When You’re Forced to Break Up with Living Abroad

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One beautiful summer evening when I was in my mid-20s, my boyfriend called. I was home visiting family during a grad school break, so I’d expected our usual chit-chat.

Instead, we broke up.

Without warning, my entire life was turned upside down.

We’d been inching towards that destination for months, so it wasn’t a complete surprise. Still, I hadn’t expected that we’d end things quite so soon. And the way it all fell apart completely blindsided me.

The vision I had for the rest of the year? The comfort I derived from being coupled up for so long? The mutual friends I was looking forward to seeing? All shredded and scattered to the wind in an instant. And there was absolutely nothing I could do to get any of it back.

If you had to return home from abroad unexpectedly due to the pandemic, you’re probably grieving your own sudden and surprising “break up” with the life you were living abroad.

And even though you knew you were inching towards returning home, you probably felt blindsided by how it all fell apart.

You’ve no doubt heard it said that the world is experiencing collective grief as we move through this pandemic. And if you had to return home early, you’re likely experiencing layers upon layers of grief after being thrust into a sudden return and a global pandemic.

I’ve learned a lot about grief over the years, both through personal experience and through my re-entry research and coaching work. But I learned the most powerful lessons about grief from that break up I mentioned — lessons that helped me navigate future grief-inducing experiences later in life with far more insight and much less suffering.

While a break up isn’t exactly the same as having to suddenly pack up your life abroad and return home in the middle of a world wide pandemic, there are some overlaps. So I thought I’d share seven observations and lessons learned from that experience, in hopes that it might help you navigate the grief you may be feeling now after your “break up” with your life abroad.

1. I was surprised by my grief.

Even though my boyfriend and I had been moving towards going our separate ways for months, and I’d been fairly ambivalent about that trajectory, the actual ending of our relationship was nonetheless shocking and surprisingly traumatic for me. I would never have expected to react that way. And I remember feeling kinda awkward about how much it did affect me. I wondered if I was over-reacting, and I felt weirdly ashamed about how much grief I felt.

Grief is a normal and healthy response to loss – any kind of loss! So if you’re (still) grieving your early return and the loss of plans and experiences you were looking forward to, you’re not doing anything wrong. It’s ok to let yourself grieve. And if you’re grieving more or longer than you would have expected, that’s ok, too.

2. I had deeply conflicting feelings.

I couldn’t reconcile feeling relieved that our relationship was over, yet also completely devastated. It didn’t make sense in my mind, and that really stressed me out. I remember thinking that my feelings should all line up and tell a tidy, linear story – I should either feel relieved or devastated.

It’s ok to have conflicting feelings. In fact, it’s completely normal, especially in re-entry. You can, for example, simultaneously mourn what you’ve lost by having to return home early, while also feeling grateful you’re safe at home with your healthy family. Your emotions don’t have to tell a linear story, and it’s ok if the story your emotions are telling doesn’t totally make sense right now.

3. I was exhausted.

For weeks I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t eat, and I couldn’t concentrate on anything. Fortunately, I ended up having a lot of fun with friends that summer, but some days I was a total slug and did very little except sit on my grandmother’s couch, watch mindless TV, and cry.

Grief is exhausting. You’re processing not only your sudden return but also global trauma, uncertainly, a new way of living, studying, working…that’s a lot to process. So, if you’re extra tired, if you’re having trouble focusing on anything for very long, if you just want to watch Netflix, don’t beat yourself up. The good news is that you won’t feel this way forever! It will pass, and you will get back to “normal” at some point. In the meantime, cut yourself some slack while also taking good care of yourself.

4. My grief came in waves.

At first it was constant and unrelenting. I couldn’t escape it as my brain tried to process what was happening. Soon, however, the waves were less overwhelming, and then they came less frequently. Later, the waves became much more manageable, and then they receded almost completely.

One really helpful thing I learned during that time was how to just sit with uncomfortable or painful feelings instead of shoving them down, denying them or getting really angry (which was my usual course of action). I learned to not be afraid of difficult emotions and to simply let them show up, to feel them, and then let them recede.

If uncomfortable or painful feelings overcome you, try not to fight them or run from them. Learn to just sit with them, even if just briefly at first. Remind yourself that even though it might hurt to feel them, your emotions can’t actually hurt you. And once they’ve been felt, they’ll go away. Emotions just want to be felt, and letting yourself feel a range of emotions in re-entry is one way to take those re-entry rocks out of your re-entry backpack.

5. Having someone “hold space” for me helped tremendously.

I’ve always found that phrase kinda hokey but that’s exactly what my grandmother did for me during that break up. I had an excellent support team of friends and family during that time (fortunately, I was on a break from grad school and was home visiting family) but there was something different about the way she in particular supported me – she simply “held space” for me while I mourned and wrestled with how to move forward.

She didn’t judge, try to fix anything, sweep my pain under the rug or try to rush me through the grieving process. She didn’t burden me with her feelings about how things ended. Instead, she assured me that it was ok to cry when I needed to, listened while I tried (and failed) to make sense of my conflicting feelings about the break up and relationship as a whole, and assured me that at some point I would feel better.

Having my grandmother “hold space” for me is what helped me learn to sit with those waves of painful emotions because I didn’t feel like I needed to hide them or use what little emotional energy I had to make someone else feel better. Attending to my emotions is what enabled me to process the break up and gain the insight I needed in order to find my way forward.

Finding someone who can “hold space” for you while you grieve and process, whether that be a family member, friend, coach, counselor or therapist can be super helpful in re-entry, especially a painful sudden re-entry.

6. Previous unprocessed loss suddenly demanded my attention.

I remember feeling a tremendous sense of loss that I couldn’t explain and that I just couldn’t shake. But it didn’t make sense to me that it was all due to the break up.

Turns out, it wasn’t.

Rather, it was thawing frozen grief from several unprocessed losses from previous re-entries (I’d had three by that time), the loss of an earlier relationship I’d never fully processed, and some things from my younger years.

Unprocessed emotions don’t just go away. Sure, you can push them aside, but instead of dissipating, they get stronger. That break up placed one too many rocks in my already overflowing re-entry backpack and I was forced to stop and empty it out by finally starting to process all of those accumulated losses.

Any re-entry experience can activate memories of and feelings about previous losses you’ve been able to mentally push to the back of your mind. So you could be feeling loss from several sources — having to return home early, all of the changes to our lives due the pandemic, the loss of security and certainty in that we don’t know what we will and won’t be able to do in the near future, as well as previous unprocessed losses from other areas of your life.

7. Closure is about finding meaning (not saying good-bye).

If you had to return home with little warning, you probably feel cheated out of saying a proper good-bye. And because of that, you may feel like your abroad experience lacks closure.

I get it. After our sudden break up, my ex and I never acknowledged each others existence ever again (we were incredibly mature back then, ha!). Because we weren’t on speaking terms, there was no opportunity for meaningful closure (so I thought at the time). There was only getting on with my life.

While I did bounce back, the sudden and traumatic way the relationship ended cast a dark cloud over my memory of our time together, even the good times — many of which were entwined with significant life milestones.

So whenever I thought about those important life events, my ex would would automatically come to mind, and I’d feel twinges of pain. I hated that I could still feel that pain, even after I’d moved on! I always attributed those lingering negative feelings to the traumatic ending and a lack of meaningful closure.

Then, a few years ago, I started researching “closure” in order to help my re-entry clients say a better good-bye when returning home. What I learned is that closure isn’t about saying good-bye and it isn’t something given to you, so it can’t be withheld (e.g., if you’re not able to say good-bye in the way that you’d like).

Closure is about finding meaning.

And you get to decide what that meaning is.

I hadn’t gone into my research thinking about that now two-decades-old break up but it did come to mind along the way. Over the years, that dark cloud had faded to a much lighter grey but it was still there to some extent whenever I thought about that time in my life. So, I decided to intentionally process any lingering emotions (now that I finally know how!), and find the meaning in the relationship and the break up experience.

You know what happened? That cloud that had cast a pall over my memories for so many years? Poof! Gone. Now, it’s that meaning I derived from the relationship and the break up that stands out to me, far more than the traumatic ending. No more lingering pain attached to my memories. If only I’d known to do this years ago!

If your time abroad got cut short or you didn’t get to say good-bye in the way you planned or wanted before returning home, you might feel like there’s a dark cloud lingering over your whole abroad experience.

Even if you bounced back and have moved on with your life, I encourage you take time to recognize and mourn your loss (even if nobody around you recognizes it). Process your emotions rather than pushing them to the side as a way to stop feeling them. Then, when you’re ready, work on finding closure by finding the meaning in the time you spent abroad. Maybe also in your sudden and unexpected return.

It may take time to process your grief and be able to recognize and articulate the meaning. That’s ok – it’s not something you have to do on anyone’s timeline but your own. When do you find the meaning, you’ll feel a more satisfying sense of closure and confidence in moving forward. Doing this will help you prevent more rocks from being added to your re-entry backpack.

Looking back now, I see that break up as one of the most valuable experiences of my life.

Because painful as they can be, these types of life-changing events – whether a break up or sudden re-entry – offer an opportunity for significant insight and growth. And that insight and growth can lead to an even better future than what you’d originally imagined!

In my case, I lost a relationship that had at one time been important to me…but SO many other amazing (better!) things bloomed in its place, things that wouldn’t have bloomed had space not been made for them by that break up. Like meeting my now-husband, in the most random and surprising way, several months later!

And because of the insight and growth I gained from that painful break up, when I met my husband I was ready for that relationship in a way I hadn’t been with my ex. Moreover, learning how to navigate the grief I felt at that time helped tremendously when I faced grief later in life.

You may not currently be in a place where you can say the same about having to return home early. If you’ve just returned, I wouldn’t expect you to! But I hope you can at least envision a time in the future when you’ll be able to look back and find the meaning in the challenge, and the insight gained from any pain you experienced in your return. The learning and growth that will come out of your sudden, disappointing, early return will help you down the road in ways you can’t even imagine right now!