Time to Leave: 'The Pain of Saying Goodbye'

Time to Leave: 'The Pain of Saying Goodbye'
By James Mullan
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Saying “good-bye” over and over again is one of the hardest parts of being an expatriate and our children have to learn how to handle it at a very early age. This is not the same as saying good-bye to teachers at the end of each school year, or bidding farewell to a nursery. This is not altogether a “natural” part of life - except, of course, for expatriates.

Expatriates often move multiple times in their lives – some as often as every couple of years. Expatriates in Dubai are a more unusual breed, tending to stay longer. But be that as it may, saying good-bye to people who leave us, or when going away ourselves, is both painful and sad.

There is no magic formula - a painless way to do it. The more our friends meant to us¸ the more it will hurt, and grief - similar to when someone dies - will follow.

Over years and with more practice, it becomes easier; we adapt better and are less stricken each time. We rationalise more, think ahead to new friends and learn to keep our emotions better in check.

For those going away, it is a little easier. The sheer volume of things to do in “the end game” dampens the ability to indulge in emotions, as pressures of time and exhaustion take over; the brain’s fantastic ability to bridge painful things helps as well. People moving away start planning, thinking ahead, imagining themselves in the new place, and yes, inevitably – imagining the new connections they will forge. This helps ease things mentally, practically and emotionally.

For those left behind the pain is more acute. Their lives are about to become impoverished through the loss of a dear friend or a colleague. The known and familiar is changing. As parents it is up to us to help our children adapt to this inevitable, raw experience.

Acknowledging the pain of loss, is important. The “stiff upper lip” may have worked well for previous generations; in our times understanding and voicing our emotions, leads to less misery for all concerned. Depending on the age of the child, they will react differently and cope with it in very different ways – all of them valid. Fearing tears is insufficient reason to avoid proper good-byes.

Tears may be a rite of passage, acknowledging how good the shared times were. It does not have to spell misery over the new phase of life.

• Allow children as many opportunities as you can to be together and enjoy each other’s company with their departing friends in the run up to their leaving. Younger children are more vulnerable, as they will miss the physical closeness and daily personal interaction with their friends.

• From the side of those left behind there is also an important contribution to be made. Do not exclude a departing person gradually, from the moment their leaving becomes known. Although this is an understandable and natural reaction – an act of self protection as people start to reaffirm and strengthen other friendships – it is painful for the person leaving. Seeing themselves as replaceable is upsetting, even sad. Instead, try to encourage your children to feel and recognise their emotions; to learn to voice them and identify their source. That is much more positive for them than the temporary protection from the emotional pain would be. It is a life skill. And perhaps, by nurturing greater emotional intelligence, greater ability to share and show support to each other, we can rear a generation of children less likely to need extensive therapy and external emotional support.

• Make mementos together – perhaps a film, a memory book, or just silly photos of the friends – doing what they enjoy best or in the places they shared time together.

• Plan the ways in which they could keep in touch – emails, skype, instagram, whats app or facebook. In our age of social media – for teenagers this is much less of an issue than ever before.

• Remind – especially boys – that they can continue to play games with their friends who have moved - by playing multi player games online (MMPORPG) with the usual restrictions that apply in your home (of course)!

• Organise a farewell event – a party, a meal or a shared outing to mark the parting.

• Plan a reunion – perhaps a summer visit, or a joint trip somewhere.

• Tears may come, and for certain age groups they will certainly come. It is important, for both us parents, and them to remember, that they will not stop being friends, just because they are far away. Their friendship will change, but with the gift of media, they can still continue to be friends, and share in each others’ lives – as Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Little Prince put it so beautifully: “Once you are my friend, I am responsible for you.”

• Make sure that they understand that although they are entering a different stage of their relationship, it is not the end.

The friends who are really meant to be your friends for life, will stay friends, no matter what. You may not meet again in person for years, or send only the odd message on high days and holidays, but the contact will simmer, quietly, in the background. When you need each other, or if an important event or an opportunity to meet up comes up, meet up you will.

Those of you who have been expatriates for longer know this from your own experience. 5 years, even 20 years, melt away instantly when you come face to face with someone you once knew and liked really well. This is the gift of friendship. Your children are just learning this – help them gently along the way.


Agnes Holly, BA English and German; MA Comparative Literature; Hornsby Dipl Special Educational Needs. Agnes has more than 25 years' teaching experience in various roles ranging from university to nursery teaching, in addition to on-going work bringing up 5 children

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