Goodbyes are never easy, but for expats they can be especially hard. This past month I said goodbye to four friends whose time in Uruguay had come to an end - some of whom have been my closest friends for the three years I’ve lived here. As a perennial expat, you might expect that I would be used to this by now. I tell myself that I should be as I’ve said farewells to numerous friends over the last three years, but despite the frequency of this, saying goodbye doesn’t get any easier.
The friendships we form as expats are often different from those we formed at home. Being far from family and my support network, my friends have often served as my pseudo-family. Other expats understand the same struggles you may be going through that those back home might not fully grasp. The shared experience of adjusting to a new culture, and the challenges and adventures it brings, can be a bonding experience which leads to forming close relationships in a short amount of time. Events that might more commonly be spent with family at home, such as celebrating birthdays or holidays, or asking and offering support in times of crisis, are instead shared with your friends. So of course when either they or we move on, it feels like a big hole is left behind.
This sense of loss can lead us to avoiding forming relationships in the first place, particularly when you know that you or they only have a short time left before one of you will be moving on. With just a year left to go until it’s time for me to move onto my next country, I thought about this myself. Is worth investing in forming new friendships, to make close friends only to have to bid farewell all over again?
Although we are lucky here in Uruguay, the worldwide Covid-19 crisis has reinforced what we already knew from years of scientific research – the importance of human connection in our lives. Social isolation can have a detrimental effect on not just on our mental and emotional health, but on our physical health too. We all need to have a support system and feel connected to others for our wellbeing to thrive, especially to help carry us through difficult times.
For expats, far from the support of family and friends at home, this is all the more true. Walling yourself off from making new relationships because of the fear of the pain of it coming to an end only deprives you of opportunities – both to find support and to give it.
So is it worth the effort to get to know someone when you or they have less than a year before leaving? Absolutely. My family and I recently met a newly arrived family and have been spending a great deal of time together - our kids love playing together, we’ve been able to help them acclimatise to their new environment and it’s been fun just getting to know one another. It’s also helped with the pain of saying goodbye to my friends. If I had shut myself off to this new friendship due to the little time we have left here, we would all have missed out on a great opportunity for human connection and a lot of laughs. And yes, of course it will be hard to say goodbye when the time comes, but our lives here would be much less enjoyable without them in it.
Saying goodbye may not get any easier, even if you are a seasoned expat, but there are things you can do to can help you adjust and move forward:
1. Acknowledge the ending
It may seem easier to push past an ending to avoid discomfort or sadness. You may avoid seeing your friends who are leaving or if you’re the one leaving, to go quietly without saying proper goodbyes. Doing this deprives us of the opportunity to honour how important this relationship has been to us. When we mark an ending, it helps to remind us that we are capable of accepting change and opens the path to moving on to the next chapter in our lives. It’s also a chance to share special memories that you’ve made together and practice gratitude.
How we perceive goodbyes can be really important in how we are able to manage them. If we see goodbyes as something that is final and something to avoid, we may resist getting close to certain people or missing out on opportunities for human connection. However, if you can look at the positives these relationships have brought to our life, we’ll be able to appreciate them more fully and be open to forming new relationships that offer future memories waiting to be made.
3. Filling the ‘hole’
When we have friends move away or when we move away ourselves, it can feel like a hole has been left in our lives. Some days this hole feels big and gaping, other days it can feel smaller - but whatever the size, it can sometimes feel hard to fill. It’s so important for us not to get sucked into this hole and get consumed by it. Technology is a great way to stay connected to friends and family - messaging or video calls on a regular basis can really help. Hobbies are also important, and can help us feel more content and fulfilled - whether we do them individually or with others. Doing them with others also opens up the potential to meet other like-minded people and to make new friends.
4. Saying hello
Although you might say frequent goodbyes as an expat, you also have the opportunity to say just as many hellos. Saying hello opens to the door to new beginnings and possibilities and has the potential not only to enrich your life, but someone else’s too.
When we leave Uruguay in a year’s time I know I’ll be sad, and that I’ll have many more goodbyes to say. Yet I also know that the friendships I have made here, both locals and other expats, will stay with me for life and I can look forward to our next destination knowing that there are new friendships waiting for me there too.
If you find yourself in a similar situation and would like help discovering ways forward, please reach out for a complimentary discussion.