How expats cope with loneliness during the holiday season

The festive period should be a joyful time, but for thousands of expatriates who will be away from their loved ones, Christmas and New Year’s Eve can be a time of sadness and loneliness.

Jess Macdonald is spending the festive season away from her home country. Ravindranath K / The National
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In the weeks leading up to Christmas and into the new year, it is not unusual to find ourselves surrounded by the chatter of family gatherings or the social whirl of New Year’s Eve plans with friends.

For many, the festive period is a time for family, especially expatriates, who welcome any reason for their loved ones to pay a visit.

However, this time of the year can be a tough time for those forced to spend the festive season far from home and all alone.

For Marri Janeka, who grew up in the US and moved to Abu Dhabi this year, Christmas Day 2016 was a break with tradition for the first time in 30 years.

“It’s my first Christmas away from home – ever,” she says. “I’ve somehow managed to be home on December 24 and 25 for 29 years. I’m surprised at how tough it’s been, particularly this past week. I totally thought that I had it covered, that it wouldn’t be a big deal.

“My parents had just visited me in late November, so I figured it wouldn’t be that big of a deal to miss Christmas. But the more I hear about Christmas parties back home, tree-lighting ceremonies, impromptu Christmas hymns, being around friends and family and, as corny as it sounds, the general feeling of the holidays, it hit me how much I miss being home. I definitely feel lonelier than I thought I would.”

Given the transient nature of expatriate population, each year many people experience their first holiday season away from home, separated from family and friends.

Marri says she is still finding her footing, with New Year Eve’s Eve the next big challenge.

“Back home it was much easier to make plans because I had a few different groups of friends who I could call on, and my friends were always excited about making plans,” she says.

“I’m still building my network of friends here, and, with a bunch of people travelling, it’s definitely more difficult to figure out what I’ll do to celebrate New Year’s Eve.”

Thanaket Somboonsub, from Thailand, says celebrating the festive season is a joyful experience whether at home or abroad. He has lived in Abu Dhabi for just over a decade, and draws upon childhood memories of spending the holiday season in the family home to sustain him this time of year.

“However, for me, if I have a choice, I prefer New Year’s Eve back home, no matter if I have a big plan or not,” he says.

Embrace the new

For expatriates who are less settled than Thanaket, coping with new surroundings during the holidays might have been especially tough this year, according to Reverend Canon Andy Thompson, senior chaplain at St Andrew’s Church in Abu Dhabi.

“2016 has been a tough year for many,” he says. “The bump in the global economy has resulted in unexpected job losses, salary reductions and downsizing, or relocating families. Over the past few months, we have seen an increase in the number of people turning to the church for help.

“The things we do offer are a listening ear, prayer and, sometimes, practical assistance.”

If people find the holidays hard to cope with, he adds, places of worship can ease their woes.

“In the absence of our families, and away from familiar traditions, our communities of faith becomes our spiritual home from home,” he says.

Not all expatriates feel a yearning to be at home, however.

Briton Louise Beazor, who moved to the capital this year, says the opportunity to travel during the festive period was too hard to resist. This year she and her husband will spend the festive season – and welcome in the new year – in Sri Lanka.

“We will miss Christmas with family but we are excited to do something new,” says Louise.

Though it won’t be the same without their families around, they have their understanding and support, she says, and adds: “They are sad but pleased to know I’m living the dream.”

Abu Dhabi is also home to long-time expatriate Jess MacDonald, and the city she has spent most festive seasons in. She was born in the UAE and spent her first 11 years here. She moved to the UK for nine years, before returning five years ago.

There are some aspects of the festive celebrations in the UK that cannot be replicated, she believes.

“I think while it’s awesome spending it here, because it’s not cold and wintry, I actually love getting wrapped up in warm clothes – that just sort of adds to it,” she says. “I do feel like the whole atmosphere is a lot more festive back home.”

But what the UAE lacks in terms wintry weather, it makes up for in other ways, she adds.

“It’s not like Abu Dhabi doesn’t make the effort,” she says. “Sometimes they go more all-out here. Abu Dhabi definitely gets into the festive spirit.”

She plans to spend New Year’s Eve watching Coldplay at their sold-out concert at du Arena on Yas Island.

Though not a massive fan of end-of-year celebrations because of the exorbitant prices, Jess says the UAE has plenty to offer all revellers, whatever their budget.

“I love how big of a deal it is here,” she says. “There’s something for everyone and there’s always somewhere to go.

“I’m so excited about Coldplay and to be able to watch one of the best bands on New Year’s Eve. Not everyone has that opportunity.”

Former expatriate Nicole Chahal, who recently returned to the UK, agrees.

“New Year in the UAE ... I feel they make a big show about it and the celebrations are amazing,” she says. “In the UK it’s very hard to get around on trains and in taxis, so most people celebrate at home.”

There are so many activities in the UAE during the festive season, it can help lonely expatriates to feel like part of the community, says Jess.

“I’d say there is so much to get involved in, and it feels like all expatriates are in the same boat, so get involved with what’s going on.”

Make the most of it

However, some expats may struggle emotionally to be part of the celebrations, according to Farah Dahabi, a clinical social worker and programme co-ordinator at Raymee Grief Centre, in The LightHouse Arabia Centre for Wellbeing, a mental health clinic based in Dubai.

“Loneliness is a common feeling around the holidays, but people who are living away from home, grieving the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a relationship are particularly vulnerable to experiencing heightened holiday loneliness,” he says.

People who experience these feelings should remember not to put themselves under undue pressure, he adds.

“During the holidays, we are flooded with images of what the picture-perfect family and relationship ‘should’ look like through social media and advertising,” he says.

“In reality, we know that the holidays are an exceptionally stressful time of the year, both emotionally and financially. Be mindful of comparing yourself to the heavily filtered images you’re seeing.”

Jess tries look at her situation in a positive light.

“My family are here so I’m quite lucky in that respect, but I know what it’s like to not be with family at Christmas,” she says.

Drawing upon her rich expat experience, her advice to those who are struggling with the holiday season is to maintain a sense of tradition to their new surroundings.

“I’d say do what you usually do, but you’ve got the opportunity to do stuff that you wouldn’t have in the UK,” she sa“Make the most of it. Make the most of the great weather.”

This is advice Marri took. For Christmas Day she and a friend got into the spirit by “wearing ugly Christmas sweaters in the office”.

“It’s my first time living abroad as an adult – I guess I’m still figuring out what it means to be an expat,” she says.

“And even though it’ll be difficult to be away from my family for the holidays, I’m excited to make new traditions with people I’ve grown to care about here in Abu Dhabi.”


Reach out to a love one

Farah Dahabi, clinical social worker and programme co-ordinator at Raymee Grief Centre in The LightHouse Arabia Centre for Wellbeing in Dubai, has some tips on how to cope with loneliness during the holidays

Do not buy into the hype

During the holidays, we are bombarded with images of what the picture-perfect family and relationship “should” look like, through social media and advertising. In reality, we know that the holidays are an exceptionally stressful time of the year, both emotionally and financially. Be mindful of comparing yourself to the heavily filtered images you are seeing.

Give yourself the gift of self-compassion

Have the intention to be kind and patient with yourself, and avoid ignoring your feelings. It is common to feel lonely around the holidays, especially if you are living away from home. Make time to pamper yourself.

Avoid the urge to isolate yourself

Make an effort to surround yourself with people and places that bring some joy. For expats who are not able to travel home for the holidays, find different ways of connecting with loved ones, using your mobile phone for example.

Seek supportive counselling

For some, the feelings of loneliness are profound and extend far beyond the holidays. It is important to reach out for supportive counselling, especially if you are grieving. Raymee Grief Centre offers free 45-minute grief consultations, which provide a safe space to examine your grief process, receive support throughout this difficult time, and better understand how to cope with the feelings, with a grief-support specialist.