Goodbyes are hard for leavers and stayers!

To all those who left, to all those who will leave, and to all those who stay…

We can find many advices for people leaving, how to organize a move and how to make it a smooth one for the whole family, children, and friends. – But what about those who stay?

I’ve been the leaver many times. While preparing a move we’re constantly switching back and forth between excitement and grief. Nevertheless, if we are the leavers, we won’t have to deal with the “after” in the “old place”… 

Those who stay not only get told much later about an imminent move, and therefore don’t have all that time to prepare for the change, they also have to deal with the emptiness that remains once their friends have left the country.

Nobody prepares stayers for the grief, the “empty nest” feeling! Everyone supposes that stayers stay, they maintain their usual routine and nothing really changes for them… but this is so wrong!

The stages that those who are staying go through are very similar to those of the leavers!

If we take the classic model of the normal transition cycle that David Pollock describes in the  chapter “The Transition Experience” (in  Third Culture Kids. Growing up among worlds, David C. Pollock and Ruth E. van Reken, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2009, pp.66-73) can easily be considered also from the part of the “receiver”, i.e the stayer.

1) Involvement

This first stage of transition is quite comfortable as everyone still feels settled and comfortable: “we feel a responsibility to be involved in the issues that concern and interest our community, and we’re focused on the present and our immediate relationships rather than thinking primarily about the past or worrying about the future” (p.66).

For us stayers this means that our friends don’t yet know definitely that they will be leaving.  They might  show up less frequently at get togethers, literally “hide” because they can’t deal with not knowing exactly what comes next.

We feel that there is something going on, but we usually only start grasping it when our friends tell us explicitly “we’re going to leave…“.

2) Leaving

In this second stage, daily life begins to change.

Leavers start to prepare. If the departure date is not too close, they begin loosening the emotional ties, they back away from relationships and responsibilities. They call less frequently and don’t start new projects at work. They will start to deny feelings of sadness or grief in order to avoid painful moments, but the grief won’t go away, it will hold on until the next stage of transition.

This detaching process is hard for the stayers. They are confused and can feel anger or frustration.

(Ute Limacher-Riebold)

Leavers will realize that they won’t be part of future plans of their community  and they will feel left out; they might feel invisible, rejected. The feelings of resentment and rejection can produce anger and cause conflicts.

In this phase it is important to let others know about these feelings: “Failing to acknowledge that we are beginning to feel like outsiders (and that it hurts) only increases the chances that we will act inappropriately during this stage” (p.68).

Leavers in this stage will also be more reluctant to reconcile conflicts with others, risking to arrive to their “next destination with this unfinished business clinging to (them) and influencing new relationships” (p.68). – Bitterness can be the consequence. Some even deny any secret hope in order to prevent disappointment.

We stayers loose our ties and tend to exclude the leavers from decisions about future events. We do this because we realize that our friends won’t be there to participate. It is hurtful for us and for them. 

Sometimes we avoid involving our friends as a response to them not involving us in their process. Instead, we should try to avoid doing this because it will only build walls between us and we don’t want to part ways being mad at each other and resentful. 

Unfortunately, leavers and stayers often let go of each other instead of helping each other through the process!


If the community gives a special attention to the leaver at this point, through ceremonies of recognition, thanking for being part of a team or a group, this recognition helps the leavers to forget that even if “they promise to never forget each other, already there is a distance developing between (them) and those (they) will soon leave behind” (p.69).

Acknowledging each other, talking about what we appreciated and cherished about those who leave – and those who stay! – is an important aspect of leaving and being left.

We need to have a proper closure in order to be able to start afresh, no matter if we are leavers or stayers!
Only when we can find closure to that phase of our life we can start the new one without resentment.

3) Transition

The transition stage begins the moment leavers leave the place and ends when they arrive at their destination and make the decision (more or less consciously) to settle in and become part of it.

If we are leavers: During the move, usually we “lose our normal moorings and support systems” and in this sense of “chaos makes us more self-centered than normal” (p.69). The only things who matter to us in this first part of the transition stage is our health, finances, relationships, personal safety etc. Parents in this stage often forget to take time for their children to read stories, to pick them up or sit with them for a few minutes. This causes insecurity and contributes to the chaos and family conflicts are very frequent in this stage.

It’s the stage of highest stress: how is the new community going to take care of our everyday aspects of life like banking, buying food, cooking? How will the school be, the new working environment, the neighbours etc.?

Especially in cross-cultural moves adults have to learn life practically from scratch: “As teenagers and adults, probably nothing strikes at our sense of self-esteem with greater force than learning language and culture, for these are the tasks of children” (p.70). Sometimes, our cultural and linguistic mistakes embarrass us or make us feel ashamed or even stupid. We easily feel upset, angry and some may even experience depression.

If we are the stayers: we feel abandoned, lonely and hurt. It is the most intense stage of grief. Our friends are gone for good. –  The house and their place at the table is empty.

We realize that life has to go on without our friends. People don’t realize that stayers would love either to follow their friends, or to at least experience the excitement of a new start. But instead we have to “stay behind” and go on with our lives without them. We may not want to make new friends until we feel less hurt and ready for it. – Although it surely is honest to tell new arrivals at our school or work that “we don’t want to make new friends right now”, please be aware that this is hurtful for someone who just arrived. It feels like a rejection and it needs to be followed by an explanation! Explain that a good friend just left and that you are grieving the loss, that in a few months you may be ready to be a friend again, and that it is nothing personal… Give yourself and that other person a chance. You have been a great friend before and you can be a great friend again. Our world needs more friends and kindness…

From Leaver to Stayer

The first times I was the stayer, I didn’t have any problem with it. I was even happy not to have to organize an international move and think about the million things that need to be done last minute.

But after a few goodbyes I started feeling the deep hurt, the grief not only for those who were leaving and the life we no longer would share, but also the grief for not being on that constant move anymore.

I resented my husband for having found a permanent job. Something we actually hoped for while hopping from one 3 years job to another. I still have the three-years-itch and need to make major changes in my life to keep sane (and I’m not sure it’s an exaggeration!).

But being on the receivers end of a “goodbye” isn’t remotely as exciting as being the one who is moving! When I realized this for the first time, I suddenly felt guilty about the many times I left without saying proper goodbyes because I was too busy with the move…

Especially for children this is the hardest time. At school, the seat of their friend is empty and they often physically feel the loss. They are sad: some will talk about it, some won’t.

It’s important for parents or caregivers to be aware of the grief these children are feeling and to give them the support they need, to talk about it and give it a name.

The same applies for adults. When we realize that we keep on thinking of the person who left, we need to find a way to express and share this feeling of sadness and grief.

We grieve for a time that is gone and that won’t come back and we grieve for the things we wanted to do with this person who no longer is part of our daily life. – I remember avoiding a lunchroom for many months because I used to go there with the friends who left and I couldn’t bare being there without them. I needed quite some time before I could set foot into that place again…

4) Entering

In the entering stage, leavers start to accept that it is time to become part of the new community and they begin to figure out how to do it. They still are vulnerable and feel a lot of ambivalence in this stage. They start to learn the new job, the rules at school, some start learning the new language. “Emotions can fluctuate widely between the excitement of the new discoveries (…) and the homesickness that weighs us down” (p.72). People feel how different they are in the new place and wish to go back where they were “normal”. But they are in the learning process about how life works in the new place.

“Entering is the stage where leavers need good mentors, someone who can show us how to function effectively in this new world”

At the end of this stage, hope begins to grow and people feel the first sense of belonging to the new community.

For stayers, this is a sort of entering phase too. It is an entering and re-adjusting phase where they have to go back to their lives without their friends and find a new sense and meaning. In this phase they will have moments of “homesickness”: they will miss their friends and wish they would come back. – It is an intense time of mixed emotions but everyone will eventually adjust. – What helped me the most was to meet with other stayers and talk about what was going on. Shared grief is half grief…  

I also invite my children to do the same, to look at pictures of their friends, take short trips down memory-lane shed a tear. Acknowledging the feelings is very important to get through this transition in a healthy way!

5) Reinvolvement

This stage is like the light at the end of the tunnel: adaptation and reinvolvement is possible! Every leaver will need some time and willingness to adapt before becoming part of the permanent community in the new place. Some may even feel a sense of belonging, of intimacy and realize that their presence matters in the new group.

Stayers will slowly achieve a new balance without their friends. They will have found other routines, and maybe new friends and carry on.

Time feels present and permanent as we focus on the here and now

rather than hoping for the future or constantly reminiscing about the past. (p.73)

Knowing about this process of transition, about the various stages helps to be prepared, to recognize where we are and what will come next.

We will be more attentive in making the right decisions and choices to benefit from the new experiences “while dealing productively with the inevitable losses of any transition experience” (p.73).

English: Cover of book Third Culture Kids: gro...

English: Cover of book Third Culture Kids: growing up among worlds, by David C. Pollock and Ruth E. Van Reken. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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