How to Identify the Losses of Expat Life
My mom died. Three months later, my stepfather died. He died in a fire that destroyed my childhood home. The grief was so great, it was hard to sort out and know how to grieve. I remember, in the beginning, I barely focused on my stepfather’s death. Rather, I focused on the material things I had lost in the fire. I felt guilty about that, but it felt easier for my battered soul.
One part of the process of grieving is to identify the losses. Yes, plural. It’s easy to think of a loss as a singularity, but it rarely is. Yes, I lost my childhood home, but consider for a moment a few of the losses included in that:
Childhood toys I’d saved to give to my kids
My mother’s and my wedding dress
The place where Mom read to me
The painting I’d hoped to inherit
The piles of Mom’s medical bills I was dreading dealing with
A place to return to
The dream I had of turning the house into a bed and breakfast
The relationship with a tenant of a small house on the property (because the whole place was sold as a result of the fire)
My place at the family dinner table
How we “did” Christmas
The Many Pieces of Grief
This is a free resource to help you identify the many emotions that are all a part of grieving our losses.
How can we process a loss well if it’s not yet even recognized?
Consider a significant loss in your life. Jot it down in the middle of a blank piece of paper. Then make a line radiating out, and note the categories below that are included in your loss. As you read, stop after each category and write a description of your loss(es) in that area, making a web of losses around that central area.
9 Types of Loss
Relationship Loss: This is the one we usually think of. The death of a loved one is a loss we all acknowledge is worth grieving. In cross-cultural work, we can include all those relationships that have been lost or significantly changed because of distance or the turnover in our expat community.
Material Loss: Physical items come and go—some feel like a loss, some do not. When we move overseas and have to leave some things behind because they don’t fit in the suitcase, or feel too valuable to bring—it’s a loss. There is even loss in the material things we can no longer experience in our new location, like our favorite ice cream or Grandma’s old rocking chair.
Loss of Identity: In the early years of a new life overseas, this is huge. In our home country, we knew who we were and what we were good at. People called me a really good cook. Here, I can’t even find the ingredients yet. Back home, I was “fluent.” Here, I’m a babbling 2- year-old. So many little things make up my sense of who I am. So many of those things get ripped away when we become “expatriates” (an identity that I may not even identify with yet).
Loss of Hopes and Dreams: We moved overseas with boys ages 3 and 5. As a parent, I’d dreamed of teaching them to fish and hunt crawdads in streams, like I did growing up. I wanted to show them how to build a fire in the rain. Rather, we now lived in a country where the rivers are called “oueds” and are dry as a bone 10 months of the year—building a fire in the rain just isn’t going to happen. Those were losses of hopes and dreams worthy of being acknowledged and grieved.
Functional Loss: Usually this refers to losing one’s physical abilities, like what happens when you break your leg. One of the functional losses many of us face moving overseas includes no longer being able to drive, even if just for a season. A function or ability I used to be able to do so easily just isn’t easy there. It’s a loss.
Systemic Loss: When a system or process is working well for you but something major disrupts or changes it, that is also a loss. Back in your home country, when you worked for your corporation, it all ran pretty smoothly. Now that it’s in a new culture, all the rules and ways people interact have changed. The corporate culture is completely different, and you no longer know how it works. That’s a loss too.
Role Loss: Whether it’s because you were fired, promoted, or retired, when your role at work changes, there are losses included in that. Just recently, I spoke with a friend who was grieving the loss of her role as a “face-to-face” mom, as her youngest child gets ready to go back home to college.
Loss of Experiences: While this may tie into other categories, I think it’s worth its own. Living overseas, I miss walking through fall leaves, hearing their crunch, and smelling the earth as I walk the trail near my home. I feel loss when I think of how I miss the fireworks on our Independence Day and seeing all the flags waving as the day approaches. Our expat lives are full of experiences we no longer, or rarely, encounter.
Freedom and Independence: This one comes in many forms in our expat lives. From the freedom of being fluent in the language to the independence of choosing a new career, our home cultures offered us a lot of autonomy. Single women living in the Arab world seem to experience this most profoundly, as they are culturally so much more restricted in their ability to get out and be independent. If you don’t want a bad reputation, your options on a Friday night are not what they used to be. That’s a loss worth grieving.
So, how is your web of loss looking? Is that single, significant loss in the middle well accompanied by more subtle sub-losses now? Loss doesn’t like to be alone. Maybe that’s why it’s good to include others in our grieving.
Find a good listener and share your story. You might be surprised how helpful it is to the listener to hear they are not the only one grieving. You might be surprised how healing it is just to share about this thing you valued.
Recognizing and acknowledging your losses is the first step to good grieving. You can find more about this process in Good Grief: How to Get Started on the Journey. Processing our losses is important, not only because it values the thing that was lost but because it helps us move on to a future in an unencumbered way—free to enjoy what comes next.