One of the struggles that all expats / immigrants face at one point or another, but often do not have words for is what we would call “ambiguous expat grief.” For the most part, when we hear the word ‘grief,’ we think about the deep sadness that comes from a loved one dying. However, this is not the only kind of grief that exists.
Oftentimes, we experience ambiguous grief, which is a profound sense of loss and sadness in spite of no actual death occurring. There are many different causes for ambiguous grief, but for the sake of this article, we will focus specifically on the sort of ambiguous grief expats tend to face.
If you are experiencing grief due to the loss of a loved one, we recommend checking out this resource from psychologist Gabriela Encina instead.
What is ambiguous expat grief?
As defined by the Mayo Clinic, ambiguous grief “can be a loss of emotional connection when a person’s physical presence remains, or when that emotional connection remains but a physical connection is lost.” This is a common occurrence for those of us who move abroad, drastically altering the physical and emotional connections that had, thus far, defined our lives.
Ambiguous expat grief can arise at any point during a live abroad experience, especially when you are reminded of this loss of connection as a result of your physical distance from loved ones back home.
Ambiguous expat grief experienced soon after moving abroad
For some expats / immigrants, this sort of grief is immediate. You move to a new country and quickly feel that loss of connection. Loneliness, sadness, and confusion consume you. This can be a scary time to experience grief because it leads you to doubt your decision to move away in the first place.
If the choice to move abroad was tied to a specific job or study program, you may start to question if the trade-offs of this opportunity were really worth the emotional rollercoaster you are now on. If this was an opportunity for your partner or family member, not you, you may begin to feel resentment, jealousy, and even anger toward that person who it seems “put you in this position” (even if, logically, you know that you made the choice willingly).
On the other hand, if the decision to move abroad was entirely personal and free of other implications, your grief can lead you to feel exceedingly guilty. When faced with the mixed emotions and sadness of ambiguous expat grief, it’s hard to see the big picture. You forget the positives and instead focus on the ways that your decision was ‘selfish’ and harmful to the relationships that you are grieving.
Ambiguous expat grief experienced long after moving abroad
Alternatively, other expats / immigrants don’t experience a lot of grief in the early days/months (or even years!) of their abroad experience. However, this ambiguous grief can sneak up at any time and can actually feel even more unsettling and confusing when it surfaces a long time after your move.
When there is a clear connection of cause-and-effect (ie. I moved to Spain last month and now I miss my family) it can be a little easier to allow yourself to recognize and process those emotions. When this connection is harder to see, it’s common for expats to try to fight these feelings, thinking they aren’t ‘fair’ or ‘reasonable’ to have now that it’s x amount of time into their abroad experience.
It can also be surprising or even angering to experience ambiguous expat grief long after you feel you have ‘succeeded’ in adapting and thriving in your new country. No matter when these feelings show up for you, we encourage you to remember that they are common and normal. The best thing you can do for yourself is not to repress them but to acknowledge them. That way, you can feel the grief that you need to feel and work through the emotions that are coming up.
Examples / common triggers of ambiguous expat grief
Celebrating important life milestones: Things like graduations, job promotions, weddings, pregnancy, the birth of a child, launching a business, renting or buying your first home, etc are often moments that we have envisioned sharing with our parents, closest friends, and/or other loved ones.
When these milestones arrive (or when you are nearing a significant milestone), it’s normal to feel some grief and sadness if the experience will not look the way you originally imagined or include the people you love in the ways you had hoped. This often happens, whether or not you realized you had a vision for how these milestones would look.
Missing important life milestones: In the same way, when your loved ones celebrate these milestones and you can’t be there to share in the moment with them, you are likely to feel a similar sort of sadness. Unfortunately, this grief is often tamped down as it can feel ‘unfair’ or ‘selfish’ to talk about how you are hurting when (at least it appears) you are missing these milestones by choice.
Returning to your home country: Although one would imagine that being reconnected with the people you love would mitigate the feelings of sadness and grief, this is often not the case. Returning to your home country, especially after a lot of time has passed, can be jarring.
This is either because you feel like so much has changed for you and nothing has changed for others OR because you are faced with the reality that life back home has carried on without you and you don’t recognize the people and places that you thought were familiar. In particular, having to say goodbye again can cause all the sadness and ambiguous expat grief to resurface.
Reckoning with shifts in relationships: It is impossible to maintain your relationships in exactly the same way when you move abroad. You may have all the best intentions of writing and meeting over video-call regularly and staying up-to-date with your family and friends’ lives, despite the distance. And, if you’re lucky, you will have loved ones who are equally committed to keeping up this connection.
However, most expats / immigrants find that, at some point, the frequency and depth of interactions with loved ones back home wanes. Hopefully, this will not be the case for all of your relationships, but it will happen in many of them.
It’s normal for ambiguous expat grief to come up when you begin to notice this. Interestingly, feelings of sadness and loneliness can arise regardless of which side you feel you’re on. It can be equally sad when a friend stops responding to you in the ways they used to as it is when you have news or a problem and realize you don’t actually feel inclined to share it with the person you would have before. While these shifts are a normal part of life abroad, it’s also normal for them to bring waves of sadness, frustration, and confusion.
Remembering “the life that could have been”: A unique form of ambiguous expat grief that you may experience is this type that comes up when you consider all the ways your life and YOU could have been different had you not moved abroad. You may have envisioned (or indeed had!) a different career path, different marital status, different role in your community, different relationship with your family, etc in your home country.
Interestingly, you may or may not actually desire the “life that could have been.” It’s merely the recognition that there was this other life path that you did not take (and therefore do not actually know the outcome of) that can spark feelings of sadness and loss. Of course, everyone regardless of where they live, can feel grief over “what could have been.”
This can just seem more pronounced as an expat / immigrant because there’s a clear division of your “old life” in your home country and your “new life” in your adopted country. We find that this sort of grief shows up with more frequency when visiting home or returning from a visit home. However, it can be triggered by any of the other common triggers mentioned here as well.
Repatriating to your home country: A particularly unique form of ambiguous expat grief can develop when you make the choice to return to your home country for good. Again, it’s common to believe that returning home will feel comforting and easy, but it is often not. Along with the sadness you may feel over leaving your new home and the difficulties you may face readjusting in your country of origin, it’s normal to develop the same ambiguous expat grief you felt before, but now in reverse.
This can be especially true when the decision to repatriate is made quickly, due to some unexpected family need or political/economic/health situation. In these cases, you may not feel that you’ve had enough time to process the decision, say goodbye to the country you have called home for x amount of time and all the people you love there.
Rachael Lynn shares some poignant insights on all the ‘micro-deaths’ she experienced when repatriating in the interview linked below.
This list is by no means exhaustive. Please share in the comments if you have experienced ambiguous expat grief for a different reason. The more we talk about these triggers, the more aware and supported we can all feel.
Some tips for coping with ambiguous expat grief
Identify and acknowledge your grief: Until you are willing to recognize that you are experiencing grief, there is no way you can effectively work through it. Then, it is only after you have properly grieved the things (people, experiences, possibilities) that you are missing that your mind will be able to open up creatively, allowing you to see a different side or new path. If you don’t give your grief the time and attention it deserves, you won’t be able to find a ‘solution.’
Of course, we’ve put solution in quotation marks because there is no such thing as a solution to grief. However, we can find ways to grow around our grief, which can make it feel smaller.
We know it’s not easy, but feel your feelings. Give them names and validate the losses you are feeling. Put aside all the judgments (“this is selfish for me to think,” “this is unreasonable for me to feel,” “I should have been prepared for this,” etc) and write down a list of everything on your mind. For some people, the mere act of putting pen to paper can be cathartic and lead to an ability to release the tension their grief is causing.
For others, this list is more of a catalyst to be able to find ways to ease the grief caused by each item. It may be helpful for you to share this list with a partner, loved one, or professional to seek their support and/or advice for steps forward.
Write a letter to yourself: If your ambiguous expat grief feels particularly related to “the life that could have been,” it can be helpful to write a letter to your past self. Depending on your personal needs, this letter could take on different forms. Perhaps, you’ll want to write the letter as if you were addressing a dear friend who is experiencing the grief that you are going through. Oftentimes, we are able to show more compassion to our loved ones than ourselves and this can help us reach a level of understanding and empathy necessary to work through our grief.
Or, perhaps you will want to acknowledge and thank your past self for everything they have done to get you thus far, but then say goodbye to them. If you feel so inclined, consider writing your letter more like a eulogy for that past self.
This may sound dramatic, but as Rachael Lynn said whenever you move abroad “you come out on the other side and stay connected to the person, to the energy of who you were, but you’re different. And you’ve changed forever.” Allowing yourself to mourn the loss of your past self can be a powerful part of working through ambiguous expat grief.
Honor your grief with a ritual / ceremony: It’s common practice across cultures to seek closure and comfort from rituals when literal deaths occur. We attend funerals or remembrance ceremonies, send flowers, spread ashes, plant trees, donate to causes, etc. By creating a similar ritual to honor the ambiguous grief you are feeling, you too can begin to feel more comfort and closure. For some, this will feel too silly to tell others about–that’s fine. Go ahead and do the thing that would bring you peace in private. For others, it can be helpful to include a loved one in the process.
Whatever ritual or ceremony you decide on should feel meaningful to you, so there’s no right way to do this. However, a few examples include going to a particular place of importance to grieve, holding a ‘memorial service’ for your past self (even releasing your letter by burying it or letting it go at sea as a message in a bottle), or creating a space in your home similar to an ofrenda where you can grieve that which you feel you’ve lost.
Inform yourself and seek further support: If you are dealing with any sort of ambiguous expat grief, we highly recommend doing a bit more research (see below) to remind yourself that you are not alone and to further understand what your emotions are trying to tell you.
Additionally, when possible, we encourage you to work one-on-one with a therapist for a more in-depth, guided approach to your grief (or anything else that is coming up for you). We’ve both benefited greatly from the work we’ve done with therapists and remind you that, this too, is a normal and admirable way to care for your mental and emotional health. Please check out the articles we have on how to find an online therapist and other mental health resources.
The Mayo Clinic (Coping with Ambiguous Grief): On this page of the Mayo Clinic Health System, you can find an informative overview of ambiguous grief as well as a number of coping tips. While this resource is not specific to the expat experience, we believe you’ll still find the information to be useful.
The Expat Cast (Season 6, Episode 12): This podcast episode that features Katie Rössler is a fantastic resource filled with further explanation of different types of expat grief and examples from her own life. Katie has also written a book on this topic called The New Face of Grief and it sounds like a great resource filled with strategies and the lived experiences of people from around the world.
The Expat Journey Online Summit (Interview with Rachael Lynn): In this video interview, guest Rachael Lynn shares about the benefits of journaling, especially when embracing new beginnings. However, in the middle she specifically discusses the “tangible and intangible deaths” that accompany a big move and provides some insights and strategies for working through that grief. Please note: This interview is now only available to access via the VIP ticket (at a cost of 29€ but this includes access to all fifteen interviews, a 30-minute coaching session, and more).
We truly hope this guide has provided you with some information, comfort, and guidance that will be of use to you as you begin to work through your ambiguous expat grief. We want to thank Annabelle of @thepiripirilexicon for her prompt of “Grief” in this year’s #MayontheMove challenge, which inspired us to recognize the ambiguous grief we have both been feeling lately.
May on the Move is an annual challenge, created by Catriona Turner of @thefrustratednester), that brings together the globally-minded community on Instagram. If you could use a greater sense of connection in your life, reading through the posts with this hashtag will likely help you find some inspiring and thoughtful new friends.