves acknowledgement. Feel the feels. Don’t ignore them or deny them or dismiss them or minimize them. Just let them be. Use some mindfulness skills to observe them. Those feelings will rise, they’ll peak, they’ll move on. Maybe another wave will come up again when you’re reminded of what’s been lost. That’s okay, it’s part of the process. Sit with them and notice. Eventually the sharpness of the edge starts to dull, and you feel like you can move and focus again.

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