Ask A Counselor: What can we do about loss and grief?

wildebeests“Over the years, we’ve said goodbye to so many friends and colleagues.  What can we do about all the loss and grief that’s piled up?”

It’s that time of year again in the expat universe, when the Great Migration takes place.

You’re coming or you’re going.  You’re leaving or you’re staying.

It’s your first move, or your tenth, or your 27th.

And it just hurts.

So what do we do, with all the loss and grief that’s piling up?

We grieve it.

That is a really awful answer, I know.  I hate it myself.

But the only way through it is through.  Anything else—avoidance, denial, minimization–is just going to come back to bite us later.

So we grieve it.

What does that mean, exactly?

The best description I know of grief is what Anne Lamott says in Traveling Mercies:

I was terribly erratic: feeling so holy and serene some moments that I was sure I was going to end up dating the Dalai Lama. Then the grief and craziness would hit again, and I would be in Broken Mind, back in the howl.

The depth of the feeling continued to surprise and threaten me, but each time it hit again and I bore it, like a nicotine craving, I would discover that it hadn’t washed me away. After a while it was like an inside shower, washing off some of the rust and calcification in my pipes. It was like giving a dry garden a good watering. Don’t get me wrong: grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of life, of the now, of a sense of living spirit. Mostly I have tried to avoid it by staying very busy, working too hard, trying to achieve as much as possible. You can often avoid the pain by trying to fix other people; shopping helps in a pinch, as does romantic obsession. Martyrdom can’t be beat. While too much exercise works for many people, it doesn’t for me, but I have found that a stack of magazines can be numbing and even mood altering. But the bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. A fixation can keep you nicely defined and give you the illusion that your life has not fallen apart. But since your life may indeed have fallen apart, the illu­sion won’t hold up forever, and if you are lucky and brave, you will be willing to bear disillusion. You begin to cry and writhe and yell and then to keep on crying; and then, finally, grief ends up giving you the two best things: soft­ness and illumination.

A few tips for processing emotions during transition, loss, and grief:

  • Be gentle with yourself. You are wounded.
  • Allow yourself extra time for rest as you work through the loss. Grief is hard work.
  • Spend time with friends and family. Don’t isolate.
  • Get out into the sunshine for a few minutes each day, if possible.
  • Do something fun/enjoyable/creative every single day.
  • Watch funny movies, TV shows, YouTube videos.  Read some P.G. Wodehouse.  Listen to comedian Brian Regan, who is hilarious with no cuss words.
  • Journal, 20 minutes each day.

When do you need to seek help for processing through grief?

  • You’re not bouncing back. Every loss feels like a terrible blow.
  • You’re experiencing a decline in functioning—it’s hard to do what you need to do.
  • You feel exhausted or emotionless for extended periods of time.
  • You can’t think of anything fun or creative that you’d like to do.
  • You’re angry, especially at people who are leaving.
  • You cry a lot, and can’t seem to stop.
  • Your appetite has changed: you binge-eat, or you have no appetite.
  • Sleep is a problem. Either you have trouble falling asleep, or you wake up at night with racing thoughts and can’t go back to sleep.

Helpful resources

Check our resource tab, which includes counseling resources for expats.

The Way of Transition, William Bridges (If you’ve read his first book, Transitions, you’ve got to read this one, which he wrote after his wife died.  It’s beautiful and painful and amazing.)

Recent series at Velvet Ashes on Leaving and Staying 

Podcast on loss from Dan Allender

 Photo Credit (changes made)
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Kay Bruner

Kay Bruner was born in Buffalo, New York and grew up in Brazil, Nigeria, and the wilds of Kentucky. She and her husband have raised their four children in Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and currently reside in the great state of Texas. Kay is a Licensed Professional Counselor, and divides her work days between counseling and writing. She is the author of As Soon As I Fell and blogs at She is available for counseling at her office in Dallas or via skype for a reduced rate to clients overseas. For more information go to:

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