Repatriation: Saying Goodbye to Friends

Reflections on the toughest part of the expat experience.

by SHFamily | Wed, June 07, 2017

By Siobhan Brown

Losing friends to repatriation is a constant reality for expats living around the globe and possibly the hardest part of the expat experience. Saying goodbye to those we have formed strong bonds with is never easy, and the adjustment that follows can also be challenging. 

“It is difficult to quantify precisely how many families relocate or repatriate to Shanghai each year. However, a significant number are in a state of transition and struggling with cultural fatigue.”

– Coreene Horenko, Outreach Coordinator at Lifeline Shanghai

I first faced this struggle when I said good-bye to my dear friend of three years back in 2015. While planning her going away party, I thought back to when we first met. It was New Year’s 2012 in front of Cotton’s bar and restaurant. I was pregnant, nauseous, exhausted and as my husband and I trudged outside, we spotted another couple waiting for a taxi. When the woman turned around, I saw she was visibly pregnant as well and the pained look on her face told me she was enjoying the evening about as much as I. She introduced herself as Lauren and, while standing in the sub-zero temperature, we talked about “expecting” in Shanghai and the Dragon Mothers birth club we had heard about on ShanghaiMamas.

Just one week later, Lauren and I were sitting in a coffee shop in [Xuhui District] laughing about the fact we had chosen the same hospital and obstetrician and that both our prenatal visits seemed to end with our doctor cautioning us to watch our caloric intake, lest we turn into “elephants.” We made a point of celebrating this time of guiltfree weight gain and we dined together frequently, taking the city by culinary storm. Our children, Hayden and Kaden, were born just months apart. From the day of their arrival, our lives changed forever and the six of us became inseparable.

Best of friends

Hayden and Kaden (or Hay-Hay and Kay-Kay as they came to refer to each other) grew up thinking they were siblings, sharing holidays, celebrations, friends and even their ayi, who split her time between our homes. If one of our spouses were away, we were immediately adopted into the other’s home to share good company and meals. We were there for each other when someone forgot a passport, locked themselves out of the house or needed a loan (of just about anything) and we even took care of each other’s children, sometimes for sleepovers.

Lauren and I watched our children reach developmental milestones, and we continuously shared coping strategies, frustrations, and achievements. In December 2015, I was admitted to the hospital. Upon admission, I was terrified, sick, alone and had no idea who would watch my son with my husband out of the country. But Lauren stepped in and, between her and our ayi, my son was cared for around the clock until my husband could return.

As often happens, after three years we received the news that Lauren and her family would be moving back to Kansas City. I had conflicting emotions. My first thought was of my son. I felt such anguish that he would be losing his best friend, someone he had known since birth. He loved Hayden and would ask for her hourly anytime she went away on vacation. During that time we tried to be happy for our friends and this new opportunity they had been given, but also feared that the hole they would leave behind would be vast and impossible to fill.

In the months leading up to their departure, I distracted myself with goodbye party planning, but once the celebration was over and the last guest had left, the reality set in that this chapter of our lives was now over. It was time for them to go, for us to move on and I just didn’t know how we would do that exactly. I had said goodbye to many friends before Lauren, but never to an entire family, one I had come to adore and whose life had become so completely enmeshed in my own. It didn’t feel like I was saying good- bye to friends; it felt like I was losing a sister and a daughter and the emptiness was palatable. Selfish as it may be, I recall thinking that it would have been preferable if we were the ones saying goodbye, not the ones being left behind.

Adapting to change

For many expats, saying goodbye to valued friends is nothing new. It begins when we leave our home countries and embark on new adventures abroad.

Common feelings that occur during a move are:

“sadness and a reluctance to leave family and friends as well as the comforts and conveniences of a familiar way of life.”

– Carrie Jones, Director of Counseling Services at Community Center Shanghai (CCS)

Children who are leaving struggle just as much as those left behind. They must adapt to a new way of life that includes a new neighborhood, school, friends, and activities.

“Saying goodbye is one of the hardest things expat [parents] need to learn ... It’s one of the things their children also learn at a very young age. Transition is a part of expat life ... For children that are leaving, pictures of favorite areas, pets, and possessions that can be assembled into a scrapbook. Help them gradually say goodbye to people, pets, places and possessions. Let your children guide you as they have an eye for the small details we adults can often miss.”

– Mireia Nada, Psychologist at My Therapist, a consulting program for children and teens.

For children who must say goodbye to a dear friend, Jones also has some constructive advice. “The best thing parents can do, especially initially, is to allow children to freely talk about their feelings and to express their emotional pain.” Jones explains that it’s important for parents to honor the significance of the friendships and to validate how hard it is to have to say goodbye to a friend. “Encourage children to reflect on the role the friend played in his/ her life and to talk about special memories of times together,” she continues. “Then, moving forward, help children figure out how they can stay in touch if they would like to. Later, if possible, plan for visits. I’ve seen so many times when a visit to or from an old friend is tremendously beneficial to a child, and to adults too.”

Learning curve

My husband and I have learned so much from our son, who is sometimes more resilient than we are, even if he doesn’t understand words like “contracts” or “repatriation.” As an expat child with almost five years experience under his small belt, he now understands that people leave. This is not to say he doesn’t miss them, merely that his view on relationships is different than say, his Canadian cousins who have grown up with the same friends since Kindergarten. Friendships are just as important to him, but there is unpredictability to them that he has come to accept and still value.

When a friend now moves, he is excited to hear about where he will go visit. His best friend Rory moved to London this past November and they were inseparable. My husband and I were so worried about what his reaction would be upon her departure, but while he misses her, he accepts that she is gone, and he is eager to one day visit her under “London Bridge” – provided it is not actually falling down.

He has his down days too and sometimes grows agitated at constantly being the one to say goodbye. During the harder times we talk about our friends and all the fun times we had together. This helps us to think about the positives, appreciate what we had and be grateful for the new opportunities our friends have been given.

New beginnings

“the important thing to teach children is that we all experience loss at different stages of our lives. After a loss, the critical point is to grieve, remember, commemorate and then learn to go on, eventually incorporating such experiences into our lives that will undoubtedly make us stronger.”

– Mooney Niu, Mental Health Counselor for The Essential Learning Group

It has been two years since our friends departed, and while we still miss them dearly, we prepare to enter our seventh year here and have said goodbye to many friends along the way. We now prepare ourselves, yet again, for a group of friends who are beginning new chapters that we will no longer be a part of. With each goodbye our family has come to learn new coping mechanisms and we now understand that partings are not endings. The book is not finished; the bookmark has merely been put in its place. We hope one day soon we will resume our time together, and pick up where we have left off, sharing new stories together on different soil. With each new friend we welcome into our lives, we give our families an invaluable opportunity. It’s how we handle this fluid and somewhat transient lifestyle that will determine how emotionally successful we are during our time abroad.

“We encourage people to reach out and broaden their network as a strategy to keep their options for support and friendship as open as possible,” advises Horenko. “The sadness which many people feel at the loss of family, friends and even loss of self, while not having a set time period, will usually improve over time when we begin to relax, drop our defenses and participate in our new or changed environment.”

Our connection to such global friends provides us with the chance to experience new places and cultures we never dreamed possible. Breaking out of our comfort zones and embracing new relationships, no matter how fleeting, will always be a gift that keeps giving long after we have to say goodbye.