It’s that time of year again – as temperatures soar and summer looms, so too does the season of goodbyes. The end of the school year, and manifold changes due to the pandemic, means the sad inevitability of bidding farewell to friends who’ll be leaving the UAE to start a new chapter – something that expats have had to learn to do time and time again.
As expats, the question of when is the right time to leave is forever there – and it’s a tough one to answer if the decision isn’t made for us with new job opportunities or family commitments abroad. Summertime is the most obvious time to make the leap (and probably the best time too – leaving when the city is at its most glorious during the winter would make it all the more difficult!), but the mass exodus which happens at this time of year (according to relocation company ISS Worldwide Movers, over 60 percent of their business happens in July), can be really unsettling for the people who remain.
For children especially, it’s often confusing and upsetting to go through the experience of friends leaving on such a regular basis. Lucy Bruce, founder/director of Education at Home Grown Children’s Eco Nursery and mum of three, says that saying goodbye to good friends is hard, especially for children who need to adjust to the reality that their best buddy will no longer be close by. She recommends a few simple ways to help kids process and deal with what’s going on – from telling them as far in advance as possible (I’ve often been guilty of avoiding this, mistakenly thinking that kids don’t really have a concept of time and that the longer they have to think about things, the worse those things become) to snapping some gorgeous pictures to get printed and framed for their bedroom and squeezing in extra play dates to chat about how they’ll stay in touch and remain great friends.
OUR TURN TO GO
Having watched friends come and go, this time last year it was our turn to prepare to leave Dubai after almost 10 years of expat life. In a whirlwind of selling furniture, hosting garage sales and planning leaving parties we had to say goodbye to the place where all of our three children were born, somewhere we’d grown to love and think of as home, where we’d had some of the best experiences of our lives and made some really amazing friends.
The decision to move back to our home country of the UK felt right and good. I was confident about it. I knew that there’d be lots to miss about Dubai, but was really positive that this was the right time to go and that there was an exciting new chapter to begin. Expat friendships are especially strong — an extended family away from home who are there to share in everything, from the fun to the frustrations, of a foreign life.
Where I thought I’d wobble when the time came to hug those friends and say goodbye, I was actually surprisingly strong. I didn’t cry as anticipated when our furniture was loaded into the container and our beloved home was just an empty shell. I didn’t break down during the leaving drinks and lunches and parties even when close friends did. I didn’t worry about setting up a new life in a country I hadn’t lived in for almost a decade.
Instead, I busied myself with the practicalities of the move by looking for a new home abroad, registering for schools and all the other stuff that we had to sort. At that time, it was the kids who struggled with the idea of it all. They were happy and settled at school, had carved out a healthy amount of freedom running about with friends on the compound we lived in, loved the beach and swimming pool and camping trips in the desert and – most of all – were completely attached to our wonderful helper Florence who had been such a huge part of their lives.
They had a million questions about what would happen – where they’d live, what school they’d go to, what friends they’d have, whether they could take their things with them, when they could come back to visit. My husband and I latched onto the little snippets of excitement and intrigue and tried to stay positive.
According to Dr. Saliha Afridi, Clinical Psychologist and managing director at Lighthouse Arabia. "While you are trying to get everyone to be hopeful and excited about the future, you can expect that it won’t be the case right away for some of the family members. Also, it takes some children longer than others to transition. They will be anxious, skeptical, resentful, and sad—allow space for that and validate their feelings. They won’t last."
Dr Afridi says that it is really important to "empower your kids. Answer their questions and provide concrete information about changes. Include them in any and as many decisions. This allows them to feel somewhat empowered in the midst of family change." Whether it’s showing them pictures of your new home and asking them to help choose their bedrooms, or researching and making a list of the things they’d like to do in their new environment, these things definitely helped my kids. Also the friends they were leaving behind who liked to get involved in these discussions too.
TALK IT OUT
Whether you’re supporting your children in leaving or preparing them to say goodbye to those going, there are ways to make the process easier and tools with which to help them. Dr Sarah Rasmi, licensed psychologist and founder of Thrive Wellbeing Center (www.thrive.ae) recommends books about saying goodbye, especially for younger kids for whom reading can enhance emotional vocabulary. She says that even movies such as ‘Inside Out’, the story of a girl whose world turns upside-down when she and her parents move to a new city features a number of highlighted emotions which are explained and labeled and which can help kids understand and regulate their feelings in the context of this life-changing event.
Dr Rasmi believes that helping children problem- solve rather than always helping and protecting them by jumping in with our own plan is a great life lesson, helping them to troubleshoot their own life challenges. Ask them how they would like to stay in touch with their friends and come to conclusions together (gently steering them away from unrealistic solutions like flying back each weekend!). She says that it’s important to make children feel like they’re stakeholders in the process – regardless of how old they are. A new house can be sad but can also be really exciting so giving them a chance to check out their new space, bring over keepsakes that are special to them or get them something they’ve been eyeing for a while to have in the new home and to be enthusiastic about.
When the time came to leave, to me it felt just like our annual departure to Europe, while for the children it was really difficult to process so many emotions and so many goodbyes – and to try to understand all the unanswered questions like, when they’d next see their toys and familiar things.
Goodbyes were tinged by overwhelming feelings of fear and sadness as friends sent us off to our new life, not knowing when we would all see each other again. It’s often much harder for those being left behind, who don’t have the distraction of something new and unknown to look forward to – and I found myself comforting those close to me, feeling so touched by their love yet still feeling calm and strong about the move myself.
For a couple of months, it was heaven. It was summertime, it was the holidays, we had friends and family around us and there were adventures to be had. And then, when the summer holidays were over and the understanding that we weren’t returning to Dubai set in, tiny cracks started appearing, and I realised that in my haste to relocate my family and make sure everyone else was OK I had overlooked one small detail: myself.
AN UNEXPECTED GRIEF
As the kids settled into new schools and embraced everything about their new world with not so much as a tear and my husband took to his new commute, I felt a profound loss of identity and a longing for Dubai.
I missed my friends, I missed my job, I missed the familiarity of my daily routine, I missed having help, I missed the supermarket, the beach, the city, I missed absolutely everything. It came as a huge shock to me — my ‘home’ country didn’t feel like home at all and I was just terribly homesick for Dubai and totally unprepared for it. I also felt a huge gap between myself and friends who had stayed in the UK for all those years while I lived abroad.
" I felt a profound loss of identity and a longing for Dubai"
Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia, says that "the acknowledgment of the grief that comes with goodbyes’ is key". And that’s not just goodbyes associated with people but also with places, jobs, homes – anything you feel that you’ve lost/left behind.
This was news to me – I had no idea that these feelings could and would surface. It was only recently when reading an article by global living expert and author, Robin Pascoe, which connected the relocating experience and culture shock to the feeling of grief, that I began to understand my feelings. Pascoe writes that for, many there, is literally a period of mourning that requires acknowledgement and work to get through.
Dr Sarah Rasmi says that "one of the biggest determinates of adaptation to a new socio cultural environment, whether moving home or somewhere else, is social support. When you move somewhere, it’s really important to find people to connect with." This didn’t come easily for me when I was feeling so fragile but she says that "pushing yourself to connect with neighbours, colleagues, parents at school – any community group that you may be a part of and any person with whom you have something in common" is really important.
A NEW NORMAL
Time is a great healer and things have definitely got easier and, while the occasional instagram post or out-of-the-blue comment from my kids about missing Dubai might make me weepy, I’ve realised that, as expats, we have an extraordinary superpower to adapt.
All those times we had to go through the process of friends leaving, of moving house and moving schools in countries that were foreign to us, of saying goodbye to relatives after every visit, have left us resilient and capable of change. And so I’m slowly finding the ‘good’ in goodbye by recognising the amazing opportunities that Dubai gave us, particularly in raising ‘third culture kids’ who are open to experiences and who are equipped with the remarkable skill to adapt.
The memories and events we were lucky enough to share as a family will stay forever – we are so fortunate to have had them and they have helped shape my kids into the wonderful people they are today; resilient, adaptable and nothing short of amazing. From my children, I have learned that the security and love of our family unit supercedes any change and helps us feel at home no matter where in the world we are.
Leaving Dubai wasn’t something that happened when we got on that plane but a process which can take a long time. For me, that process is ongoing — it includes the acceptance that an expat life cannot last forever and gratitude for what we had, while embracing what’s to come. As author and artist Vivian Greene said ‘Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass. It’s about learning how to dance in the rain.’ Well thankfully there’s a fair amount of rain to learn to dance in over here.