Five years ago when my middle child was suddenly diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes, we left everything behind from our life in Antananarivo, Madagascar and headed to my parents house in Texas for 6 months.
It was an incredibly emotional time, full of ups and downs and doubts about what our expat life would look like from then on. And, it was also a time of reevaluating and refocusing. We started to see that we could live quite normally even in the face of challenge and that our international existence would actually return, more or less, to normal.
It was also one of the most wonderful times for my children to reconnect with their grandparents. For just a little while – we saw what our life would have been like had we never left Austin. Baseball and soccer, tacos and live music, Barton Springs and fire ants.
Within a year of our 6-month stay in Austin, however, my step-dad was diagnosed with cancer. He died just shy of 2 years from our emergency evacuation from Madagascar.
There is a part of me that will never fully be able to accept my stepdad’s death. It seems he was too young, too healthy, too much a part of our lives to be gone so suddenly. It seems so wrong to have befallen a man that was so universally loved, a person that seemed to want nothing much more than to love the people in his life…and go fishing…and drink an ice-cold Corona on a sweltering Texas day.
Never in a million years would I wish to repeat the chaos and upheaval of our departure from Madagascar. If I could wave a magic wand, I would take my son’s diagnosis any day so that he could go on living as carefree as a 10 year old should. And yet, because we were in Austin, we had those precious 6 months with my stepdad. I can’t say I’d change it.
The deep, deep well of gratitude I feel for having had that time in which every day my kids got to know their PawPaw offers a sense of peace and acceptance about the way things turned out. My gratitude for those unexpected days in Texas provides a sort of balm that softens the sting of the loss and reminds me that having been loved so unconditionally by this one person is an incredible blessing, even if he wasn’t in our lives as long as we all wanted.
Gratitude serves this purpose in our lives. It’s not that by being grateful we suddenly erase the shittiness of bad things that happen. I strongly disagree with the idea that in our most difficult emotions we should simply apply a little gratitude and everything will be okay. What we can see, however, is that gratitude offers us the chance to see our experiences and our emotions in the context of the larger picture.
For expats, one of the biggest gifts of practicing gratitude is that it’s so portable. You can step into a grateful mindset no matter where you are – from the airport security line to the first loving embrace of a brand new friend. Learning to engage with gratitude provides unique ways in which to deal with many of the difficult emotions that plague our unpredictable international lives – not so that we can always feel exactly the way we want to feel, but so that we can better address the very real emotions that sometimes knock us flat.
Gratitude requires reflection, insight and mindful awareness and these are all traits that help us get a handle our difficult emotions. It helps us to see ourselves at a distance so that we can make clear, thoughtful decisions about how we want to embrace and honor the ways we feel.
Moreover, more than being simply a state of mind, gratitude inherently offers us a chance to take action. We can feel thankful with our thoughts or our hearts (and sometimes that’s enough to help us address our emotions), but gratitude also compels us to act. It encourages us to actually say thank you – to write the letter, to make the phone call, to rephrase the complaint, to offer and to receive the support we need.
If you’re feeling helplessness, sadness, envy, anger, rejection or grief, it can be helpful to process those emotions by seeing them as part of your complex life – a life that also includes good things…even good things directly related to the challenges you’re facing.
If you find you’re in a rut, try these gratitude-centered, self-coaching questions. They might get you started in gaining new space to see, move through and heal from the difficult emotions you encounter in your expat life.
- What uncomfortable emotions am I feeling right now?
- What might I appreciate about these difficult emotions? What might they be trying to tell me? What gifts might be hidden within these emotions?
- Who in my life has been the most supportive and understanding during this challenging experience? How can I acknowledge my gratitude to this person?
- What skills or abilities do I possess that have helped me to move through this experience? What person or situation has supported my cultivation of these abilities? How can I offer gratitude to that person or situation?
- Who have I witnessed overcome challenges? In what ways am I grateful for the opportunity to learn from this person?
How has maintaining gratitude helped you deal with difficult expat emotions? Based on your experience, what questions would you add to the list above? I’d be honored to hear more about how gratitude has supported your expat journey in the comments.