Relocation as … bereavement?

What an ominous title! And a bit melodramatic, don’t you think?  It would seem that way, particularly to those who have not relocated. But grief is a very real – and common – part of the relocation experience, and creating space for it and having a strategy and support to deal with it are essential.

Pre-Relocation: Opportunity and Adventure

First, let’s discuss why relocation is not commonly viewed as a tragedy requiring time for healing and the development of coping skills. From the employer’s perspective, it’s about opportunity and alignment: Putting the right employee in the right position at the right price in a way that promotes the company’s talent management objectives. The steps are the kind that cost centers and human resources departments are designed to handle, like household goods shipments. The checklist nature of accomplishing tasks can imply to the harried employee that once the move is complete, all will fall into place.

Those who are not relocating with an employer but are setting out for a new destination on their own tend to view moves as adventures. For them, it may mean overcoming the resistance or rejection of others in their circle, which fuels a feeling of self-righteousness and carpe-diem. Optimism, excitement, and pride in “living outside the box” create high expectations of success.

Relocation Reality: Yes, but . . .

Nobody is wrong in the above scenarios. Transferring or newly-hired employees are right to be excited about their opportunities, and idealistic globetrotters are naturally full of spunk and can-do spirit. However, just as colleges recognize that the freshman year brings growing pains that fit a general pattern, those moving abroad or across the country tend to find that feelings of homesickness, ambivalence, and sometimes even regret eventually pop up. Why is that?

Relocation by its very definition means leaving your old life behind and starting a new one.

The funny guy at the donut shop, the crossing guard you saw at your kids’ school each day, the road with the unique name that you drove on as part of your commute, the view you had from your old office window, the friends you saw on weekends, the team you cheered for, the local dishes you took for granted, the radio morning show that gave you a boost, the pace of life to which you’d become accustomed, the changing of the leaves, the trail you jogged on . . .

They are all gone.

Okay, maybe not 100% vanished, but to varying degrees, they are less accessible than they were before, when you actually lived there. Worse, social media can give you a window onto those who are still enjoying all of your old places and activities, together, as if it is totally normal, but without you. As a result, it can feel as if your life is going on without you, as if you somehow left your real life behind. This logic can be difficult to argue with during the transition period when the new life has not yet taken form – when you lack all of the attachments, rhythms, familiarity, and sense of belonging that you used to have. This can create a creeping feeling of not quite being in one’s skin, and that’s before we even add issues like language barriers, different cultural expectations, and the assorted crises that accompany a move.

Going through such a tremendous change creates ripples which disturb parts of our psyches that we would sometimes rather not explore. For example, it raises questions like, “What will it mean for my child to grow up in another culture?”, “Is this the career I really wanted?” and “Am I a bad son for moving so far away?”

People who were happy to leave their old lives behind can be surprised when they don’t adore the new ones. If they really dislike it, they may start to question their judgment and suffer a loss of confidence which can spill over into the rest of their lives. Those who harbored doubts from the beginning may feel vindicated but angry at themselves for not following their gut and speaking up or hitting the breaks sooner. As a result, people can become paralyzed, unable to make any new decisions, lest they make another mistake. In the middle of the spectrum, others may simply feel stuck, ambivalent, aimless, and lacking in vitality.

This is very similar to the process of grieving that people go through when other life-altering events occur. For example, when dealing with a divorce, becoming an empty-nester, losing a job, or even saying goodbye to a loved one, we experience not only the loss of the individual person, relationship, or income, but we lose the sense of everything which was ordered around it and connected to it. The same is true in a relocation: when we leave a place, we carry it in our hearts, but we cease to be a physical, daily part of that place. Quite simply, when you strike the set and take down the scaffolding on which your life is built, you can feel like you’re left with nothing but debris.

Getting help

The feeling of grief can be compounded by the fact that those most willing to initiate or accept a relocation tend to be those who are used to feeling the most competent and independent. Think about it this way: Someone who is barely able to keep his or her life together is unlikely to want to make life crazier by uprooting it. Yet, the fact that many are successful in their old lives means that few have developed the soft skills needed to endure a challenge of this magnitude.

The good news is that it is very feasible to develop coping and resilience skills, and even small steps often yield immediate results. It simply requires a willingness to learn, practice, and stretch. To start, locate sources of guidance and support. This will vary by person, including perusing self-help books, working with an coach, talking with a mind-body practitioner, seeking the wisdom of a religious mentor, or even seeing a therapist or mental health practitioner. The individual’s needs, comfort zone, and urgency are key considerations.

For those who are looking for someone to guide them, carefully consider what it is that you want the provider to do. If you want more than lists of “do’s and don’ts,” you need to confirm that the provider has special training in helping clients navigate the emotional side of transitions. This can take many forms, but you should ask to hear about their philosophy, approach, training, method, background, and experience. Ideally, it should also be someone that has a sufficient background in relocation and crossing cultures and with whom you feel safe and at ease.

Ultimately, your healing and transition depend entirely on one thing: your ability to integrate your past with the present, so that they are aligned with the vision you have for the future. Once this is intact, life will begin to make sense, fall into place, and nothing will hold you back.

Good luck!

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