May and June can be tough months for expats and those who are closely linked to expats, whether that is through work, school, groups, or church. In countries that follow the August to June school year, everything changes when school ends.
June is the month of goodbyes. If other countries are anything like Ethiopia, expats begin planning their travel early in the new year, knowing that ticket prices will increase and seats will fill up quickly. For those who are departing for good, there is a flurry of activity with packing, moving details, handovers at work, and arrangements at the other end. In the midst of this are the endless rounds of goodbyes; office and classroom parties, graduation parties, gatherings with friends in homes and restaurants. Organizations may also provide transition support in the form of debriefing or following the process of RAFT (Reconciliation, Affirmation, Farewells, and Think destination).
All these goodbyes can be mind-numbing, not only for those who are leaving, but also for those staying. During my 25 years in Ethiopia, I have said more goodbyes than I could ever have imagined. Many of my closest friends are other expat women, women who understand the complexities, joys, and struggles of my life and I of theirs. I have said goodbye to so many friends that at times I have closed myself off to potential new ones, knowing that they will leave again in a few years. But experience has taught me that these friendships are more important than the pain of a goodbye. Instead, it is important to be intentional with your goodbyes and in processing your thoughts and feelings. Today we might be the one leaving, and next time we might stay put, but either way, goodbyes are tough.
If you are one that is leaving, the following are things you can do to help you say goodbye in a healthy way.
· It’s okay to get emotional
There are going to be many moments in those last weeks and days that make you emotional, and not necessarily teary-eyed. Sadness is not the only thing you are going to feel. Whether your experience was positive or not so positive, you will have a roller coaster of feelings, such as relief, anger, disappointment, guilt, satisfaction, and a host of other feelings. Different places, people, and events will trigger different emotions and they are neither right nor wrong. No two people experience their time as an expat in the same way and everyone will respond differently as they process their goodbyes.
· Prioritize your goodbyes
Time will fly by as you are preparing to leave, and even if you are around a bit longer, others will be leaving as well. Prioritize your goodbyes on your calendar so that you and your family members don’t miss out on any important visits.
· Consider the culture
What is appropriate in one culture does not necessarily work in another. In highly relational cultures, such as Ethiopia, it is not enough to send out an email to everyone in the office when you are leaving, even if there is a farewell in your honor. Make an effort to go and say goodbye in person. The extent of each goodbye is based on how closely you worked together. Your household staff warrant a more personal goodbye, and they may invite you for a coffee ceremony or meal. If they do, graciously accept, even if it means shifting around your calendar. Be sensitive to the culture.
· Schedule a debriefing
Whether this is something that is offered by your organization or not, processing this chapter in your life is important. Whether your time has been good or bad, you will want to talk about your experiences in a context where they are understood. Unless you have someone with fairly recent expat experience in your next location, find time to debrief as part of your departure process and goodbyes.
If you are the one staying there are also things that you can do to process these goodbyes.
· Host a gathering
If you have a friend that is leaving, offer to organize and/or host a goodbye in their honor and invite the people they want to include. Organize snacks or a meal and prompts to highlight memories and moments of their time here. This takes the pressure off your friend and allows you to show your love and appreciation for them.
· Help them pack up their home
When someone is leaving after an extended period of time in another country, they are packing up their lives in the last weeks and days before their departure. This can be a difficult and emotional task. Doing this together is a great way to support them and an opportunity to reminisce at the same time.
· Offer a place to stay
Offering a place to stay for someone after their belongings are sold or packed is a huge help. No one wants to stay in an empty house when they are about to embark on a new journey.
· Reach out to others feeling lonely
Sometimes during these goodbyes, it is hard for us to remember that we are not the only ones that are staying behind. There are many others going through this and now is a great time to reach out to others and share stories and memories. This is important for both expat and local friends, as we are all experiencing these goodbyes.