As a military family, we move a lot. Leaving is the nature of the lifestyle. I am a professional at pack-outs, purging material items, and moving woes. I am an expert on going someplace new. What I am not an expert on is being the one left behind. Why is being left behind so much more difficult?
This question didn’t really enter my mind until we started living internationally. Living in Jamaica, and now The Bahamas, we are a hybrid family of sorts. We are part military and part expat in this international world. The expat culture, combined with the military lifestyle, brings new dimensions to the art of goodbye. I try to reconcile with this daily.
There are roughly 30 residences on our street. Except for four houses, the street has literally turned over occupants within two years. My daughter’s class of 20 students at school said farewell to five students last summer. We expect the student retention rate this year with the global pandemic to be even lower.
The expat culture tends to be quite transient. Given our military background, I find this both comforting and strange. Expats often move more frequently than we do, providing comfort that our lifestyle isn’t so odd. It is also unsettling, as it is more disconcerting to say farewell to those we don’t expect to leave.
Meeting acquaintances and making new friends in the military is always a challenge. Add in a foreign county, a new culture, and the expat lifestyle, and suddenly it becomes a whole new game. In the heart of mid-life, I am no longer skilled at playing this game. Being left behind is so much more difficult for me. I cry more during the goodbyes; I dread the goodbyes. The farewells are endless. One more drink, one more wave, one last playdate, one final dinner is never enough. It is emotionally and physically draining, which is ironic, as I’m not the one moving.
I once had a Jamaican friend tell me she didn’t befriend expats because they always leave. Initially, I thought this was a misguided mindset. After living in two countries intermingled with military, diplomatic, and expat families, I now understand her point. Is it worth the time, effort, and ultimate heartache? I certainly think so, but only you can answer this question for yourself and your family.
I don’t regret making friends with any of these groups. I now have a network of family that spans across the world. However, it never gets easier to explain to my little girl why so many friends come and go, and why very few are constants. We discuss the positives, but they do not cause her heart, or mine, to break any less with each new goodbye.
Perhaps it is a control issue. We have no control over who comes and goes from our lives. We only have control over how we handle it. While I look at the empty houses on the street and ponder who will arrive next, I wonder if they:
- will be expats, military, or diplomats?
- will stay long-term?
- will have children?
- will want to play with my child?
- will run medicine over in the middle of the night?
- will come over immediately during an emergency or family crisis?
- will become our friends?
Not knowing the answers to these questions presents emptiness filled with unknowns. This is why it is so much more difficult to be left behind than to be the one leaving. No one can fill the shoes of the previous tenants. They were friends who felt like family. Yet, if we allow ourselves to continue to let new people into our lives, we may be surprised by the friendship, and so much more we can give and receive.