Loss and grief experienced by expatriates
“It is a bitter-sweet thing, knowing two cultures. Once you leave your birthplace nothing is ever the same.” Sarah Turnbull
Expatriation, a bitter-sweet adventure
The word “expatriate” originally comes from the Latin words “exo” (out of) and “patria” (native country). When an individual chooses to immigrate to a new country, or a new city, multiple reasons might be underneath this decision. Was this move motivated by the desire of a new adventure, to fulfill a dream, for economical purposes, or maybe political conflicts? Was it actually a choice? Although some of these reasons might be more complicated than others, these individuals might experience the same loss, which is the loss of roots and identity.
Coming from France myself, I have experienced many losses during my move to the United States. While this journey has been challenging, even traumatic on certain points, I have learned to cope with my emotions and have been able to build a new identity based on my personal values, but also based on new social and cultural norms. Before sharing with you some insight on how to overcome these challenges, I would like to discuss the different emotional stages an expatriate might encounter.
Kalervo Oberg, a Canadian anthropologist, described four phases experienced by expatriates. He qualified these phases as: the honeymoon, the culture shock, the recovery and the adjustment phase.
The honeymoon phase is typically described as a time for discoveries and excitements. The expatriate is eager to explore its new country, is curious about the new culture, the language, the population, as well as the food, and acts like a tourist for a little while.
The culture shock phase usually hits the individual after a couple of months. The culture known from its country of origin is potentially very different, and a loss of family rituals and tradition is now being experienced. The expatriate who might feel lost and disoriented could experience some anxiety, stress, and possibly depression.
The recovery phase is when adjustment and acceptance is gently taking place. The individual is slowly getting more involved in the new culture, and has maybe a better understanding of the language and the norms of the new country.
The adjustment phase is when the expatriate feels more comfortable in his new home, projects himself in it, and has goals for the future. Feelings of loneliness and anxiety have potentially decreased or even disappeared, and the individual has built a new support system.
Embracing the experience
In order to decrease feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and maybe sadness, it is important to create a new support system and build new rituals to better embrace the experience. Here are some tips on what an individual could do to enjoy this new journey:
Be gentle with yourself
Moving to a different place is not always easy, and it is okay to have doubts, even regrets at times. Practicing self-care and self-compassion is extremely important. Grieving some losses is a natural process, and this can take some time. Being patient and gentle with yourself can help you see this new situation with a more objective eye, and help you embrace the unknown.
Get involved as a volunteer in an organization that speaks to you
Immigration laws can prevent someone from working in its new country for some time. Volunteering in an association can help an individual feel empowered and rewarded. There is nothing better than meeting new people who are sharing the same passion and the same devotion for a cause. Most importantly, it would prevent from staying alone and feeling isolated. Studies have shown that isolation can lead to depression, which would reinforce the negative feelings you might already be experiencing due to the many changes and losses we mentioned earlier.
Expand your social network
This is possible by meeting new people through school, work, or getting involved in different social activities. When we live apart from our family of origin we leave behind us certain family rituals, which are very important in certain cultures and religions. A lack of a community can reinforce those losses and make the experience even more painful. Carrying these family values with you by sharing them with your friends and your new support system can be extremely rewarding. Expatriates often say that the friends they made in their new country have now become their new family.
Don’t forget about your roots
Living in a new country does not mean that we have to forget about where we come from, and what our culture represents to us. It is possible to find other expatriates who come from the same country of origin, or share the same religion, language or culture. This would help you stay in touch with your values, and reinforce a sense of identity.
Grieving the different losses an expatriate might have experienced can be hard and long. It can be even more challenging to do this alone. Denying feelings of loss can prevent you from moving forward with your new life, and may impact your well-being. Getting the support that you might need from a professional can help you gain hope for the future. Talking to someone in a safe environment will facilitate the grieving process, help you learn new coping skills, and help you set positive goals for yourself.
Oberg, Kalervo: "Cultural shock: Adjustment to new cultural environments, Practical Anthropology 7 (1960)