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Hi, I am Paulina and I have ridden a rollercoaster ever since this adventure of living life abroad. As a psychologist and expat, I have had the opportunity to dig deeper into the expat experience to better understand it and learned how to apply everything I knew about human beings and their mental health to expat grief while living life in another country. One of the best ways to cope with expat grief is to share personal experiences of living life away from back home.
2018 December Cologne, Germany
It was 2 pm and I was tired as if it were 11 pm. I didn’t know exactly why I was so tired and demotivated. Without thinking any further – I didn’t have the energy to enter the rabbit hole – I decided to take a nap on the couch.
The next thing I know, I open my eyes and it was dark, with horror I jumped off the couch and went to check how late it was. ‘I must have slept for hours! How unproductive!’ I thought. But it was only 4:30 pm. Sure, I had slept two hours more than I wanted, but I couldn’t believe how dark and sad the weather was. Everything was so still, but it was so early in the afternoon. ‘So this is winter… what a blast.’
This is how I spent my first winter. Suddenly everything I had learned and heard about stationary depression made sense! And later I realized that, on top of it all, I was going through expat grief.
December 2022 Cologne, Germany
I can’t wait for the season to start! Looking forward to the Christmas Markets and the cosy evenings that can only take place, at least without guilt, during the winter. Learned to appreciate the magic that comes with each season, and the different activities and traditions that colour every month here.
Sure, I miss my friends and family members, but I have built a support network here. I found the beauty in every new relationship I have made and left many prejudices aside. It is not perfect, but I found my peace.
In this article, I explore some of the main challenges that arise during the experience of living abroad, more specifically dealing with the winter. Also, I will talk about some advice that can help you go through it in a mindful and wholesome manner.
Dealing with expat grief – why is the winter so hard?
The obvious answer is related to the weather and how it affects us. We can also consider the impact of the winter holidays, which we usually relate to friends and family. If we can’t be close to them, this might trigger sadness. Also, in general, the Christmas holidays can trigger stress for some people.
But there is also a more complex answer! During winter, we are somehow invited to be more introspective. It signals the end of a year and still accompanies us during the first months of the next. Somehow, we are confronted with many questions about our life decisions and future.
Where am I going? Am I on the right track? How did I spend this year? Am I satisfied? What’s next?
When we are expats it forces sometimes even deeper questions, such as: Am I in the right place? Would I be better if I were closer to my family? Is this worth it? What is here for me?
The winter is a mellow season. Besides the rush of the holidays, winter’s energy tends to be calmer. There are fewer plans, the light is scarce and our energy might feel lower than usual. On top, we might even be low on vitamins that are important for our mood and energy levels (check with a medical provider, you can find some that speak in English here on Project Expat.
So what is in your power to live a more mindful and wholesome winter as an expat? Here are 5 tips:
Normalize your feelings! And take control over your actions.
There is nothing more draining when dealing with expat grief or phases of depression than fighting or trying to justify our emotions. Feeling sad or demotivated can be natural. Check in with yourself and see what your mind has been telling you: are your thoughts of a different nature lately? Are you believing every thought that comes to your mind? Do I have to re-evaluate my life choices?
Try to take some perspective by mentioning each thought and validating the feeling associated next.
There is a part of me that is thinking that winter in Germany is too grey and sad. Therefore, I feel like I’m hopeless.
Then check if there is an alternative thought that is not so absolute.
There is a part of me that doesn’t like some things about the winter in Germany, and I accept it and decide to be nice to this side of myself.
Finally, look for something under your control and commit to acting accordingly.
Even though there is a part of me that doesn’t like some things about winter, I decide to focus my energy on (insert here a new hobby, activity you enjoy or something you do like about the winter season). You need to focus on a different aspect of life.
Decide not to fight reality.
That first winter I spent here, I repeated several times how much I missed the sun (I am Mexican BTW) and how much I hated the cold weather. No matter how many times I said it and fought the fact that it is like this, it never changed.
So, why spend so much energy and thoughts on something that goes way beyond my power?
I decided to take my own advice. Yes. It is cold, wet, and dark. But once we stop talking about it and dreading it so much, it stops being that important.
Develop new routines and traditions.
Going to every Christmas market in my area and establishing regular cosy dates with my husband and friends is an activity that is specific to winter, and I enjoy it a lot!
More movie nights, coffee in bed in the mornings, taking out my winter clothes, indoor activities (that I rarely do during summer) and taking mindful walks (noticing colours, nature changes and weather differences) – the latter one during each season – have become a new routine for me. Find those who enjoy the same activities.
Learning about Germany’s traditions can also be a great manner to be more mindful and wholesome because we activate our curiosity modus and therefore, we become more open. It also helps us integrate our past and our present.
In the same manner, sharing our traditions with our new friends gives us the chance to feel more ourselves and integrate with the new culture.
Cultivate gratitude and self-compassion.
When we suffer, we enter an alert or defensive mode, which usually leads to anger. This is because we focus only on what is hurting us or what we consider a potential threat. Whether you are here because of studies, work, or love, try to connect with gratitude.
What are you thankful for? What have you learned so far? How can you compliment yourself? Are there people who have supported you in this process? Can you be thankful for a new connection you made?
Self-compassion can also play a huge role here. Rather than being hard on yourself for experiencing expat grief or assuming a victim position, try to embrace your experience and honour your process! You have to constantly remind yourself to be positive.
Recognize the value of your effort, and your courage and treat your pain kindly. You are not alone; it is hard sometimes for all of us. A lot of expats feel like this.
Embrace the holidays! (If they are important to you)
If your family traditions and holidays are celebrated during December/January, these days might be extra tough on you. I feel you. Finding ways to connect to your family can be one of themost important aspects of when dealing with expat grief, for example sending something home and or having some quality FaceTime. Also, it is okay to express how you feel and seek comfort.
Many times, we avoid these vulnerable moments because we are scared of either being a burden or not being able to recover from them. So we live in silence. We might also feel that admitting we miss them might sound like a failure or a sign of unhappiness.
What we imagine they will think and feel, or we might open, is way bigger than it is! Try it! Allow yourself to open up and revive the love of the ones you love.
Ask your friends and family in Germany to celebrate with you. If they have similar traditions join them with gratitude and try to make that special dish or special thing that your family/country does back home!
Finally, as I mentioned at the beginning, the end of a year usually comes with some reflective questions. You need to phrase your questions differently. Positively phrasing these questions can be a game changer.
Ask yourself: What could be better? Where do I want to improve? Where do I want to be in 6 months? Is there anything I can do to make my experience more positive? What have I learned? Have I accomplished anything?
There is no small accomplishment and no small goal! You want to give yourself time, patience, and kindness. Every small win counts.
If you run into any troubles to practice one of these tips or you may feel like you could use some guidance, contact me for a free call! I know first hand the experience of moving to another country, not having family members around and dealing with life away from everything you know. I provide advice, coaching and psychology services in Cologne and online.
I think that would be a great initiative and an added value service for expats like myself.
What a great idea to set up a website for English-speaking ex-pat's in Munich to help with everyday challenges.
I am looking forward to your services in the mentioned topics in the survey.
Sounds exciting and we would definitely use it for a myriad of reasons. Particularly as we are getting ready to move to Germering and require all of these services. Specifically, sometimes it is hard finding doctors who speak English. And both Cecilia and I work with auslanders who do not speak German, either (and would as well be interested).
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