Expat Grief, Distance and Unfortunate Circumstances
Updated: Jan 12
Living abroad comes with a long list of challenges, from learning a new language to figuring out how to drive on the other side of the road. You never know what kind of test of strength you might face when you’re living overseas and far from home. Many of these challenges are fun and exciting, but by choosing the expat life it sadly opens the door for opportunities of sadness to invade your world without notice. Losing a loved one while living outside of my home country is an ordeal I wish I never experienced.
“Honey, wake up.” I felt my husband, Dave, shaking my shoulder. His voice sounded urgent. “Claire, please wake up.”
In June 2009, I was 40 weeks pregnant and sleeping in our new home’s guest bedroom in Geneva, Switzerland. We had arrived eight weeks earlier and were just getting settled into our expat life. I was so uncomfortable. Being surrounded by pillows was the only way I could attempt to sleep, and those pillows left no room for my husband. We had left our king size bed back in the States, along with everything we ever knew.
As I woke, confused and disoriented, I thought, Wasn’t I the one who was supposed to be waking him up at this point? But then I glimpsed at the clock. It read 3:06 AM, and I immediately knew something was wrong.
“Come downstairs,” was all he said. As I waddled down the spiral staircase in the dim light of night, I saw a telling look on Dave’s face. “My dad died.”
That was the last thing I thought he’d say. Tears immediately began to stream down our faces as we absorbed the unbelievable news and the reality of our situation set in. My husband’s parents were due to arrive in three days for a six-week holiday to help with our toddler, Elyse, during our transition from a family of three to four and travel throughout Europe as a newly retired couple. Everything had come to a screeching halt.
Dave was faced with a terrible choice – return for his father’s funeral or stay with his too pregnant wife. Having no support system in Switzerland to help in an emergency, he chose to stay with me. Of course, it would have been possible to go and be back in time for my scheduled induction, but I’m sure he would have never forgiven himself if he’d missed the birth of our daughter.
Due to time zone differences, it was challenging to be helpful with family made decisions. We did our best to be supportive, but were left feeling helpless and defeated by distance. Grieving as an expat has an additional layer of frustration, just like everything with living abroad. Luckily, my husband’s family is supportive and understands our lifestyle is not always easy. They knew we would have given anything to mourn alongside them.
Dave spent the next day penning a eulogy at our dining table. He recorded it to be played during the funeral in his absence. When he was done, he looked emotionally destroyed. No longer a carefree tow-headed youngster sitting next to his dad on the dock with their fishing poles, but a younger version of the man who taught him to be a loving husband, caring father and loyal friend.
Two days after watching the funeral via a shaky Skype connection, we welcomed a healthy baby girl named Addilyn into our family. I look back at her first photos and remember smiling through the tears of knowing her grandfather was looking over her like a guardian angel.
The following Christmas we surprised Dave’s family by returning home for the holidays. It was the first time his entire family had been together since before his father had passed away. The house was filled with an abundance of holiday cheer, but emptiness lingered in the air. The loss of my father-in-law was a permanent echo in our hearts.
The pandemic has amplified my awareness of similar stories of death, distance and despair. Covid-19 has not only increased the odds of losing a loved one while abroad but has put rooted distance between family and friends. These situations are not just full of sadness but fueled by fear and worry. In years past, dealing with death while abroad was a risk we expats bet against without much thought. But, amid a global pandemic with lockdowns, quarantine restrictions and border closings, we are faced with difficult circumstances hindering us from saying goodbye and supporting those left behind.
Everyone feels powerless when a death occurs, but the feeling is magnified when you cannot be present. Expats realize we leave an extra burden for those ‘back home’ to bear. We feel guilty, but it does not mean our pain is less relevant. I have learned many things while living through this process and believe both expats and non-expats can benefit from my findings.
Choose grace – Give it to yourself and others, especially when times are hard. It is such an empathetic gesture of kindness.
Send love – Know your love is felt even when you are not in the room. The feelings you have for those you love transcends distance.
Be present – Stay connected with loved ones, even if your internet connection is unstable. Lack of communication can add stress to an already difficult situation.
Create closure – Plan personal farewells and share them with others. We now have incredible technology at our fingertips, so take advantage of your remote capabilities. Dave wrote and recorded a eulogy, however small, it will be appreciated and make you feel part of things.
Get prepared – Realize you or your family member’s first return visit will be a completely different experience. You need to be sympathetic to the emotions they may still be working through and the space they need to heal.
My experience of expat loss has given me an understanding of a phenomenon that is now making its wider presence known due to Covid-19. Having dealt with this so long ago and now reliving it through the stories I have recently heard brings back raw emotions of longing to be part of the ‘normal’ grief process.
I wish I could erase the sadness, but I can’t. Loss while abroad is a terrible experience, and during exceptional circumstances like a pandemic, it is even more problematic. There isn’t a road map to help guide us through these difficult times, and unfortunately the road less traveled is always a bit messier and more complicated.