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Expat Grief, Emotional Baggage and Belonging(s)

Expat Grief, Emotional Baggage and Belonging(s)

The following is a brief informative article written by Leigh Matthews, Australian Psychologist and Founder of Therapy in Barcelona,  in response to the story “Grief, Emotional Baggage & Belonging(s)” by Carrie Frais in the wonderful and enlightening collection of expat women stories “#Living The Dream: Expat Life Stripped Bare”

“Here’s what I most want you to know: this really is as bad as you think” 

– Megan Devine, It’s OK That You’re Not OK

Every human comes into life to lose. Expat life is seasoned generously with grief and loss. Friends come and go in our transient international communities; leaving one’s birth country is an amputation; the gift of new culture/s and place/s for your children is the loss of the transmission of the cultural values and rituals you grew up with; the uptake of the outsider identity is a shedding of another identity belonging to place. Beyond this, there will be deaths of loved ones in our countries of origin. Then we will ask the question: did they remain behind or did we leave them behind? 

Carrie’s story brings us this relatable metaphor of emotional baggage – the turmoil of the intangible but immensely impactful dimensions of our lives paralleling our physical adventures as expats. The overarching nature of expat life is a grappling with, and transcendence of, life’s polarities that come to the fore for those in the arena: happiness-sadness, love-loss, coming-going, leaving-arriving, belonging-individuating, roots-wings. 

Among the many discomforts in this dislocated life there are, perhaps, none so discombobulating as the grief wreck that comes from losing our loved ones. Sharing stories of grief in our death-denying society is essential because we can feel as though we are alone when this experience arrives and becomes a part of the fabric of our own narrative, even as it feels as though something is irrevocably torn from that fabric. 

Your grief, its intensity, how it unfolds, and its complexity will vary depending on the significance of the person you lose, the role they had in your life, and the quality of relationship you had with them. It will differ depending on the suddenness of the loss or the protractedness of an illness, which will likely come with anticipatory grief. Regret is a common side to grief, amongst so many other feelings, and certainly for expats who have “left” their loved ones in their passport country. 

But leaving our country of birth is not the same as the people in that country being gone. That is the labour of grief and yet another shift in identity we must manage – who am I without this person in the world? When parents die, we become the last frontier and seemingly forfeit our identity as someone’s child. In an untethered life, if we have a relationship with our parent/s, they can be a beacon of our belonging, even if we are navigating away from them. When they die, that beacon is extinguished and dismantling a childhood home can feel like an emotional maceration, of being exposed to the harshest face of our existential givens: death, meaning, responsibility, isolation. 

Grief is gruelling. It is as bad as you think, as Megan Devine assures us and, with the usual complications brought forth by expat life. The coming and going between countries, the surreal nature of flights toward tragedy, the juggling of children and partners in your chosen country and death and dying in your passport country which you thought wasn’t home but suddenly becomes a losing of home all over again. To cope with grief it is important to meet grief for what it is: the other side of love. We will not “get over” our grief but we can learn to live with the physical absence of our loved one and continue a different form of relationship with them. Opening up to grief becomes a vehicle for opening up to life as a journey that is messy, imperfect, and painful in addition to beautiful, loving and exciting. 

Coming to terms with regret means coming to terms with how you make sense of the world and the values that have guided you toward decisions, like “leaving” your loved ones and your passport country. Understanding your values will help you to salve the pain of regret. In Carrie’s case, she integrates her leaving home as an artefact of carrying a solid home base from her parents throughout her life, so that her roots rise up to her wings. “I am living this adventurous life because of them,” she declares triumphantly. And so she has found a place of peace in the realm of complicated life choices that have some painful consequences. She has met her regret with her values and in turn with understanding and compassion.

The truth is, the whole adventure of life is the adventure of accruing casualties: past lives, places we’ve moved on from, seasons of life that change, and versions of ourselves that transform. Choosing to move forward is a repetitive exile from what we have loved and who we have been. The art of grieving is to learn to invite these awkward feelings in, and integrate emotional transmutations and lessons into who we become as a part of the rich mosaic of life impelling us, as Carrie writes, to “move forward, not back.” And so, when we invite in the complexity of grief, and learn to integrate and honour the people we have physically lost, we find that we transcend once again the polarity of here-there, presence-absence as we must so often in expat life.