As a TCK, I enter every new friendship with the knowledge that at some point in the near future, I will have to say goodbye. Saying healthy goodbyes is one of the key lessons that I am learning while living overseas. While each person grieves differently, I’ve discovered that thriving overseas is many times hinged on the successful closure of what we have left behind.
When my family and I first moved to Japan, I excitedly focused on the future. I looked ahead with anticipation, and I didn’t realize my grief over the people we had left behind until six months into our transition. As loneliness and sadness slowly dimmed my enthusiasm, I struggled to understand my emotions. When I processed these emotions a few years later, I realized I hadn’t grieved well. I had stuffed my emotions deep inside.
Since then, I’ve said many more goodbyes, and I’ve realized that the way I develop friendships has changed because of the transition and unexpected losses in my life. I also recognized this feeling in the attendees at the Families in Global Transition Conference I attended last month. Every expat arrived at FIGT knowing that at the end of the three-day conference, we might never see each other again. Doug Ota’s ending keynote presentation, “Don’t Leave without Taking Your Vitamin “G”: Why Goodbyes are Good for You,” seemed like a fitting end to the FIGT conference. Through stories, research, and interactive activities, Ota helped his audience examine goodbyes through a psychological perspective.
Goodbyes at FIGT
Ota stressed the importance of acknowledging goodbyes. As third culture kids and expats, our lives are marked by “hellos” and “goodbyes.” Transition becomes normal. “We get home,” Ota said, “by being able to say goodbye.” In other words, our hearts aren’t at rest until we acknowledge the loss associated with each transition. When we refuse to allow ourselves to feel pain, it begins to fester in our hearts over time. Although avoidance might seem like an easier short-term answer when we are faced with an unexpected and difficult separation, it is not a healthy long-term solution. Slowly, our grief can turn into anger or depression. I soon realized the frustration I felt after our move to Hiroshima actually stemmed from my unresolved grief.
Ota then split his audience into two groups. He asked us to think of any looming or recent goodbyes in our lives, pick one, and find a partner with whom to share. Each person was instructed to talk for one minute. Their partner was not allowed to respond. They were to simply show their empathy and emotional connection through body language. Ota created a space for us to acknowledge the pain of separation.
‘Acknowledgment’ vs. ‘Avoidance’
A niggling feeling of regret tugged at my thoughts as I shared about my recent goodbye with a group of close friends. Because my sister and I will soon leave for university, we were unsure of whether we would see our TCK friends again. I didn’t want to say goodbye. I didn’t want to acknowledge our impending separation. So I began to pre-grieve and withdraw, hoping that the pain of another goodbye would lessen with avoidance. My fear of saying a forever goodbye impacted the depth of our relationship.
As Ota affirmed in his keynote presentation, this method doesn’t work. Avoidance isn’t healthy, and it generates future regret, unresolved grief, and strained relationships. So how do I ‘acknowledge’ goodbyes and grieve well?
My mom and aunt wish they didn’t live so far apart. “See you later,” they say before a two-year separation. They hug each other briefly and walk away. That seemed like ‘avoidance’ to me! But as I continued to reflect, I realized that ‘acknowledgement’ isn’t defined by the length or look of a goodbye. My mom and aunt both previously acknowledged their sadness and accepted their impending separation. This resulted in a healthy goodbye. ‘Acknowledgment’ isn’t based on the time or place, but rather my heart condition. They didn’t avoid the pain.
I’m learning that goodbyes are healing. They are truly like medicine: bitter and unappealing in the moment, but restorative and strengthening to the body. Yes, goodbyes are painful. But they put our hearts to rest and allow us to embrace the memories of our past and the experiences of the present.