Child and mother watching plane in airport
Watching good friends leave is an inevitable part of expat life in the UAE Image Credit: Shutterstock

Summer in the UAE isn’t just the season of scorching sand and fogged-up sunglasses. It’s also the season of goodbyes.

They’re predictable, yet unavoidable: in transient international hubs like the UAE, people will always float in and out of our lives like driftwood with the tide. But what happens when that driftwood was actually more like your life raft?

While there’s plenty of advice on how to get over the end of a romantic relationship or losing a loved one, it’s hard to find anything tackling the topic of expat friendships. Indeed, it can feel quite silly to be so upset about something that is, often, actually good news for your friend – a fresh start, new challenges, new horizons.

So if one of your best buds has just upped and left, or is about to do so, here’s how to handle it when you’re the one who’s left behind:

Expat friendships can be more like family

Intimacies stitched together during a formative period in our lives can end up consisting of far more threads than your average friendship – and, for many of us, becoming an expat is as formative as our school or university experiences, especially if you become a parent during that time.

“We are kind of thrown together out here,” says clinical psychologist at The LightHouse Arabia, Dr Rose Logan. “And we are united by the common experience of adventure and challenges. Friendships that are made living abroad can be incredibly close and hold a lot of meaning as you begin to rely on friends as you might your family back home. Often these are the people who see your children grow up or who comfort you when you lose your job. They may have a unique perspective on how you have grown as a result of these challenges and experiences.”

You share a unique bond as expats

The curious thing about being an expat is that, once you’ve made another country your home for a period of time, you always have a key chapter of life experience that your friends at home cannot relate with. “Mum-friends you make as an expat also understand things that friends and family who have not lived abroad might not…the good, the bad and the ugly of living away from home! That said, for many people, friends and family who have known you your whole life are irreplaceable and know you in a way that can’t be replicated.”

It’s normal to be upset when good friends leave

When the person or people that you have grown to rely on in your new expat reality announces that they are leaving, it can feel like a breakup or even a bereavement - a missile tearing through the web of support that you have worked so hard to build around yourself. If the friend also has children who have become close with your own children, then it can feel like double the abandonment.

“Because friendships can feel like family out here, when those key people leave, it can create a lot of distress,” says Dr Rose. “It can be hugely unsettling for adults and children alike. A sense of loss or grief is a common feeling, but it can also trigger feelings of abandonment or loneliness that may relate to earlier experiences too.”

It’s important to keep a check on your reaction and make sure that it doesn’t unravel into something more serious, says Dr Rose. “A loss or absence of a support network can contribute to deteriorations in mental health and can lead to people developing adjustment issues and mood disorders among other things. However, the majority of people adjust to the changes and are able to reconcile their loss. It is normal to miss people you care about.”

Read more: The 10 Types of Mum-Friend You Make in Dubai

Say a proper goodbye

The important thing is to process how you feel and to have the opportunity to say proper goodbyes, says Dr Rose. “This might mean talking, and sharing how you feel. Connecting with friends old and new can remind you that you have support. Make sure that you make time to get together and share memories. Talk to the people who are leaving and work out how to stay in touch and maybe even plan a reunion for the next holiday.

"You can support your children when their friends leave by encouraging them to talk about how they feel, creating memory boxes or putting up photos to talk about and helping them stay in touch if possible.”

Don’t batten down the hatches

Sometimes when someone very close to us leaves, you might fee like switching off from new potential friendships, for fear of being abandoned again.

“It is certainly tempting to try and protect yourself from any more hurt,” says Dr Rose. “But this can lead to further distress as friendships become superficial and dissatisfying.

“As humans, we are primed to seek comfort in social relationships and most of us thrive on social connection. As hard as it might be to dust yourself off and start afresh with new friendships, it will be for the best in the long run.

“Try something new or take up a hobby that you have been meaning to try. This will open up new social avenues. And the bonus is you will end up with networks and friends in fabulous places all over the world!”

Read more: 17 Things only Dubai mums will understand

Give yourself time to grieve

As dramatic as it might sound, when your support network changes very suddenly, you need to give yourself some time to process it. “Take stock of the friendships and what they have meant over the time you have all been here,” says Dr Rose.

“It is important to mark their leaving and have the chance to say goodbye, even if it is hard. Write down some favourite memories and look out photos to share with them over a goodbye meal or get together. Use your network for support and strengthen friendships that might have been a bit neglected or drifted. And don’t be scared to get out and meet new friends. Remember we were all new once and someone took us under their wing; you can be that person to someone else!”

Read more: Why it’s so hard to make real mum friends in Dubai