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Impossible Barriers: When the Distance is Just Too Far

Sarah Babineau

Gillian discovers that physical distance can seem even greater when someone at home passes away.  

I know I've written a lot about the challenges of living away from home. The distance from Perth to Toronto—or just from here to anywhere that we have family or friends—can sometimes seem impossibly far. You miss everything from birthdays, to weddings, to births, and at times it can feel so isolating. But I don't think the distance can ever feel as far as when someone you love passes away and you can't do anything about it. You can't get home for the funeral, can't be there to console and support family members—the feeling of helplessness can be unbearable.

This happened to my partner last year. He had gone home to Ireland for three weeks over Christmas and had only been back in Perth for a few days when he got the phone call that you never want to receive. A good childhood friend of his had passed away. Luckily, I had never experienced what he was going through—being on the other side of the world when your friends and family at home need you there for support. All I could do was be there for him as best as I could, hug him when he needed it, make tea and listen.

Now I understand exactly what he was going through. The other night, I received a text from my mom letting me know that a close family friend had passed away. Unlike my partner's experience, where the call came out of nowhere and he had to deal with the unexpected death of a friend, this was a passing I knew was coming. Our dear friend Felice had been unwell for quite some time now and my mom had told me a few days before that she wasn't doing well. But that doesn't make the experience any better.

First of all, there is the constant issue of communication. I had to learn of this news via text message, which is never a nice way to find out bad news.

Of course, the real issue is that I'm on the opposite side of the world, in a completely different time zone. And all I can do is text back my condolences? When your family loses someone close to them, all you want to do is be there for them, hug them and do whatever you can to make the time a little easier for everyone involved.

For the first time since I've been living in Perth, I felt completely helpless and was regretting that fact that I live so far away. When there is a death in the family, the distance across the world seems impossible. How do you convey through a text message all of the mixed emotions you're feeling- regret, sadness, relief that the person is no longer in pain. I think the answer is that you can't.

There isn't really any solution to this particular challenge. For me, what I'm deciding to take from the experience is that life is extremely short. Luckily, we are in the age of technology. Although you can always be there with your family or friends, there is Skype, so you can see the smile on someone's face as you tell them about your day, and you can hear their laugh. All we can do is stay in touch with those we love as best as possible. Even just a quick phone call, a little email letting them know you're thinking about them, a photo to show what you're up to.

Personally, I am going to cherish every moment I have with my friends and family, even if they are on the other side of the world. Because even though I may be a 24-hour plane journey away from my family, we are really only a couple seconds away by Skype and the more we talk, the more we laugh and listen to stories about each other's lives, the closer we will feel, and the distance between us will shrink. Maybe not physically, but emotionally. And that's what love really is.

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Gillian Arfin

Gillian Arfin is from Oakville, Ontario. After years of travelling and backpacking and constant itchy feet, she has found herself settled in the most isolated city in the world--Perth, Western Australia. Curious what it’s like to live on the other side of the world? Read what Gillian has to say about it.

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