The underestimated health impact of Expatriate Grief

Did you know that there is a hidden beneficial expatriate cost that can be valuable when you embark on a relocation adventure? There is a thing called “the shadow side of expatriation”, and I can promise you sometimes it can be as good as it is bad. Less obvious is that this emotional cost of feeling unbalanced and discomfort can often manifest emotional qualities or strengths that, you never knew you had in you, or even knew how to define them. Once you have tapped into these emotional qualities, you may be able to master the fundamentals of being an expat and defeat the “shadow side” of expat living.

How would one go about this? Well, topics on the emotional imbalance or discomfort are numerous but how do you know which one applies specifically to what you are going through?? Can you explain where it happened, when it happened, how it happened and why it happened? This feeling of being out of balances that comes with living the life of an expat is a string of emotional events that occurs as one triggers the other. More so relevant today, dealing with Country Regulation and severe lockdowns due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, it could also be that you will only experience one or two of these feelings, or perhaps none. Overall, adapting emotionally to a new life in a new place can be a real struggle. You see, some triggers can set off an emotional process that leaves you feeling really disorientated.

You are not alone in this…

Expectations vs Reality

If you think about it; You are away from home starting a new life in a different country, with the memories and cultural habits of your previous home, but without the community support or routine you are used to. Next to the well-known career opportunity, this adventure can be based on what you have read, what you have heard and what you probably have experienced on vacation. How often have you wandered on a beach town, completely carefree and enjoying your vacation thinking “I could live here”. Or you’re going “back home” after a long period of time and you’re taking subconsciously your new mind set and gained cultural habits and a changed personality with you.

However, the actual reality of making a living comes without the carefree portion of that rumination. It becomes eminent that imagining a new life based on thoughts and interpretations is very different from living one when experiencing the day-to-day reality.

Somehow, we are strangely wired to think that going back to what was, has not changed and would be familiar to you, after all it is home, or that a vacation, sharing experience & culture knowledge and the internet is the best advisor to choose a country to relocate to, or that all opportunities are so good to pass up. Thus, we end up feeling either disillusioned by it all or powered to want more. Why is that?

Although there are many psychological answers/explanations to that question, I strongly believe it depends on who you are and how you stand in life. In a nutshell, a person whose personality is outgoing, adventurous, open minded and very adaptive is more likely to accept, adjust and move on. A person who is not, well just has a bit more of a challenge there. But I am not raising this subject to focus on psychological side of things. I am raising it to point out that taking a moment to reflect and think about what it truly means to relocate prior to becoming an expat can diminish, limit, or even prevent you from experiencing the surprise that comes with the “shadow side” of expat living.

The process of “Expatriate Grieving” – a mental health issue

The biggest issue with mental health issues is to recognize what it actually is. Even companies as well employees are unaware of the impact of grieving the inevitable (seemingly irrelevant) losses you go through when relocating to and relocating back to your (new) home country. Unfortunately, with being an expat the emotional and very personal imbalances and discomforts of relocating, has a lot of names; however, it is never perceived as GRIEF, expatriate grief. This is the most underestimated emotional cost, Expatriate GRIEF. The radical change of country, home, culture, and language is comparable to the grieving process when experiencing a tragedy. However, the excitement and personal reasons for moving to another country will suppress that grief until the arrival and settling in.

Weeks, months even a year down the line you are not able to shake that unsettling feeling of not being able to cope, adjust and adapt.

You start feeling HOMESICK, feeling alone (family events are happening without you), feeling invisible (networking seems to be a bigger challenge) as you do not know the culture and language yet. And then GUILT comes in to play and understanding your own emotional behavior (after all you wanted this) is almost impossible and you start feeling alone with no one to talk too, or worst even ashamed to voice these feelings. The CULTURE SHOCK and the REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK are real and the long travel to your new home country or even back to your old home country, settling in, meeting new people/seeing old friends and family, and exploring your new city/exploring the new changes of your old hometown, are the main ingredients to overstimulation.

And then you start to GRIEF, the definitive loss (the selling of personal things) and the ambiguous loss (not being part of things), it starts to take shape and you start to experience severe GRIEF. This affects everybody, even children. When everybody thinks they are not affected by the relocation. However, in their formative years, a period of a rapid cognitive (intellectual), social, emotional, and physical development is crucial for them to mourn their losses. Afterall, this development occurs based on the child’s response and the interaction between genetics, environment, and experience.

Grieving is a heavy word therefore not often used to describe small losses and certainly not losses during fantastic life events. Remember you made this conscious decision with substantial benefits with more money, career development, great destination, and opportunities. So, the general idea is, that it is almost inappropriate to acknowledge and or voice the emotion. Thus, voicing this grief would make you seem ungrateful. Yet, you cannot be further from the truth. It is and will remain not only a natural emotion, but a justified emotion, whether you acknowledge it or not. Remember you are not alone…

Corporate Support lines needed!

One support line that is loud by absence, lies with the companies. When a company is lacking the social skills to recognize and even worse acknowledge this form of mental health issue it can be detrimental to the employee and his/her family. Mind you, it may be the partner of the employee who is grieving. If so, then this is also reflected in the behavior of your employee.  So, if your employee is not performing on the same level as they did in their home country, instead of questioning their ability to keep up with the corporate agile work mentality, question your commitment to your employee. When cost effectiveness is more important that the extra step towards your employee’s mental state it will end up costing you more.

Culture awareness is not only important for an employee, but it is also crucial for your HR department. Understanding a culture will help understanding the employee (and family) better and guide you in supporting the “employee experience” which seems to be more of a word than an action in most companies. Understand and Respecting the expatriate journey also helps relate on a human level.

Turning expatriate grief into a beneficial cost?

Starting to understand your emotional way of processing losses thus GRIEF, in a healthy way is pivotal prior to starting your expat life. Grieving the small losses can support your mental health and diminish, limit and or prevent complex reactions in future life. Healthy grieving; say goodbye (emotionally) and accept the changes (internal & external) to come.

To be clear, proper grieving will help you stay focused, motivated and reduce the fear in situations that may trigger the previous losses which have not been dealt with before and prevent you from spiraling into a full-blown depression.  Once you learn how to say goodbye properly, you can start with your adventure.

In this time where we are somewhat traumatized by the past pandemic that still makes you feel isolated from the rest world, which is also a form of grieving. The locals are grieving the end of a previous life in the environment they are well familiar with. So, can you imagine how it feels like to deal with grief away from home?

“Funny thing with expat grieving though, you would think this happens to the more introvert people, but it actually hits home with the more outgoing and extroverts. After all a person who is used the social silence is more likely to feel comfortable with getting started and being by themselves.”

So, now you know that grieving is essential in many forms, you may just want to do a check on your levels of imbalances and discomforts. If you are challenging any of these emotional costs, I urge you to voice them. Especially now, working remotely turns out to have its own life challenges to say the least.

Before you do all the obvious heartfelt advice from co-workers, friends, and family, start with the GRIEF, and move on from there…

How to start with the grief? By acknowledging that it is real, justified and you are not alone.

Then you will be able to find specific topics on the emotional imbalance or discomfort which applies specifically to what you are going through!

The benefit is that you will be able to learn about yourself and apply your new knowledge/skill in other life situations, which can help you deal with the losses along the way the benefit is that you will be able to learn about yourself and apply your new knowledge/skill in other life situations, which can help you deal with the losses along the way. More so, the pieces of yourself, you lose along the way and embrace, accept who you are becoming, adapt to your new state of mind and not just move on, but keep moving on…

Get the help you need
If you need to just talk casually, give vent to your emotions and or inquire regarding help, please reach out to me at +31 682380801

If you need to take it a step further, wherever you are in the world, please reach out to the psychologists

They offer Therapy, Coaching and Couples Therapy in the Dutch Language (but also in English, Spanish, German or French). The conversations take place via video calling (including Skype, FaceTime or Zoom). As the psychologists themselves also live and work abroad, they understand your situation and there is a suitable psychologist for every time zone.

Wondering if online therapy suits you? Then schedule a free introductory meeting here.