How to cope with the guilt of being away from home at Christmas

Try not to dwell on what you are missing out on, and enjoy the moment where you are


I love Sydney at this time of the year. I love the long, warm days with cooler nights. I love how, after the heat of the day, the sea breeze keeps the evenings comfortable as I sit outside with my husband having a chat about our day. I love spending the weekends getting out and about or watching the sun set. I feel incredibly blessed to live on one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, Sydney.

But Christmas time can be tough. The build up to Christmas in Ireland is what I’ve missed the most over the years . . . the warm drinks, the dark nights with the Christmas lights twinkling in houses, and the crowds shopping in Henry Street as you hear traders shouting “the last of the wrapping paper, get your Toblerones” while you scramble for last-minute presents.

The longing to be at home during the festive season has fluctuated at different points and the longer I was away the more I dreaded the final days in work in the lead up to Christmas, surrounded by locals talking about their holiday plans with their families. It can be a lonely time, putting on a brave face and trying to make the most of it.

Living away from family and raising children abroad weighs heavily on many Irish expats. Many of us don’t want to admit our guilt for fear of upsetting family, or because we know they couldn’t possibly understand the feelings of being homesick, torn and confused but happy at the same time.

For me, last Christmas felt different. Having spent a year and a half back living at home in Dublin, we returned to Sydney in September 2017. Suddenly Christmas was upon us but this time instead of feeling homesick, or that I was missing out, I felt at peace.

The morning was spent opening presents and chilling out at home, before an afternoon barbie with friends. We kept our expectations low and as result, we had a great day. By being more accepting of the decision to live away, and to live in the present moment rather than wishing to be somewhere else, meant I was able to see my life through a much more grateful lens.

But then I felt guilty. Guilt takes many forms for Irish people living abroad. The guilt of not looking after aging parents. Guilt that your children are not getting the unconditional love that only grandparents and other family members can give. Guilt of missed weddings and funerals. And the guilt of not actually wanting to “settle” in Ireland, which is the one I struggle with most.

In my experience, the guilt of leaving family behind never really goes away, but similar to grieving, you learn to have a level of acceptance. Acceptance is when you take ownership of your actions and become more content as you move forward. I chose not to let guilt control the direction my future.

Some ways to cope with being away for Christmas

- Celebrate like a local: Over the years I’ve had amazing experiences with friends and colleagues’ families. I’ve had “pig on a spit”, seafood lunch, “Yum Cha” dinner in China town and of course the typical Aussie Christmas barbie spent at the beach (more than a few times now).

- Replicate an “Irish Christmas” complete with Irish breakfast. You’ll never replicate your mammy’s cooking, but you may get close.

- Spend time with other people who are also away from “home”; chances are they are missing it too and understand how you feel.

- Video call/Skype: The call back home can evoke mixed feelings as you recount the events of the day in different time zones. It’s ok to have a little cry after calling home, or to feel sad. Hold onto your “why”, and the reasons you are away from home in the first place.

- Plan a trip somewhere exciting: This year we are planning a family holiday to the Gold Coast (an hour’s flight from Sydney). It’s easy to distract yourself from longings to be home when you’re exploring somewhere totally new.

- Feel it all: Don’t block out your emotions, allow yourself to feel it all, and to learn from it. Don’t judge yourself for grieving the loss but allow the feelings to come rather than repressing them, numbing them or trying to control them. You have to feel it to heal it.

- Practice gratitude: During lonely moments remember what you’re grateful for. Spend some time reflecting and being thankful for everything you have been blessed with in your life during the past year. Think about what you want for your family and yourself in the coming year. Focus on the positive.

- Stay present: Try not to dwell on what you’re missing out on. These days I don’t take so many indulgent trips down memory lane. I’ve come to the realisation that every time I travel back to the past or forward into the future it’s a clue that something’s not sitting well with me. Ask yourself, what are you trying to avoid? Next time you find your mind wandering and imagining what Christmas in Ireland is like, let it serve as a reminder that you’re no longer in the present moment.

Sarah Whelan is a transition coach and NLP practitioner who supports people through times of change and transition.

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