I just found this file that I wrote in December so I will date it, December 2007
HOW TO COPE WITH LOSS DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON: A PRIMER
I’ve written about discrete holidays in the life of our family, but today I realized that I’ve never written expressly about how we cope with loss during holiday time. Loss, during holiday time? Did I say that right? Yes, I did. Some would think that an expat lives a charmed life, and in a sense we do. We have been given a fantastic opportunity to dwell within another culture and to see another part of the world. But living in a very different culture is not without its challenges and hurdles: mental, physical, and emotional.
For most people, holidays are associated with families and friends, traditions and special things we do the same year after year, whether it’s singing Christmas carols, spinning dreidels, or throwing paint on our friends. When it’s impossible to reunite with families during holiday time, impossible to find traditional foods, impossible to participate in traditional festivities, there is going to be a distinct awareness of the loss of those things.
For us, it has been four years since we’ve been able to be with our families at Christmas, four years since we’ve been able to attend Christmas Eve service in our own church, four years since we’ve been able to go to an Easter sunrise service, four years since we’ve been able to go somewhere local to see fireworks on New Year’s Eve or Fourth of July. I’m not trying to play the violin string too strongly, but it’s simply a fact of life that we deal with. A person considering living abroad needs to be aware of this fact before accepting an expat assignment. Before accepting such an assignment, one could blithely say, "I’ll just fly home at x holiday." But it’s not that simple. What if there’s no school or work holiday, what if it’s too expensive? For our family to go home for a holiday — or for a funeral or emergency — would cost more than $10,000 U.S. In an ideal world, yeah, sure. But in reality, it’s not actually practical. With some practice, one learns how to cope: what traditions and customs to hang onto, what things to let go of, and what to create from scratch.
I believe I wrote about the New Years that my ham turned out to be a piece of rolled lard (since I couldn’t read the ingredient label). Did I ever write in my blog about the Thanksgiving I cooked a chicken (since I knew we couldn’t eat or store a turkey), except I didn’t know how to use the convection microwave (since the directions were all in a different language), so the chicken turned out dry and crispy — something like jerky — and then my husband worked late; and even after he was home we learned that our children wouldn’t be home for supper anyway (since it was dress rehearsal for the school play)? When one is accustomed to having a Thanksgiving full of family and traditional foods and at least a meal together, the absence of that tradition can be felt pretty acutely. It was not a fun Thanksgiving. Oh, and then there was the Thanksviving when S had just gotten out of the hospital, we had just returned from the country where she had been transported for medical care, and there was no food in the house anyway. At one point half the family was in tears on that day, and only half the family went out to the expat restaurant for a meal while the other half stayed home. Holidays have not always been fun!
Holidays can be one of the hardest time for expats, until they learn how to cope. There’s a distinct learning curve. The Thanksgiving when half of us went and half stayed home, alone in a dark house, was our first and worst Thanksgiving out. Fortunately, each one has gotten better, and I think now we’re on the other side of the learning curve. I decided to write this entry in case some lonely expat might sometime find this page as a result of a google search about lonely Thanksgiving, sad Christmas, blue Holidays in general. Because, there is light at the end of the tunnel! Here are my suggestions:
My first suggestion is, think twice
. Be very thoughtful about whether your personality is right for an expat assignment, to begin with. Be honest and realistic about what your deepest values and needs are. This is not a matter of strength or weakness, good or bad. It’s simply a matter of knowing one’s self and being comfortable with who one is. Some people prefer a noisy environment with lots of stimulation whereas others prefer a quiet life with lots of solitude. Some prefer small town or rural life, while some prefer a big city. Neither is good or bad in itself, neither is right or wrong across the board, but one could be the wrong decision for a particular person. It is a matter of knowing one’s self and doing what is right for "me". Just as none of these choices implies weakness, neither is it a terrible fault if one happens to have a personal preference to live deeply nestled within the heart of one’s home culture. If you don’t relish new experiences, if you prefer to stay in your home town and enjoy the comfort of the familiar, then it’s best to know that and value it before it’s irretrievable. Enjoy the life that you have and relish it; don’t feel that you must accept an expat assignment if it’s just not in your personality.
There are sobering statistics out there about how many expat assignments fail. Failure in an expat assignment could also have career ramifications, and there are also very sobering statistics about the failure rate of expat marriages. It can be very hard on spouses and children, too. So, don’t feel bad if you decide not to expose your family or career to that risk.
2. My second suggestion is to anticipate and prepare. I alluded in one blog entry to the fact that we get Easter egg dying supplies from our home country, sometimes purchased as much as a year in advance since (we learned) Easter Egg Dye is only seasonally stocked in USA stores. We keep on hand a few holiday decorations for every holiday (small and easily packed away), just so we can have some symbolic presence even if we can’t reconstruct the full blown event. Every year in August I buy some bits of foods or ingredients to carry in my suitcase so I can make traditional holiday foods for Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, and Easter. This year, I even asked my friend Kathy to bring me a pine scented Christmas candle in her suitcase. My friend Jim brought blackstrap Molasses. David asked his mom to ship us fruitcakes! There are going to be a few things that you will just want to bring from home. But you can’t bring everything, so choose sparingly. Think well in advance about what is important and figure out what you have to do to accomplish that small kernel of what is most important.
3. My third suggestion is to lower expectations. Expect nothing, and then you might be pleasantly surprised at anything. So, it can even be a pleasant surprise when a stranger on the street says, "Merry Christmas!"
4. My fourth suggestion is to develop a network. If you can’t be with extended family at Hannukah, then make your own family. The first year we had our now-Annual Christmas Carol sing at our house, it was an accident that it was scheduled for the day of Christmas Eve. The day happened to fall on a Sunday, and that was the day most people could come. But then we realized, that creating a new and different tradition had filled the gap that otherwise would have been left open. On a "normal" Christmas Eve, we would have been with family but here we had none. Our friends became our new family. So now we deliberately have it on Christmas Eve, to create a special time for all of us forlorn souls who otherwise would have a gaping hole in our activities.
5. And, finally, develop new traditions. Don’t waste emotional energy trying to recapture that which cannot be recaptured. Find a new way to have joy. My sister married a person who always must work on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas. At first she was at a loss about how to cope. But she decided to make the best of it by volunteering at a soup kitchen on that day. What a nice and meaningful way to embrace the challenging circumstance and make the most of it. After many years of volunteering at the soup kitchen on Thanksgiving day, it has become their own, special family tradition. I imagine they would continue that tradition even if the circumstances that gave rise to it were to change.
I have a suspicion that these suggestions for dealing with loss also would apply to people who find themselves experiencing any type of extreme disturbance of expectations or loss at holiday season. I fortunately have never lost a parent, but I remember very well the sadness that overwhelmed a household we visited one time, right after the grandfather had died. The family was trying to be cheerful, but faces were very long and silences were long. We could tell from the demeanor of the whole family that Grandpa’s loss was being keenly felt on that first Christmas without him. In circumstances like that, just as in the expat circumstance, it’s impossible to recreate that which can never be recaptured. In that case, I believe it’s especially important to create new traditions. Carry some traditions forward, just as your Loved One would want you to do. But also leave the sacred memories where they are, untouched, and create a new path where there can be another source for joy. Don’t try to recapture that which is impossible to recapture.
Two or three years ago, a new family moved in our housing complex. They were already experienced expats, having lived in many countries already. Unlike us, they jumped right in and did everything right as soon as they moved in. They put up a big tree, decorated their house, invited friends, had parties. Within a week, the wife seemed to have friends and know her way around town, she had already networked enough to find where to buy cheese and other things that are hard to find. Astounded at their transition, I asked them how they had done it. They told me that they had learned that the best way to cope was to jump in with two feet immediately and actively pursue what was important to them. I noticed that my friend even had fresh parsnips for her family’s Christmas dinner! Amazed, I asked her, how in the world she managed to snag fresh parsnips? She quietly but emphatically said, "Don’t ask!" It was a real coup. She knew what was important, and she had figured out how to do it. You do, too. Figure out what it is that you most want from your holiday, plan how to make that happen, and then pursue it. Don’t wait for life to happen by accident: you must make your own holiday dreams come true.