"We’ve created new “family” in the way of friends who are also geographical orphans, but there is still a pause that happens before we think about imposing on a friend. Some of these “family” friendships are new and possibly tenuous relationships that may only exist because we are all in the same boat. Without a deeper connection, it is easy to overstep boundaries and so, in most cases, we choose not to impose. We’d rather be alone and keep those friendships rather than potentially lose our only sources of local support. We need to save those requests in case of an emergency; not for a daily pick-me-up."
I read this passage on Knocked Up Abroad, an expat blog recently and it's really resonated for me. I also found these two articles very useful:
On Depression: For Many, Life as an Accompanying Spouse Comes at a Great Cost
General Preparation for Life Abroad: The 9 Essential Questions that Every Expat Partner Must Ask
Here are some tips that I figured I'd pass on based on my own experiences being unemployed, and experiencing Seasonal Affective Disorder (thankfully not a problem here!)
While there are a lot of ways you may have heard about helping an unemployed friend out professionally (recommending your friend on linkedin.com, proofreading resumes and cover letters, forwarding job leads) there are a number of things you can do to help out the whole family.
First of all, do not pull away or assume “If they need anything, they'll call.” Instead, let your friend know that you're still around, and if at all possible, make a specific offer of help.
Even if your friend has funds to make it through to the next job, it's likely that the family is scaling way back on eating out, family activities, and purchases. This is your chance to:
- Let them know you're thinking of them. It's cheesy, but sometimes just a funny photo sent on facebook or a card mailed to their home can be a massive lift. In our most recent move a postcard reappeared years after friend sent it. It was originally sent ages ago while I was in a rough patch. I think I smiled as much seeing it the second time as I did the first time. Your words of love and support mean a lot.
- Exercise together. This can be as simple as going for a walk together, or you might purchase a pass or a voucher for a number of workouts. Years ago a friend bought me a month long pass to Bikram Yoga. Because it was a gift I felt I should use it, and my near daily practice of Bikram Yoga that cold Kansas February really helped get me out of a winter funk.
- Offer to take the kids to and from activities, especially if you have children participating in the same activities. This is especially helpful if you have children on any kind of travel team. In addition to the cost of traveling to compete in another town, there may be hotel room and meal expenses involved that can be hard for the unemployed family to bear.
- Invite the children in the family or even the whole family to come with you on outings. If you have a trip planned to a resort or theme park, ask if Johnny and Jenny can come with your family. Let your friend know that you don't expect them to cover the cost of the tickets and whatever you do, don't ask within earshot of the children.
- Have your friend over for dinner. If your friend has scaled way back on eating out, this can be a welcome break from meal prep and a good chance to socialize, and may even help out with the family's budget. A lot of expat families travel in and out of the country a lot, being stuck in one country means they may not have access to duty free liquor or favorites from home. Dinner with your family can be a good time to share your stash of imported treats and know it will be appreciated.
- Drop off a meal or even just flowers. Sometimes in the hustle and bustle of dealing with the situation the simple things at home - like flowers on the table - don't get refreshed. Here in Fiji flowers are cheap and easy to obtain and they can be a real mood boost. A heat-and-eat meal can be a lifesaver at the end of the day.
- Schedule a playdate for the kids or offer to babysit on a moment's notice. A scheduled playdate gives the kids and the parents a date to look forward to, but a voucher for babysitting may be even more valuable as it frees the parent up to go to an interview or a networking event. If you are able to, feed the kids while you have them. It's one less thing for your friends to think about when they pick their kids up.
- Declutter. I know this sounds strange, but go ahead and clean out the closets and the basement. It's something you were planning to do anyway, but instead of taking everything directly to a donation point, call up your friend and ask if they are interested in anything you're donating. An old smartphone may be an incredible boon to your friend, and new-to-them video games and toys might be great for the kids.
- Offer to help with garage saling, packing, anything related to the house and home. As the recipient sometimes it's easier to refocus a specific request than it is to come up with something to ask for.
- Be honest. If your friend asks you for your opinion on their situation or CV or really anything, offer it as gently as possible, but honestly. It's so much easier to hear a negative review from a friend, and it is possible that you may be the first and only person to pass something on.
- Listen. One of the hardest things some people face when out of work is the loss of the daily companionship during the workday. If you're asked for help or advice, by all means offer it, but realize that sometimes your friends may just want you to listen.
In short - step forward, offer gently, check in as often as you feel comfortable. Situations don't usually develop overnight and your support long after the first news breaks is appreciated.