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Building a RAFT: How to cope as the expat being left behind

Blog by: Dr. Nicola McCaffrey (DClinPsy.) Clinical Psychologist

Returning after summer the city seems a little more empty than when I left it last. Not just the city, my life is a little more empty. Some of those special people and families who have taken up space in my heart and my mind over the last years have packed up and moved on. This year I am once again being “left behind”. I am coming to realise that the expat life guarantees is an assault course of farewells, demanding a strong constitution, nerves of steel and significant emotional muscle. I am also beginning to realise that this ritual gets increasingly more difficult the longer I am an expat. Instead of becoming accustomed to the experience, I now find myself feeling the loss more strongly and long before my friends leave. The truth is that goodbyes never get any easier, no matter how many times they are rehearsed.

The often unmentioned casualties in the revolving door of expat life are neither coming nor going. They are staying. Those who remain also feel a great deal of pain and sadness. Perhaps less pronounced, expected or acknowledged than the pain of those who are leaving. Those who remain are not frantically packing up and saying goodbye in a whirlwind of dinners, school ceremonies and parties. When the goodbyes are over and airplane long departed, there they stand, in the same spot as they were before. No big adventure awaiting. Everything exactly as it was, only completely different. Staying is truly the only expat transition with no honeymoon period.


Living in Stavanger for the past six years I have not only experienced this kind of loss at a personal level but also professionally. I have met with many clients in my clinic who struggle with feelings of isolation and uncertainty when their friends leave. It can cause a great deal of frustration, sadness, stress and worry about how they will cope as they see the support network that they have so carefully built over the past years, dissolve in a matter of weeks.


These experiences also bring up a great many interesting issues from our childhoods including feelings of loss or abandonment, which can be particularly painful. We can get into an emotionally unhealthy place when we shame ourselves for feeling this way and tell ourselves that there is something wrong with ourselves for feeling this way, or we might try to cope using maladaptive strategies such as avoidance. It is important to notice and acknowledge the great many feelings you might be experiencing at this time from sadness, to anger, to warmth and relief. You might even find it surprising to realise that these feelings can all happily coexist within this experiences. We can also do the same for our children who are likely to be going through the same process. Ask them how they feel and normalise these emotions in relation to the situation. If they do not have the words to understand these emotions you can even help by giving them a name. Remind them to look for the truth in the situation rather than jumping to unhelpful and unrealistic conclusions, such as “I don’t have any friends left now!”.


But what can you actually do for yourself not to just survive these experiences but perhaps to thrive through them? I am a big proponent of Dr. David Pollock’s model promoting a healthy transition experience, known as building a RAFT. The RAFT model is often talked about when people are expatriating or repatriating. It is all but ignored for Stayers, but it is no less useful.


Instructions on how to build a RAFT:


Reconciliation:
When you hear that a friend is leaving it is too easy to ignore and avoid any interpersonal challenges that were part and parcel of your relationship. However, this baggage does not get packed on the plane with them when they leave, you end up carrying the emotional baggage with you, and it may even affect your future relationships. By opting out of acknowledging the challenges within the relationship you are sabotaging your opportunity to have a healthy closure experience.


Affirmation:
By genuinely acknowledging the influence a person has had on and in your life, relationships can be cemented and maintained. Do more for your friend than uttering the words “ goodbye”. Affirm people. Take the time to let them know how much you respect and appreciate them. Acknowledge that they matter. This is a helpful exercise for you both as it strengthens your relationship into the future and makes you more aware of what you’ve gained from your friendship. Affirmation helps with closure by acknowledging the blessings you have in the form of relationships, and mourning their passing.


Farewells:
It important to say goodbye to people, places, pets and things that are important to us. This may involve for example giving somebody a gift, attending a party for people we want to say goodbye to, planting a tree in your favourite spot or taking pictures of what we cherish.


Think Destination:
Throughout the RAFT building process it is imperative to reorient yourself and your thinking to the near future and considering what resources you have to aid with the transition. Try to be realistic, identify positives and negatives and differences. List challenges that you’ll likely encounter. Make a list of your coping resources, both external and internal, and of other people that you have in your support network.


If you are an expat, and if you have friends, then dealing with a friend leaving is inevitable. You may not like it, but for me it beats the alternative. At the same time, sadness and the wish to protect ourselves from feeling sad in the future is perfectly natural and understandable. We all want to enhance pleasure and minimize pain in our lives. Many have argued that these are core ingredients of being human. And for a period of time, it might make sense to retreat and nurse your wounds, being kind and gentle toward yourself during this time. You are in all likelihood preparing the ground for new friendships to blossom.


Until then take some time to build a RAFT...even if you’re not going anywhere!

SMEDVIG
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