Dealing with the Death of a Loved One
It’s a topic not many expats wish to discuss; indeed, there is plentiful information about the financial and legal side of things when either you or a fellow expat sadly pass away. But nobody ever sits down to discuss with you what happens when a close friend or relative passes… And your thousands of miles away. It’s understandable; it’s the phone call no expatriate wishes to receive. But what happens when it does happen?
This is most definitely a topic that no advice given will ever be considered ‘good’, and there is certainly no helpful ‘handy-tips’ that will prove useful or comforting. So I must speak from personal experience, and I can only hope that what I write may provide some guidance to any expat that finds themselves in this horrific state of emotion, panic, grief and shock. Death is never an easy thing, for anyone really. Whether you were beside your loved one’s side every minute of the way, or a thousand miles away, the pain hits you just as hard no matter where you are geographically. But it seems we expats must handle the initial news somewhat differently – it seems we don’t have time to breakdown emotionally. Being practical and level headed, it seems, is the first step to ensuring you can return to your home country or where your loved ones live safely and quickly.
Try to be Practical
When I received a phone call informing me about the death of an immediate relative, I was with my in-laws in Dubai. And as expected the horror of such a phone call was the last thing I expected. It’s the phone call every expat dreads to receive themselves, and you think it will never and could never happen to you. It’s a moment when the gut-wrenching feeling of helplessness and guilt hits you, and no matter how much you convince yourself that moving away from home doesn’t make you a bad person, you will inevitably feel it. And that’s okay, and perfectly natural – I know I did.
It’s these initial moments where your only aim may be to get on the next plane and get home as quickly as physically possible. Again, I know I was like this. I was that panicked I almost jumped into a taxi to the airport… Without my passport. I’m thankful I was with the other side of my family when I received the news, they were able to keep level headed and practical. Ensure, if ever such horrible news may reach you, that you do have someone – whether friends, family or close colleagues – that you are able to lean on. Because that’s one of the beauties of being an expatriate – you will inevitably find comfort and build brilliant relationships with those in the same boat as you.
When I say ‘be practical’, I mean realistic. Unfortunately, the technologies of time-travel or teleporting yourself from A to B rapidly have not been invented. So in order to return to your home country of where your loved ones are, you will more than likely need to book transportation of some sort; whether that is a taxi, train, boat or plane. And yes, it won’t matter how soon you are able to book your means of transport – time will go slow, because life is funny like that. It’s always the case: the quicker you’re trying to get to somewhere, time will inevitably seem slower… Or you’ll be delayed.
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Remain Calm… And Hydrated
Nobody between leaving your expat home and getting to your family or friends will know or have guessed that you have lost someone important in your life. Nobody will know that you’re eager to rush home as quickly as possible, and you’ll probably find that nobody can read your mind. I can guarantee everyone will annoy you – even over the smallest things. I was getting agitated at the fact people were walking a little slower than I, while I was rushing through the airport terminal. Nobody will understand why you look like you’ve had no sleep whatsoever. So it’s important to remind yourself to stay as calm as possible. If you must use transport such as a plane or train, my advice would be to give the kindest looking member of staff a heads-up to the fact you’re both eager to get home and in emotional turmoil right now. It’s okay to tell them you have had a death in the family – because unfortunately, I can guarantee you won’t be the first expatriate to tell them such news. But by telling them, it ensures you have an extra eye kept on you during your travelling time, and they will be somewhat more understanding if you are short, or upset or angry during this time.
Now’s the time that you may want to guzzle some water or a soft drink, like juice or cordial. Up until this point, you may have been quite tearful – so it’s important to make sure you are hydrated. If you’re anything like me, the last thing you’ll want upon returning home is a splitting headache before having to face your grieving loved ones. And that’s okay too. Plus – stick to keeping hydrated, because I can imagine you may lose your appetite.
A Stage called ‘Limbo’
There’s no point lying about it. Any death of a family member or friend is absolutely horrifying in the first few days and weeks. Everyone kept telling me that it is okay to breakdown once with my loved ones. It’s okay to not be strong. There’s no point sugar-coating the situation, because it will be horrible, and painful and scary. There will be a stage, that I called ‘limbo’, between their death and a chance to suitably say goodbye. For my family, that was with a traditional funeral and cremation – and we were in limbo for two whole weeks. But regardless, whether it is one day or one month, this stage feels like forever and you may feel like there is no getting out of it. And this is the bit that I hated the most, but everyone was right – it will take time. It is okay to not get changed out of your pyjamas during this ‘limbo’ period – it is perfectly acceptable, nobody is judging you. It is okay to not want to speak to your neighbours or friends or extended family. It is okay to feel angry.
Don’t Worry about Work
I found it easier to ring only one colleague, and they were able to tell all of the people who needed to know for me. It is okay to lean upon such people to help you organise this part of your life. And I can imagine your company will be very understanding. It will be the last thing you’ll be thinking about for a week or two, but the sooner you are able to give a practical – there’s that word again – and realistic estimate of timescales, the easier your company will be able to give you a plan of action and options.
Also – if your partner also has a career, be understanding if their company is not as flexible as yours may be. And again, that’s okay. Don’t hold it against your loved one; they’ll probably feel horrible as it is knowing that they may not be able to give you 100% support, 24/7. Just know that they will be there when you need them most; during the funeral, visits to your loved ones. All it may mean is that their trip back to your home country may be a little shorter than yours. The last thing you both need is arguments and accusations.
I wouldn’t wish such news upon anybody. But for most of us expats, the news will inevitably come that will force us to make that long journey home. Like I said, I hope my words may provide some sort of guidance or at least, a hint of preparation, for anyone that may find themselves answering that phone call one day. Written by Rebecca for ExpatWoman.com.