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Almost all of us will have at least one friend who is leaving Hong Kong in the near future, some of us will have many more. There’s nothing easy about saying goodbye to friends who have become like family and their absence often leaves a hole that can be difficult to fill. While we can become accustomed to the transitional nature of Hong Kong and look forward to a replenishment of friends that will surely come, sometimes a friend’s announcement of their departure can feel like a period of bereavement. Indeed as we go through life, these losses – loss of friends, jobs, partners, health – can be termed ‘living losses’, a loss that precipitates a grief that makes us question our identity and place in the world. How can you help your child cope with their friends moving away?
For our children, experiencing these losses is one of the unique aspects of living abroad. All children will react differently to the news of a friend’s departure and the most important consideration is their age. When I looked over at my three year old daughter playing with our next door neighbour who she’d known since birth, I felt a deep pang of sadness knowing her best friend was leaving and they were unlikely to see each other again for a very long time. At the same time, I also recognised this sadness was mine alone and that my daughter is thankfully too young to realise she wouldn’t be playing with her friend regularly again. Before long she was playing with someone new. That’s not to say she doesn’t talk about her old friend and that when she does want to talk I can help her to remember her friend and help her to name the feelings she’s having.
Children of primary age may take the loss a bit harder. At this stage children can recognise likes and dislikes, they may make friends because of shared interests and similar characteristics. They may not know how to process their thoughts and feelings about a friend moving away and as ever, it is up to parents to help identify emotions. You can help by talking through the reasons for moving away, finding the place on the map, reassuring your child that they can stay in touch with their friend via email, letter, Facetime etc. Share your own experiences of a time a friend has moved away and how you felt. Don’t attempt to immediately replace their friend with someone new; encourage your child to play with other friends and widen their social circle but don’t expect a new best friend yet. Most importantly, you know your child best so look for a balance between listening to and recognising how they are feeling without overinflating feelings or looking for problems that don’t exist.
In our teenagers friendships become increasingly important as they begin to make the subconscious separation from family. Friendships might be made through school, sport, clubs and activities and they reinforce our children’s identity and give them a feeling of acceptance and belonging. Indeed friendships can become very intense in adolescence and our children may be spending almost all their waking hours with their peers. At this stage we can’t control who our children make friends with and there may be some friends we’re relieved to see leaving the country. It’s best to keep this to yourself and be supportive to your teen without diminishing how they’re feeling. Helping them to determine whether they’ll stay in touch and how can be helpful in working out if this is a friendship worth keeping. Letting your teenager know you’re there to listen and available to talk about how they feel is essential and keeping these lines of communication open is a win win for everyone. Encouraging our teens to engage in varied and positive activities is important at any time but particularly during the long summer holidays when they may be feeling the absence of a close friend.
Coping with the loss of a friend is painful at any age. Reassure your child that they are not alone and that all of us will experience this at some point in our lives. Listen to and validate how they are feeling, help them to stay in touch with friends if they would like to and reassure them that the sadness will lessen over time. If you notice ongoing mood swings, if your child is unusually quiet, if they have a feeling of sadness that just won’t lift over time or if they’re trying to find comfort in alcohol or drugs, seek outside help. Change comes to all of us. Recognising the pain of friends leaving is the best way we have to adapt to and accept the change, grow in resilience and look forward to the future.
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Flora Scott is a Child and Teen Counsellor at Central & Stanley Wellness.
Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.