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.

One Expat's experience amid COVID-18

I keep trying to finish this post. I get to a good place, leave it to post the following day, only to wake up the following morning to a completely different world. The global anxiety is straight up palpable. Generally I don’t consider myself particularly anxious, but as one small member of the large human race collective, I can feel it. It’s like standing next to a large magnet. I don’t see anything, but I can sense the charge in the air around me. I feel my own heart rate thumping a little faster and notice my muscles holding on to more tension than normal.

This is a surreal situation to be in. A situation that many of us have neither experienced nor contemplated experiencing. Some sort of natural disaster or emergency localized to one area, okay, that’s within the realm of understanding. But a pandemic. A threat to the entire world. What is happening??

As a resident in a country that, as I’m writing this, has not yet been affected, has just had their first case, is only just now having multiple confirmed cases, I feel as if I’m watching a massive tidal wave approach. It’s already washed over communities in the distance, and I see it headed straight for us, but in what time frame? With what consequence? Relatively benign? Catastrophic? I watch friends and family across the world reel from the effects this virus has caused. Some are taking it more in stride than others, casually shrugging shoulders as if this was all one big fire drill. Others are posting from their hospital beds, pleading for the rest of the world to take the dire predictions seriously.

Multiple times this past week, I have been in a position of making decisions I don’t feel equipped nor emotionally ready to answer. Mostly, they revolve around the central question of do we stay/do we go. And, at multiple times this week, I have found myself completely paralyzed – mentally and physically. As a therapist, I have training in helping to guide someone towards a decision, and yet when I was in the hot seat, even knowing all the tricks, I couldn’t guide myself anywhere. I felt frozen. Any shift would be a vote for one course of action over another. I can make a pro/con list all I want, but emotions don’t always fit into neat, tidy boxes.

What complicates matters is the self-awareness of my own biases when it comes to risk. I am a chronic minimizer when it comes to danger. Sometimes this comes in handy: I can remain calm in otherwise stressful situations or not feel overwhelmed with fear when I am faced with some sort of threat. But it also means that I might miss or downplay important indicators something is wrong.

So when faced with the decision of deciding whether my family should abruptly back a bag and evacuate our home, my brain short-circuits itself. It tries to weigh the risks on both sides: fewer cases in current country but a more vulnerable health infrastructure to manage the virus when it does hit versus thousands of cases in my home country, long airline travel to get there, but at least the system holistically is in better shape and would be more likely to withstand the strain of the ongoing pandemic.

My gut? It says stay put. This is our home. We have our stuff here. We are comfortable here. We are healthy (right now). I can weather a quarantine much better from this walled compound, with a full pantry stash, complete with space to run around and play for the kids.

But then the doubt creeps in. Are you only leaning that way because of your bias? Are you making a false conclusion about the risk in staying put? Are you downplaying the potential for needing medical care and then not being able to receive it? Is this about you just not wanting to be inconvenienced by a 30hr flight followed by quarantine with two small high-energy kids? Are you choosing convenience over safety?

And then I freeze. Because I can’t answer those questions. But what I can do, is just listen. To use the mindfulness skills I’ve been cultivating to check-in with my whole self for answers my brain can’t quite access. When I do that, I can sense my path. It’s not very loud, just a slight feeling that whispers: stay.

So we’re staying.

I have no idea if it’s the “right” decision or if I will regret the decision in a week from now. But at this point it doesn’t even matter. The decision has been made. Now the focus is figuring out how to make the most of what’s here now.

What decision(s), are you facing and finding yourself getting stuck on?

Welcome Home!

So you’ve made the decision to move away from home. Congratulations! Welcome to adventure, excitement and interesting, new friends from exotic places! 

Orrrr not.

Now reality has hit. And you’re in this new place. And it looks different. And it sounds different. And it definitely smells different. And you don’t know where anything is. You don’t know anyone. And if you have any hopes of actually making a friend in this new place, you’re doomed to sludge through the superficial chit-chat about the weather or where you’re from for the next several weeks (or months, or years) before any real relationships begin.

I’d like to think I adapt to new places fairly well. I usually give myself a time frame – 90 days for example – in which I could expect things to be weird and awkward and lonely. After that timeframe, I knew I would start to feel more settled. I’d know where to go to buy food. I’d have an idea of how to get around. Maybe I’d even have the makings of a few friends. But adapting well doesn’t necessarily make the adaptation process easy or even enjoyable. 

Encountering newness at every turn becomes exhausting. What you used to be able to do on autopilot now requires significant mental and emotional energy. 

I may be on my own in this, but back in the States, I generally love going grocery shopping. I enjoy checking out new ingredients, formulating potential meals in my head, and making sure my pantry and spice cabinet are well-stocked. The first time I went grocery shopping in Uganda? It was almost panic-inducing. Not because the store was particularly chaotic, but because nothing was what I was used to. The store layout didn’t make sense to me. An attendant had to pre-weigh all of my produce prior to check-out. Half the products were labeled in a language other than English or even if it was in English, they’d use different terminology. The milk came in bags (??). Not to mention the mental arithmetic of converting currencies to figure out if you’re being fleeced. 

It certainly makes me less inclined to go grocery shopping.

And yet, this is it. This is home for the next however many years. And that means figuring out the little things (and the big things) and moving on with life. It means making the effort, day by day to learn. It means constantly pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone again and again and again so that with time, and maybe a little luck, your comfort zone expands, and this new places actually starts to feel like not just a home, but your home. 

But what if that doesn’t happen? 

What if instead of feeling exhilarating or adventurous, this new life feels claustrophobic or boring? What if your comfort zone starts to constrict instead of expand? And those daily reminders that you’re in a foreign place begin to squeeze in all around you? You attempt to make the most of things, but those people, places, and behaviors that used to keep you tethered back at home are hard to find here – or worse, nonexistent. You find yourself becoming more insulated. You start resorting to old (or new!) behaviors that you know are not great for you, but become essential if you just want to get through each day. You feel trapped. You feel alone. Now what?

You could:

  1. Call it. Say enough with this whole expat life and return home. There’s no shame in trying something new and deciding that this isn’t for you. But, depending on your family/work/school situation, you may not be able to pull up anchor whenever you see fit. You may be stuck here for awhile, in which case you could:
  1. Just keep swimming. Maybe it will get better on it’s own. Maybe you only have a few years left of this place and you think you can probably survive until it’s time to move. Not the most empowering of scenarios, but it’s a strategy. It could work. But then again, maybe you think in your head that there’s NO WAY you can manage this for X more years. Something has got to change:
  1. Make a change. Something is obviously not working for you. You can choose to attribute your misery to the location, and maybe it plays a huge role in your overall well-being, but there are likely other factors contributing to how you’re feeling. Are you taking care of yourself physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, financially, and spiritually? Which area is being neglected? Maybe one, maybe all. So pick one, let’s do something about it.

What’s one area of your expat life that currently isn’t working for you? How is it contributing to your overall well-being (or lack thereof) and how would you want it to be different?

Need a little extra accountability? Drop me a line with your answer. I personally read every reply and respond back!

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