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Moving through the pain

Monday February 5, 2007

Douglas Ota

In my first article on coping with transitions, Binoculars of grief and gain, I wrote about binoculars and how they provide us with the best analogy for looking at emigration: one lens helps us gather an image of the very real feelings of grief and loss that we experience because of moving, while the other lens helps us visualise the potential growth and gains that might rise above the horizon after moving.

But kids: the grief and gain binoculars were more than just another metaphor. Close one eye and look at your surroundings. Then close the other eye and look at those same surroundings. Understand? The view changes slightly. The incoming information is largely identical, but the image lacks a certain dynamic, a certain magic. That magic only happens when we open both eyes and let our optical cortices combine the two slightly different images into a stereoscopic whole. We see depth. We behold a visual totality that is far greater than the sum of the two parts.

The same magic is possible in the world of feelings and relocation, but only if we have the courage to build these grief and gain binoculars. Moving abroad does not bring only pain or only gain: it brings both. The ambiguity of this experience makes many people uncomfortable.

Learning to understand

?How can I be both horrified and thrilled at the prospect of moving?? Many people have difficulty tolerating such ambiguity in their experience, preferring to neglect one lens of their binocular experience and to focus on one dominant emotion.

?What do you mean I can both hate and love what I?m going through? I hate it in Holland!? Don?t underestimate yourself. If given a real chance, you can focus on the image of grief AND on the image of gain and combine them into a stereoscopic whole with emotional depth. You just need to give yourself a chance to adjust.

How do you give yourself that ?chance?? First, by giving yourself permission to have mixed feelings. Like any worthwhile life endeavour, relocation stretches us in ways that feel good and in ways that hurt. We first must recognise and accept this truth.

Second, by reflecting on what you learned about waves in Physics, and remembering that for every trough there is a crest ? and vice versa. This physical fact runs deeper than the simple conclusion that ?life is a series of ups and downs?. Rather, it means that the magnitude of our joys is directly proportional to depths of grief we have known. Joy and loss are flip sides of the same phenomenon.

Third, in the world of relocation, loss comes first. The late David Pollock was fond of saying that ?you have to grieve well to leave well?. If you don?t bring closure to where you were, you can?t fully open yourself to the experience that is coming. Again, in terms of Physics, you simply cannot have a wave crest without a deep trough before the wave. The water to make the wave had to come from somewhere!

If you?re still with me, and if you followed the bit about waves, then it will come as no surprise that you have to start building the grief lens first. We have to be able to accurately visualise the losses coming our way before we can fully celebrate the gains that follow. In practical terms, then, we?ll work on a bit of the grief lens, and then attend to the corresponding part of the gain lens. Little by little, we?ll be able to see further and further, stereoscopically. And what we?ll likely find, in fact, is that working on the gain lens is no work at all: by carefully building our grief lens, the gain lens will build itself.

Ready? Please insert these optical elements into your grief lens:

What YOU should remember

  1. Naming the losses. Loss of friends, family, networks, reputation, places, homes. These things reinforce our sense of who we are, which is why it might feel like we have to reinvent our whole identity.
  2. Validating the feelings. Feeling identity-less can be terrifying. After naming our losses, we need to discuss how we feel about it all. Being able to share those feelings with other people provides us with the knowledge that we are not alone in our experience, and that is healing.
  3. Permission to process slowly. Difficult feelings do not flow quickly. Give yourself what Pollock recommended: six months to pack your heart and mind, and six months to unpack! In many cases, families spend a full year doing the emotional packing and unpacking on each end. Beware of anybody who exclaims, ?Haven?t you settled in yet?? Grief doesn?t do well under pressure.

What YOUR PARENTS should remember

  1. To validate the experiences of their children. They musn?t evaluate; just listen. What are the real feelings behind the words of their children?
  2. Wisdom. Parents should remember that when their kids make them experience intense feelings, they are glimpsing the children?s own inner worlds ? how they feel themselves. When a daughter screams: ?I hate it here and I hate you for making me move?, her parents should remember to breathe. They shouldn?t lash out. They should take time to observe her feelings.
  3. Awareness. Parents must know that, after moving, they and their kids will never really be able to go ?home? again. By relocating, horizons broaden, and one?s sense of home and self grows. Home becomes more than where kids were born or grew up, or where Mom or Dad are from. It becomes something between borders. If you have any illusions about going home to exactly what you had before, begin looking at them honestly, and read about others who have repatriated before you. Going home is usually harder than leaving it.
  4. They should help their children to settle in to their new school or college. Identity crises and feelings of grief will be foremost in the mind of someone who has just moved country, and the receiving institution should be alerted to this.

And with that last statement, we?ve entered the domain of gain. If you build the above elements into the grief side of your binoculars, you?ve laid the blueprint for the positive elements to emerge in your binoculars. Because you have processed the pain of lost friendships, you?ll begin to enjoy the thrill of developing new ones. And because you?ve opened yourself up to the challenge of re-establishing your identity and sense of home, you?ll be in a position to assist others as they move.

Most importantly, you won?t be handcuffed to a one-eyed view of the world. You won?t be saddled with a telescope. You?ll be able to see the bigger picture, with all its complications, in all its depth.


Douglas Ota is a child psychologist, school counsellor and chair of the transitions programme team at the American School of The Hague in the Netherlands



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