Dealing with Grief as an Expat
‘Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.’
What is Grief?
Grief is defined as the natural response to loss. It is the suffering we feel when we lose someone or something that has a significant impact on our life. We most often refer to grief as the loss of someone who has died, with whom we had a close bond or relationship (e.g., the death of a partner, family member, or friend). However, the feeling of grief is not exclusive to death and includes many types of loss. This could mean a loss in a relationship through divorce or separation, personal injury or illness, being dismissed from work or even letting go of a certain version of yourself or the version of your life that you had hoped for.
The Five Stages of Grief
The journey of grief is typically spoken about in five stages…
Denial: feeling numb to what’s happened is common, especially in the initial days of grief. This stage might include feelings of shock, disbelief, confusion and avoidance. Even if we know in our heads that someone has died, it can be difficult to believe someone or something is not coming back. As a result, many people may even carry on as though nothing has happened.
Anger: death or loss can seem cruel and unfair, which often evokes anger. This might be especially true if someone has died at a young age or unexpectedly. It’s common to feel angry at the person who died, especially if you had a complicated relationship. We may even feel anger towards ourselves for things that we wish we had done, or not done, before their death.
Bargaining: Finding meaning in life after a significant loss can be difficult. We want to believe that if we act in particular ways, we will feel better and be able to control our emotions. It’s common to find yourself ruminating over things that have happened, asking yourself questions and wishing you could change things. At this stage, people often reach out to others to share their stories to begin reconciling what they’ve experienced.
Depression: sadness is perhaps what we most think of when we think about grief. This sadness can be very severe and may come in waves over many weeks, months or years. During this time, it can feel like life has no meaning. It may even be difficult to do daily things such as getting out of bed in the morning, showering or seeing a friend.
Acceptance: gradually, most people find that the pain eases (even if, at times, it seems like it never will). It becomes possible to accept what has happened. This may include finding ways to honour who or what you’ve lost or creating a plan to help you move forward. Although we will never ‘get over the loss of someone or something important to us, we can learn to navigate life without them and somehow learn to live again.
These stages have no specific order and are not linear: you could start at stage 4 and then move to 2 before continuing to stage 5. Grief is not a continuous process, and there is no standard or average time to grieve.
Being Abroad and Dealing With Grief as an Expat
When living abroad, grief can be even more difficult to navigate. Potentially not being able to be near friends or family and not having your support system close by all make grief more complex. For some people, you may not be receiving any in-person support, and the friends you do have in your new country will likely not have known the person you’ve lost. Adding to this, many people lack understanding of grief. Caring people might say exactly the opposite of what you want to hear, or they might say nothing at all, and this lack of understanding can often feel very isolating for the griever.
This has been made even more difficult due to the Coronavirus pandemic, where you may have been unable to attend funerals or have the opportunity to say goodbye in the way you wanted. This might make it difficult to feel that you have closure. It may even bring up feelings of guilt or confusion regarding your decision to live abroad.
Helpful tips in dealing with grief as an expat
- Accept sadness and loneliness as a part of the grief journey
- Spend time grieving intentionally – trying to avoid difficult emotions only makes them worsen in the long-run
- Hold space for who (or what) you’re grieving
- Spend time with people who feel like good company for you
- Be gentle with yourself – try not to judge yourself for feeling
- Get enough rest – set a sleep schedule, have regular breaks
- Embrace all emotions, when and where possible
- Keep structure in your day – set goals and daily activities
- Reach out to others who have experienced loss – talking with other people who’ve dealt with similar feelings offers a sense of normalcy to grief
- Reach out to a professional – at the Therapy with Olivia practice, they’re there to support you in every step of the grieving process.
Grieving is a unique process – no two people look the same in how they process and understand loss. It’s important to be patient with yourself. Remember that just because someone else is coping differently doesn’t mean the way you’re coping is any less valid.
Remember: emotional upheaval after loss is a necessary process that we all must go through to understand what we’ve experienced.
Grief doesn’t necessarily ever get smaller or less significant. But our lives grow around grief, allowing us to cope and move forward with our futures. If you find you struggle with dealing with grief as an expat, contact Therapy with Olivia. Therapy with Olivia is there to assist you in this journey and remind you that you’re not alone.