Repat: Disenfranchised Grief

March 2, 2020


This morning, I opened up Instagram and the first thing I saw was a post about repat grief that absolutely blew my mind from Maria Latham of I Was An Expat Wife. The post was a photo with overlaid text that read, "Saying goodbye to my expat self is one of the hardest things I've ever done." Then, in the caption, she dove deeper, writing, "Re-entry comes with many losses...The hardest part is trying to make people understand that yes, it's possible to grieve the loss of a city, or a language, or a cuisine." She went on, explaining that as repats, "because our losses don't involve death, they're widely considered to be frivolous or irrelevant. As a result, disenfranchised grief responses tend to be more severe than those of death-related losses, precisely because we're told they don't 'count.'"

Wow. We are told they don't count.

Just like that, in a few simple sentences, Maria pinpointed and made crystal clear exactly what I have been feeling for more than five years, but have never been able to fully or accurately articulate. Five years! Maria's words were so poignant and accurate, it made my jaw drop to read them. I re-read her caption several times, nodding my head in disbelief that I had never heard of disenfranchised grief before now. It turns out that disenfranchised grief is very much a thing and that it is the exact thing that has been weighing on me since I returned to the US from Switzerland.

I realize that not everyone experiences re-entry the way I did, but maybe you have. Based on what she wrote in that quick Instagram caption, Maria Latham definitely has. I can understand that from the outside looking in, it may seem genuinely frivolous or irrelevant, like it's not even a thing to those not experiencing it. My friends and family have watched me go through several deep depressions since I returned to the US and they can't even begin to genuinely connect those episodes with the grief and mourning I have been going through over losing Zurich and my life there. I get the feeling that their response to that is along the lines of "well, maybe, but, (add in something more concrete here, like finances or career) is the real problem." And just like that, what they unwittingly do is disenfranchise my grief, and make it not count. The grief of repatriation is very real and it's more than enough all by itself.

Throughout my repatriation journey, I have really struggled with this added dimension of being told, directly or indirectly, that my grief doesn't count. It has been maddeningly disorienting and isolating. As I have grappled with this, I have been able to isolate examples of my disenfranchised grief - times when (hopefully) well-meaning friends or family dismissed my feelings of loss. This has always felt terrible - and terribly significant! - but I have never been able to name it. It is so powerful to be able to name a feeling or phenomenon. Knowing that disenfranchised grief is an actual thing, and that it's what the debilitating feeling I have been experiencing all this time is actually called, makes it seem more accessible and manageable somehow. I'm also genuinely surprised that not one of the coaches, therapists, or healers I have worked with over the past five years has known or used that term.

Repatriating really is a lonely, difficult journey. So it makes sense that disenfranchised grief responses "tend to be more severe than those of death-related losses" doesn't it? How can we begin to process and move on with our grief when we're being told that it isn't even real? Does this concept resonate with you? If it does, please share your experiences in the comments below. And be sure to follow @iwasanexpatwife on Instagram. I always love her thoughtful and insightful posts and I think you will, too.

(Photo via Pinterest/PullCast)

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