Helping children to say goodbye

How one family helped their kids move country,
How one family helped their kids move country,  Photo: Getty Images

"Are you getting a divorce? Did someone die?" My 10-year-old daughter looks at me with a panic that alerts her younger sisters to the seriousness of the family talk we're about to have. "Of course not, and no, why would you think that?" I ask. Apparently the last time we had sat them down and looked so serious was to tell them their great-grandmother had died.

Over the preceding weeks my husband and I had many hushed conversations about how we could best tell our daughters that we were leaving the Netherlands, our home for the past seven years, and returning to Australia. No amount of planning, it seemed, could be enough to cushion the shock of our message.

Rolling stages of grief, shock and anger immediately poured out of them so quickly we couldn't keep up. The Netherlands may not have been the country on their passports, but for each of our daughters it was where they had spent most of their young lives; Where our middle daughter had celebrated her first birthday surrounded by boxes three days after we arrived, where our youngest had been born and where our eldest had her first day of school. They all speak fluent Dutch, the youngest go to a Dutch school and for them this is home.

Helping them to say goodbye started as we sat around our kitchen table and told them that we would be leaving and it has continued nearly every day since then.

The biggest question for us in the lead up to breaking the news was how much notice should we give them? We didn't want to make the move too jarring but also didn't want to draw it out unnecessarily. We were also mindful that our five year old has a very different concept of time from her older sisters. We settled on two months. Was it the right amount of time? It's been both too long and too short. Any less and it would have felt too rushed, not allowing their young minds the chance to process this transition. Yet it has also meant an emotionally charged eight weeks and a feeling, for us all, that each day we are saying goodbye.

My 5 year old looks up at me as we cycle home from school together side by side, her big sisters speeding off ahead, and plaintively asks "why are you doing this to us mum? We're happy here."

We talk about grandparents and aunts and uncles and little cousins and the newest cousin who will arrive a few months after our return. We talk about being able to visit this baby on the day it's born, not just waving into a computer screen while mum curses the Internet connection. My daughter listens for a moment, and then launches into a passionate indictment of the five day school week that awaits her, mourning the loss of her Wednesday free day and the private mum time it gave her.

The worry that my young daughters will soon start to forget the Netherlands and their time here has been in the forefront of my mind. Part of saying goodbye is finding ways to keep memories close by. Each child has a friends' book, where their friends can paste a picture of themselves, write a message and share favourite movies and books. I take photos obsessively, hoping to preserve the immediacy of the small moments that fill our daily lives, the very things I wouldn't have thought of recording before it was time to say goodbye. As we cycle to school through the woods we stop to capture the fall leaves, bursting with vivid reds and fiery oranges. We remind ourselves that we will no longer have the privilege of cycling to school together, enjoying the easy conversation as we pedal side by side, that soon it will be back to car pooling and traffic jams.

We have a bucket list on our pin board listing the places we are yet to see or those we want to visit one last time. I pull my eldest out of school so she can visit Anne Frank house and take my younger art-obsessed daughter to the Van Gough museum. Sleepovers and play dates are rapidly added to the calendar and an early birthday party is squeezed in. We plan a road trip across the US that will put some distance between leaving our old life and returning to one that is simultaneously even older and much newer.

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Experts told us that it was good to share in our daughters' grieving process and empathise with their sense of loss, yet I worry that our shared grief makes it harder for everyone, that our family needs a cheerleader reminding us of all the great things waiting for us back home. For a few weeks my eldest daughter was that cheerleader, putting up an elaborately decorated poster in the hallway titled 'great things to look forward to in Australia' for everyone to fill. We thought she was being incredibly optimistic and positive, but it turned out that she wasn't happy to be leaving at all; she simply felt the sadness in our house and wanted to be the one to cheer everyone up. It was beautiful and thoughtful but not, I felt, a position a 10 year old should feel compelled to fill.

Less than an hour after breaking the news of our move it was time for swimming lessons. My husband called me from the car to say how positive the kids were being about the move as they excitedly yelled into the speaker about family and sunshine and vegemite. This level of excitement didn't last, but at some point it will return.

I hope for my daughters that they will always keep our time in the Netherlands with them and not lose the sense they have now of how big the world really is. I haven't worked out the best way to teach children to say goodbye, but every day I am reminded how resilient children are and how lucky we are that ultimately, home is wherever the five of us are.