Stages of grief when you’re an expat: Receiving bad news from afar

Grief is the price we pay for love

What’s the hardest part of being an expat? There are many challenges that are associated with this lifestyle but I think most expats would agree with me that the hardest part is being away from your loved ones. You miss out on so much being away. The birthdays, the weddings, the births of new babies, the celebrating of all the victories. But the worst part is being far away when something goes wrong…. Recently, I’ve known friends to have experienced this and unfortunately I have too.

That phone call. 

And so every expats’ worst nightmare happened to us two months ago. We received that phone call…  you know the one where you are in complete disbelief of what you are hearing. Where you are waiting for someone to wake you up whilst simultaneously feeling nauseated as you take in the life-altering news on the other end of the phone. And your mind waivers between frantically thinking of your next steps and being completely and utterly frozen. Because you’ve just been told that someone you care about so deeply is now gone…

Photo by Tom The Photographer on Unsplash

Denial. 

I think everyone that experiences bereavement will forever play the day they receive news like that over and over like a broken record in their head. It has a way of haunting you as you try to comprehend the magnitude of what has just happened. And this is made all the more difficult because you are miles away. The distance has a way of maintaining the delusion that this isn’t happening. This isn’t real.

As we made travel plans to head back to the UK that very day, I couldn’t grasp the reality of what was happening. I found it hard to concentrate. A seasoned traveller and I was reduced to not knowing what to pack. But then there were moments of clarity, where I had to remind hubby to pack his suit and me a black dress. I can’t say I made good choices with what I ended up with in my suitcase, but at least we were on the move.

Helpless. 

As we got ready to travel, there was an immense feeling of helplessness. We just wanted to be there with our family member and we were a whole ocean away. They would have to wait until the next morning to have us by their side. And yet, even if we were there now, what could we do. The damage was already done. When we did arrive these feelings were muted but as I returned back to Canada, those feelings returned for me as all I could do was listen, when all I really wanted to do was give my loved ones a hug.

Photo by ORNELLA BINNI on Unsplash

Depression and Grieving from afar. 

Our situation dictated that we return to the UK for the untimely circumstances. But I know for others this isn’t an option. And so they grieve from a distance, more than likely in isolation as they are not surrounded by anyone that knew the person they had just lost. The only sympathy they would receive being the understanding of what it’s like to lose someone. But because of this, the grieving process is quite lonely. You go about your day-to-day business as if nothing has happened. Because to everyone around you, there is no evidence that you have just experienced this heart-breaking loss.

And so you are left to manage your grief in private. For me, there have been rather spontaneous outbursts of tears as I’m driving to or from work in the car on my own. Or (my favourite place it seems) in shower, the best place to drown out my tears and sadness. Being so far away from others that are grieving is also difficult as you have no one around you to remember the person you have lost. And no one else who is feeling as sad as you are. As they say, misery loves company and being around others that knew the person helps. 

Photo by Alex Ivashenko on Unsplash

Anger. 

As I muddled through my own feelings about the loss our family was experiencing, I started to feel very angry. Not angry that we had lost this brilliantly, wonderful human being but angry towards our expat life. I was angry we had no stability to offer our family member. That we couldn’t just say ‘come stay with us for a while’ because things like visas and rights to work presented hurdles to that offer. I was angry that we were so far away when we received the news and that I would have to return back to our expat life and be separated from my family during this time. I was well and truly resenting our expat life for making the huge, gaping hole in our life even bigger. All of a sudden the choices we had made that brought us to our expat life seemed foolish. Like they didn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. There were other things that mattered now. Bigger things. Things that our expat life hadn’t offered or afforded us yet. I wanted out of my expat life. I just wanted some stability back in the wake of all the change.

Bargaining. 

I’m not one to live in the ‘if onlys’ or ‘what if’s’ as I’ve always been all to aware that life is too short. But I’d be lying if there weren’t some of these thoughts that floated through my mind after receiving the news. If only we had seen them more often. I should have sent that last message to them, they would have enjoyed that. As we had been far away for the past few years, I found it harder to remember the times we had spent together and wished there were more memories to fall back on in the recent past. I was grateful for the summer and the time we shared then. But so deeply sad that more wasn’t done. ‘We should’ve done this with them’, ‘we were going to this together’.

Acceptance. 

We are still muddling through our grief and making sense of this loss. It’s why I haven’t been writing of late. I haven’t felt like writing. Mostly because I haven’t been able to find the words past the tears and I didn’t see the point anymore. It’s probably why I haven’t felt too Christmassy this year.  I don’t think we’ll ever fully accept what has happened because there were no warning signs to predicate the event. Yet there are decisions we will we need to make as we come to accept what has happened.

Photo by Mike Labrum on Unsplash

The Five stages of Grief

They say when it comes to the five stages of grief you don’t feel them linearly but rather fluctuate in and out these phases. Whilst these stages haven’t been presented in any particular order they were my experiences as an expat dealing with grief.  I have also  added the extra phase/stage of feeling helpless which I believe one feels when you are an expat or digital nomad receiving such news from afar which didn’t quite fit into any of the stages as I interpreted it. For more on the five stages of grief by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross click here

Note: Out of respect for privacy to my family I did not want share who it was that we lost. However I did want to share the experience as I realised I was not the only one to have experienced something like this of late. 

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grief, expat

Dealing with grief when you are far from home.

4 Comments

  1. So sorry for your loss, I think you articulated how many feel in this horrendous situation. Living away has so many advantages but when moments of grief or family tragedy hit its becomes a burden, the distance only expands and you feel even more alone. Well done for sharing your feelings and I’m sure this is help so many expats in similar situations. Thinking of you all

    Reply
    • Thank you. It dawned on me when I left that the distance leaves you feeling so alone. Not in a lonely way but in a ‘nobody knows this is happening to me’. I’ve had close friends go through this recently too. It’s not easy that’s for sure and not something I thought I’d ever have to deal with before I hit 40!. The worst bit is when you do go back home, it’ll never be the same as you last remembered. Thanks for reading and your thoughts xx

      Reply
  2. I think this is the one true negative of an expat life. I’m so sorry for your loss and really sorry you are going through this so far from your family members. Making new friends in new cities is wonderful but when it comes to such a heavy blow you need your old faithfuls who also feel a million miles away. I’ll be honest and tell you I didn’t want to read this for selfish reasons, but I’m really pleased I did. You articulated “grief as an expat” perfectly. All I can offer is the old adage that time really does ease the pain. Look after yourself and remember the good times as best you can. xx

    Reply
    • Thank you for reading it. I appreciate it is a topic that can stir up unwanted feelings for many. I hope others will read this and not feel so alone in the process. For now, I have been reunited with my family for the holidays. Thank you for your kind words and support. xx

      Reply

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