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trailing spouse

Magdalena presently lives in the Bay Area, where she specialises in supporting the expatriate francophone community. This is her website: www.open-the-box.com


At the beginning it’s just a farewell…

The decision to go and live abroad is often accompanied by complex emotions. We leave an intimate and personal space (a family and a place) to explore an unknown one. It is a form of renunciation in which a mourning process already buds. It means to interrupt a reassuring form of continuity in daily life and in relations with others. Actually the term « expatriate » comes from the Latin « ex pater », which means « out of the country » and « out of the father ». According to Marie-Frédérique Bacqué[1] « the process of separation is not one of mourning, but it is very close to it. Any loss of a loved object, or of satisfaction or of an ideal forces to mourn it ».

The family who is left can feel abandoned. Being the family a fusional environment, a departure can revive the wound linked to the first time the family nest was abandoned. ment of the family nest that is revived. An anguish of abandonment can emerge under the form of misunderstandings, reproaches, jealousy or even rage. It is the expression of the fear of remaining alone, of no longer participating as much in the generational family history, to be excluded by the life of little children. And parents that get old increase in the expatriate an affective and relational isolation that is hard to bear, and that easily connects to the idea of death.

According to a 2011 publication, Panorama of women expatriation, carried out by Expat Communication, 41% of expatriates are worried at the idea of leaving their family. In most cases it’s the children that became adults that go and live abroad, leaving the parents and the wider family behind. The uneasiness is amplified when the parents already show clear signs of aging. Roles tend to reverse in this case : the child that has grown into an adult becomes « parent of the parents ». When the expatriate person has no brothers or sisters, or when only one parent remains alive, the feeling of responsibility towards the parents intensifies. In this case, expatriation can be accompanied by a strong feeling of guilt for the one who leaves.

The process of mourning

Expatriation is a separation. It implies a psychological process that involves getting away from the loved ones, with the possibility of getting close again in the future. In the case of death of one member of the family, the absence becomes definitive. There is the irrevocable loss of a loved one with the annihilation of all hopes of reunion.

When death is announced, the process of mourning starts. We often see a double feeling: helplessness and hopelessness, that may be accompanied by an often illusory sense of responsibility. The idea that « I could have done something » often leads to a diminished self-esteem and to a feeling of depreciation. On expatriation the feeling of guilt due to the absence makes this phase even more complex. Due to the components of absence, distance, breaking and separation, the expatriate must do the mourning in an even stronger way for what has not been and what could have been. Then the process of mourning implies the internalization of memories, both real and fantasized, but also giving up certain projects, like the one of going back to the same family that was left, and of reunions that will no longer happen.

In a psycho-analytical framework, it is said that mourning goes through three phases: distress at the announcement of the death, a transient depression related to the loss, then an adjustment with an internalizing of the “disappeared object”. In the case of a mourning that is defined complicated we observe a blockage in this process and the arising of the depressive phase. According to Marie-Frédérique Bacqué [1] : « At the end of the mourning process, the bereaved still loves the lost person, but this love is now anchored to the past. It therefore does not present the usual characteristics of love in the present (…) Only the recognition of the « love in the past » allows the bereaved to accept the loss at the end of the process of detaching ». The expatriate can look for help in the  network of friends that he has created in his life space. He will draw support, listening and compassion. The possibility of expressing emotions in thoughts and words is a sign showing that the process of mourning is being elaborated. If it is not possible to go to the funeral, why not chose a symbolic day of recollection ? Some decide upon an anniversary date for the absent parents, others reminisce about the loved one in silence and solitude. For the expatriate family preserving the rituals and the family traditions, even when the eldest have gone, allows to maintain a strong family identity.

When death concerns the parents…

The adult that loses a parent is first of all a child that becomes an orphan. When both parents have left, he becomes the new « head of the family », patriarchal representative of the family cell. The reaction to death can take the form of a sort of pragmatism of protection. For instance, it is the expatriate that was absent during the illness of the parent, that will support the other members of the family, or take care of the logistics of the funeral. In order to diminish the impotence caused by the distance, he tries to find a place in concrete actions, like taking the plane in order to support the family. It is often after a while, when he is back in his life space, that a counterblow emerges. Sometimes there is the need to make a sort of life review, that may also question some choices. From there, some are faced with a decision: to continue the experience of expatriation, or to go and take care of the remaining parent…

Even when relationships with parents are strained, even hostile, death marks the frustration for not having separated peacefully. Reproaches, misunderstandings, unexpressed anger may be reconsidered. A grieving process must take place that allows emotions, overflow of affection, guilt or even possible anger to be externalized. It is important to evacuate sadness, remorse and sense of loss so that they do not crystallize into suffering and tension.
More rarely, the expatriate is the parent who left his adult children at home, and goes through the proof of their death. In this case there is the trauma of seeing what is considered the natural order of things upset. For an active expatriate parent the fact of continuing pursuing his project facilitates the process of mourning.

The death of siblings…

The relationship amongst siblings is a totally different one. It concerns a closeness in life, where memories linked to a common history are shared. Brothers and sisters are the witnesses of a childhood that acts as a basis for identity. Feelings coming from the perception of attention or recognition received by parents have an active role in the quality of future relations. In adult age the relationships amongst siblings develop and cover a quite wide range of feelings, that go from a high quality understanding to a rather nice or even just loyal one, to a rather distant or even clearly hostile one. Expatriation can cause siblings relationships to become distant, or on the contrary to gain a better quality out of common will.

When the death of a brother or a sister is announced, the universe of possibilities freezes. Besides, links amongst siblings are not only educational or behavioural. Their biological reality is revived when death is caused by an illness. The possibility of sharing the same physiological background reminds the genetical connections amongst siblings.

This is also the end of opportunities. For instance, that of continuing a relationship made of complicity, or putting and end to ancient rivalries, in short to share more moments of closeness that expatriation had reduced. Death terminates a relationship that expatriation had already made more difficult. There can be a sense of guilt for having been unable to enjoy it, accompanied by regrets for having sacrificed possible occasions. Talking about relationships marked by rancour, the remorse for not having been able to express the accumulated frustrations increases the grieving.

The death of a family member is a painful test, modulated by the experience of expatriation. Distance amplifies the reality of the absence but also sometimes allows to step back in order to gain protection. Amidst distress and grieving, revival of memories, regrets and nostalgia, it is by drawing on one’s capacity of moving forward, of pursuing one’s projects, on being reactive in an unknown environment, that the bereaver in expatriation will be able to continue his path, despite suffering and loss.

Bay Area, USA
Aprile 2012

[1] Marie-Frédérique Bacqué « Apprivoiser la mort », Odile Jacob

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