Amsterdam through British eyes

5 ways to deal with grief as an expat

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Dealing with the death of a friend or loved one can be difficult, especially when you are living too far from home to just hop on a plane to see your family or friends. Dealing with grief is hard – not getting to see someone before they die, or being unable to attend a funeral can leave you feeling guilty, helpless, and alone.

I wanted to write this post because of an experience that I had with one of my relatives, because it took me a while to stop feeling guilty and I felt overwhelmed at the time that I couldn’t do anything to help. I had booked a flight to see my uncle (his prognosis was a year, and he got diagnosed in November, I figured that March was a good time to go and visit him.) He deteriorated very quickly, and before we knew it, he was gone.

He passed  away exactly a week before I was due to visit him. The last time I saw him was over the Christmas holiday. He came over for breakfast on the day I was leaving to go to a friend’s wedding and he was still making bad jokes and he looked healthy and happy, so when he started to deteriorate very quickly, it was a complete shock.

These were some of the tactics that I used to deal with my grief:

Have contact with your family: While you can’t be there in person, sometimes it’s good to just connect with other members of your family, to show your support and that you are thinking about them, and to get the love and support that you need during this time. I used skype, whatsapp, and just plain old telephone.

Confide in a friend: Nine times out of ten, at least one of your expat friends will have had a similar experience to yours and having someone to help you back up when things get tough is important, especially if you’re struggling. By doing this you’ll feel less alone, which is really important, and it will also help to ease the guilt a little.

Be a bit selfish: It is sad, and expressing your pain and grief is completely normal. Allowing yourself the space and time to grieve is so important when you can’t be with your family. Bottling it all up for the sake of anybody else won’t help you in the long run, and in order to do that, sometimes you need to be a little bit selfish. If you need space, say so.

Cherish happy memories: Remembering the good times is one of the most important things, because if you didn’t get to say goodbye to someone in their last moments it can be easy to blame youself. By remembering happy times, you take away some of the negative feeling towards yourself. It always makes me laugh when I think of Ian, every time I saw him he would ask if I had a boyfriend, what his name was, what he did for work. Then he would say, in a very serious voice: ‘are his intentions honourable?’

I was able to attend my uncle’s funeral, and I am so grateful for that, but I know many expats simply can’t. This is my tip if you are unable to attend:

If you can’t be at the funeral, do something special for yourself: Some people like to take a long walk, others like to reminsce over old photos. Whatever it is, make sure that you make it something that means something and is special to you and if you have your own family, be sure to include them in this too.

Have you experienced the loss of a loved one while living abroad? What did you do to cope?

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3 Comments

  1. michellermcanally@gmail.com'

    I lost my grandmother almost a year after moving to the UK and it was very difficult being over here while my family grieved and laid her to rest back in Texas USA. We were very close, and I felt guilty that I had not seen her for so long. I was asked to write her obituary, which, though painful, I think helped me. I held my own day of mourning for her and lit a candle in her memory, and was lucky that my husband and friends were very sympathetic. Thanks for your post, there are all kinds of unexpected issues that come up for us expats, and this is one no one really likes to talk about.

    • Hi Michelle, Thanks for sharing your experience with me. I think that it’s really important that you are able to deal with grief in your own way and that you have a support network. I am so glad your husband and friends were sympathetic, because it can sometimes be difficult to understand for someone who isn’t living through it. I wanted to talk about it, because it is so important. It is also so if the issue ever comes up in my life again (and I’m sure it will), I will remember exactly how I dealt with it the last time, and I won’t feel so alone and helpless.

  2. paigehawin@gmail.com'

    A few years ago I found some books on Amazon that you can give to a relative or friend and ask them to fill it in. It asks things like “tell me something I don’t know about you” or “what were your first thoughts when I was born” and so on. The name of them escapes me now but in essence that year I gave each of my more mature family members a copy and asked them to fill it in and give it back to me as my Christmas present.

    Everyone did and it’s been a great way to remember people. Having that “personal connection” when someone passes away makes it feel like you’re still very much in contact with them and helps to ease the feeling of loss.

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