Loss Across Oceans

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Dealing with the passing of a loved one from half a world away is hard, but it can be done. 

That sick feeling in the pit of your stomach when you get an email or message from a close family member with the subject line “emergency.” That sensation of dread before you click it open, fearing the worst but holding on to that weak hope for the best. Waking up to a text from your parents or sibling that indeed, it has happened.

Someone you love is gone, and you’re far, far away from the people who need you, and the people you need.

When you begin your life abroad there is seldom a primer for dealing with major crises provided with your package. There is no pamphlet explaining the procedure for when a family member passes away or becomes terminally ill. No one can explain what exactly to do when there’s a sickbed to sit by or a funeral to attend, because everyone’s circumstances are different. These are topics that are treated with kid gloves because they often lead to anxiety and difficult conversations. Dealing with the grief of others makes people uncomfortable.

The harsh reality of a loved one passing when you’re living abroad is that if you’re not in a financial, geographical or professional position to go home, you don’t get to say goodbye. You watch the scenario unfold on the screens of various devices, Skyping, texting and emailing your loved ones and offering whatever help you can from across the airwaves.

The harsh reality of a loved one passing when you’re abroad is that often you’re not in a financial, geographical or professional position to go home. You don’t get to say goodbye.

Your removal from the situation creates awful feelings of guilt, remorse, loss, grief and anger at your situation—anger at yourself for leaving and not being there, anger at the person who is gone for daring to leave while you weren’t there to see them off. All this compounding your sadness at the whole thing can make for some very bad and lonely times abroad.

There’s no denying that losing a loved one when you’re thousands of kilometres away is going to be hard whichever way you swing it, but there are a few small things you can do to make the process a little more manageable. It involves having a series of tough talks with your family and friends, and perhaps more than a little introspection, but in the end it will probably be worth it.

1. Sit down with your parents and talk about the plans in place for their golden years.

Are they going to retire to Thailand and spend their final years drinking cocktails out of coconuts? Have they investigated the possibility of retirement residences that include graduated levels of care? Do they have a plan, full stop?

Most parents instinctively want to protect their children from the bad things in life, but you’re a grownup now and it’s important that you have a solid understanding of their potential paths and their wishes should the worst happen. It may be that they refuse to discuss the future with you, but if you explain why you need to know, maybe they’ll back down.

2. Talk to your siblings, if you have any, about what your responsibilities will be in terms of elder care may be.

They probably don’t want to think about the worst either, but it’s better to have an understanding now, before anything goes wrong, than let resentment and bitterness grow later on when you’re not around to physically help.

3. Set aside some money.

That maybe be a laughable idea to people working in jobs that are somewhat hand-to-mouth, or those adventuring through parts unknown with no fixed address. But some hidden funds could buy you a ticket home pronto if there’s an emergency that you absolutely must be there for.

4. Will you or won’t you?

When the illness has been drawn-out and you’ve already said your goodbyes, take a moment to reflect on the situation. Will you go home for the funeral? If you will, is the act for you or for the people who are still there? Will you find the release from grief that you need, or will it be compounded by the grief of others?

If you won’t be a help and you’re at peace with how you left things, and the expenses of going back are dangerously high, stay put. Deal with the loss your own way, but keep in touch with the people back home. The next time it’s possible for you to make the journey, arrange a small memorial with the people who matter.

5. Do "you."

Everyone deals with loss in their own way. Don’t kowtow to the expectations of others when it comes to the way you mourn, or don’t mourn. If the country you now call home as a mourning tradition you think you might find cathartic, do it. Moan and cry, or don’t. Rage and drink, or don’t. Take a vow of silence and eat nothing but soup for a day, or don’t. It’s your reality to deal with and your truth to live. Don’t let anyone in your new home or old one dictate the way you feel.

It can seem a touch ghoulish to think about the end of the line for people who are very much alive and well, but if you’re a nomad or a career expat, the practical value of doing so is so much greater than the potential frowns you’ll earn. Loss visits us all in the end, and being prepared will make the process no less hurtful, but perhaps a little smoother. 

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Laura Winberg

Laura Winberg is a Canadian-trained high school teacher specializing in IGCSE and IB Geography. After teaching in the UK, she moved to Shanghai to work at an international school. You can usually find her seeking the best xiaolongbao in the city and planning prom for the umpteenth time in her life.

Website: teach-travel-live-eat.tumblr.com/

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