I’ve been talking a lot about emigration. I’ve talked about how we came to the decision to do it, how we got through doing it, and all the flurry of activity. But there’s one thing I haven’t talked about yet, and it’s probably one of the more difficult things people can go through. Whether you’re moving to another city, or another part of the world, you will be leaving people behind. Friends and family will need to be informed, and it isn’t always easy, especially when they have complicated reactions. I’ve done this so many times in my life now, I have a bit of advice for those of you who are moving and wondering how to break the news to those you care about – or deal with it when they don’t respond as you’d like.
It’s important to remember that no one wants to be left behind. Even your most enthusiastic supporters will feel sad. Not because they don’t want you to be happy, but because they will feel your loss more than you will feel theirs. No, I’m not saying that people who move away don’t miss their friends; when you move, everything and everyone is new, it’s a completely fresh experience while those who are left behind still live their normal life, but without you in it. It’s hard and sad for them, and it’s almost like they need to grieve the “normal” friendship you once had. And their reactions may be very similar to the stages of grief as we know them, but first – how do you tell those you care about that you are leaving?
This is a bit of a complicated question and will vary depending on your relationships. For us with the emigration thing, we were very open about the fact that we were starting the process but didn’t know what our timing would be. For most of the people we told, it was then a matter of keeping them updated on the progress of Dean’s Green Card as a means of keeping them in the loop and helping them deal with the fact that we really were emigrating. Of course, even making that initial decision was tricky, and it was hard to break the news to people. Generally, I found that it was best to take people on the journey you went on yourself.
Dean and I were adamant that we weren’t looking to move. Until we weren’t. There was a variety of contributing factors – everything from exorbitant school fees and worrying situations at universities through to concerns about the economy and rising food costs. Plus, there were so many pull factors for us to go to the US. There are many reasons why we’ve decided to emigrate, and it’s important to keep those in mind when you broach the topic with friends and family. It’s not just about announcing your intentions but getting those close to you to understand your thinking so that they can see that the choice isn’t coming out of nowhere, that it isn’t impulsive but actually based on a whole lot of thinking.
That said, even with the best build up and explanation, those close to you will be upset and express it in a range of ways. As best as you can, try to remember their intent and where their feelings are coming from. You are leaving a gaping hole in their lives, of course it’s upsetting for them. Even as they support and encourage you, they know that they will be losing out, that they will go about their normal lives but without your love, support, friendship, jokes or whatever else. That grief over the loss of physical closeness can take various forms, and often friends or family will move between these various stages rather than move through them in a linear fashion.
This stage generally doesn’t last long, but I can’t even tell you how many people’s first reaction was, “NO! You’re kidding! It can’t be!” This is normal and healthy for processing. People need a minute for their thoughts and feelings to catch up, which means shock and denial work as a bit of a buffer. If the person you tell keeps going though, it’s important to be gentle but firm. Yes, you are really going. No, you aren’t kidding or changing your mind. This is real. Which generally moves quickly into….
Anger and Guilt
Those who are left behind often feel deserted and betrayed. How could you leave? What about them?! This is really hard, and there isn’t an easy solution. This is generally when it’s best to remind people of how small the world is now – they can come and visit you, they can stay in close contact thanks to social media, and you can return for visits, too. Try to remind your friend or family member of why you’re making this decision, how it’s better for you and/or your family in the long run. It’s really hard not to fall into the guilt and be made to feel bad about your decision – at this point it can be useful to turn the tables, even if only in your head. If this family member or friend had a similar opportunity, would they stay for you? Would you want them to? Try to remind them how much you care about them.
Bargaining and Justifications
This is a tricky one and honestly the one I struggle with the most. Some people will try bargaining with you, asking if you would change your mind or come back if certain conditions were fulfilled. Or, even worse, they will try to describe how great things really are, justifying their own decision to stay. It’s important to hold fast to your myriad push-pull factors, but also let your friends vent without taking it too personally. Like I say, this is the hardest one for me as I often feel like people get into this “I love it here” mantra when they hear about others leaving as if somehow those moving somewhere else haven’t been happy in the place they were before. I have loved Joburg, and South Africa, but this is the right decision for our family now. Whether you are moving cities or countries, it’s great if you can acknowledge to those people what you’ve loved in your current place, with perhaps the personal reasons why you’re choosing to make the move you think is best.
This is totally normal, and to be expected. Your friends and family will be sad to see you go. This is actually kind of a good thing – at least it proves that they want you around and it isn’t a “good riddance” situation. Don’t try to push the sadness away from those you care about (or yourself). Accept it, and then talk about all the wonderful ways that you can keep in touch, or plan your first visits already. In those early years of living apart from my mom, we always had our next tickets booked before we even said farewell, just to make the sad goodbye a little easier. It’s hard to say goodbye, to be apart, but it’s a lot easier when you know when you’ll see each other again – even if it’s just a first Skype date.
Yup, eventually you will get there. And then your friends might stop accepting. And then they will get there again. Don’t try to rush it. Just know that eventually, it will get there, and your friendships might change (or even end), and that’s okay. It’s part of moving. It’s hard and complicated, but eventually, we end up where we’re supposed to be. And you might just be surprised by which friendships are sustained after you move – I always am. Those people I imagine I’ll be close with forever often fade away, while some friendships that weren’t as strong originally become even more central in my life.