Coping with loss and grief as an expat

September 14, 2022 | Blog, Wellbeing

Neus Valencia is an integrative relational therapist specialising in loss and grief. After working for several years on Wall Street and in the corporate world as a consultant, she retrained as a therapist, with the specific aim of helping people in the way they relate to each other as well as coping strategies for different relationship challenges, personal growth and internal paradigm shifts about who we are and how we can all achieve better integral health.

Neus spoke to MumAbroad about the key challenges involved in moving to a new country and culture,  specifically at the emotional challenges as well as the key obstacles preventing people from adjusting to their new life.


Loneliness and loss, identity and belonging

 

Loss and grief expatIn your clinic, how often are you seeing people who are struggling to adapt to expat life here in Barcelona?

 

I see all different kinds of loss, whether it is due to the death of a loved one, a divorce, a disease, etc. some of the losses are very invisible and unauthorised, meaning that socially are not as acceptable as others. Expat adaptation is one of those that a lot of the times is suffered in silence and only some people reach out for help when they are either with a big life crisis or when someone validates their situation and recommends getting help. A lot of the times they might be sharing their successful experience with a therapist.

For those unfamiliar with what it takes to make the transition they often think ‘expats’ for want of a better word are ‘living the dream’ when in fact the reality is very different?

 

Exactly, that is the thing. “living the dream”, “I wish I could live the experience you’re going through”… And it is all true, it can be an awesome experience to move to another country, experience a new culture, language, etc… However, it is also true that adapting is not always easy and that there are many factors that can shake us from our psychological base that we should take into account. So let’s say there is a good part and there is a not so good part that is going to be different for every person. And it can cause a lot of stress and we need to pay attention to it in order to address it as needed.

And sometimes those who have moved become victims of ‘toxic positivity’ so when faced with a major challenge they’re told something on the lines of ‘well you have the sunshine and the beach on your doorstep’ which can make the situation worse?

 

Exactly, that’s what I meant. In life, when a situation changes, it can bring things that are “good” for me or my family and also bring “challenges” that require our attention. We cannot use the “good” to say you have no right to complain. That is cruel! When a person moves to a new country and are faced with loneliness like they’ve never experienced before, and are afraid to share it with anyone not to be judged, you cannot hit them with the “you have no right to complaint, you live in the paradise beach. What they need is compassion, non-judgmental support, someone that validates my emotion. It is true, I am feeling that way. And it is compatible with the fact that, when I enjoy the sunset, I love it here. It is all happening at the same time. And that’s what happens with the grief of the person adapting to the new home. Sometimes the new language is going to be exhausting, some times many challenges happening at the same time can be overwhelming and we need understanding and compassion.

Let’s look now at some of the different types of issues people may be faced with in a new country. Loneliness, especially for the so-called ‘trailing spouse’.

 

A family may move because of the dad’s work (or the mum’s), the kids are at a new school and women (most often) are left at home trying to establish a social life or find work themselves, both of which can be very difficult. The thing is that each member of the family is going to have a different process with different timings and different emotions. So, in the stereotypical scene you mentioned, we might have the Dad very stressed out trying to perform very well to prove his company they made the right decision promoting him/relocating him there. So he might be working long hours, spending time to meet the team both at work and socially. Maybe he will not be getting enough sleep and tends to be more irritable than normal with the family. Maybe he will not feel understood by his family when they claim they want him to spend more time at home.

On the other side, the Mom might be totally exhausted and overwhelmed as she is faced with the conditioning of the new house, supporting the kids in the new school, getting to know how “things are done” in the new place, etc. She might have left her job to support her husband and she is now missing her family and feeling lonely and not valuable in her professional life that got interrupted. Finally, the kids are faced with the fact that they have to make friends all over again, they may not be proficient with the local language or the cultural ways of socialising and dating. Their self-esteem might be threatened if they are pointed out to be “different”. Their parents might be too busy for them so they might also feel loneliness and the responsibility to not burden them with their “little problems”. So the whole family gets hit in different ways and they all need a lot of love and attention.

And this can often lead to issues of identity and belonging, something we all need. If you don’t have a ready made community around you, a good group of friends or a job, it can be very isolating and also people struggle trying to make sense of their new identity…

 

Absolutely, and many times, you end up being from nowhere and a “citizen of the world”. The changes in each person can be very profound and change forever who they are, their values, their beliefs, etc. The thing is that back home you might never fit in again as you’ve changed. Sometimes you feel more belonging amongst expats as they might understand the experiences you’ve gone through even if you’ve lived in different countries.

Isolation can often be exacerbated when you don’t have your extended family around you, parents, brothers and sisters etc especially when you are a new mum..

 

Yes, what happens is that any change in your life while being away is going to accumulate losses. Bereavement while abroad, being a mum, getting a divorce, etc. just makes it more challenging in all aspects and the emotional one is many times not taken into account. So bearing in mind the multiple challenges people face, trying to find a solution must be multi faceted, what would you say are the first steps…? I would definitely start with understanding that what is happening to you is normal, it is natural, not a pathology and universal, all human beings’ grief in different ways and paces as a bond is broken or transformed. As amazing as it sounds that is one of the first things my patients mention “so there is nothing wrong with me?”, so no, nothing in you is broken, you are adapting and that takes time and love towards yourself. Then, understanding all the different symptoms you might be experiencing and normalising the grief process can get you the time and love you need to get adjusted.

Also, do not fear to see a specialist, going to therapy is a sign of health, it doesn’t make you mentally ill nor any of the social stigma around mental health. If your tooth hurts you would go see your dentist without a doubt to check it out. Why not do the same when you’re having trouble sleeping, your suffering stress, you’re having trouble with your significant other… Take responsibility for your happiness and your inner peace. Speak up, meeting with other people that go through similar struggles can be very healing so it can help normalise and it can give you different ideas on how to face it. Also, understand that this is a family experience that is lived individually. So we need to treat it as a family so that the copying mechanisms of one member are understood and respected by the others and don’t interfere in the overall goal that is adjusting as s group, as a system.

How can a therapist help expats struggling with grief and loss adjust to a new life?

 

The therapist is going to listen to get the full picture, to be able to diagnose and recommend a treatment period of support in the different aspects that make that person suffer the most in their lives. We don’t have a magic wand, but we can point our flashlight so that you can see reality from all different aspects and give you tools to face emotions, thoughts, physical symptoms and they are all part of the same experience of change.

How long do you think it takes before someone feels ‘at home’ in their new country?

 

That is one of the most common questions about grief… grief is a unique experience as unique as each of us are. We cannot quantify it without the risk of making someone feel inappropriate if they don’t meet the standards. So I would say, is depends on the person and his/her life circumstances, psychological structure, relational style, attachment history… however you can always ask around and get a sense of what most people experience. But I would never take it as a universal truth. Each of us takes whatever we need and that is ok. There is no rush.


You can find out more about Neus Valencia via her website and Neus also has a clinic at the Turo Park Medical Centre.

For those interested in reading real life stories on the challenges of moving abroad, MumAbroad founder edited and contributed to #LivingTheDream: expat life stripped bare, an expose on the less sunny side of the Instagram lens.

If you are interested in finding more about coping strategies for living abroad please visit our Therapists & Coaches section.

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