When Death Hits Home While We Live Abroad
When we live abroad, far from our family and friends, there is always a risk of losing someone dear to us and not be able to be physically there. A realistic part of the expat’s experience frequently overlooked.
A few weeks ago I was filled with consternation as I learned about a new way of dying – suicide by cop. (When a suicidal individual creates a situation that leads a law enforcement officer to kill them.)
A young man in my neighborhood was shot and killed by the police in front of his parents’ home.
Cause of death – suicide by cop.
Result – pain for everyone: family, friends, police officers and surrounding community.
I imagined the suffering this sudden death would bring for all involved. This notion forced me to think about losing my loved ones in the past and deeply saddened me.
It’s never easy to lose someone dear to us. When death is unexpected – accidental, traumatic or a medical emergency – it tends to bring even more disorientation and shock, delaying the grieving process.
I lost my younger sister, Angelica, almost 20 years ago while living abroad. It was a sudden death.
The pain is still with me and from time to time, I allow myself to go down the memory lane. Over the years, I have learned that it is ok to do so, and that is my way of keeping her alive.
The experience of suffering the loss of a family member or friend can be greatly amplified when living overseas. Due to distance, the already difficult situation becomes even more complicated and intense.
With a sudden death, you may experience bewilderment, sometimes disbelief that the death happened. Many compare it to having a nightmare – a surreal situation. It feels like it isn’t true, and somehow we will wake up and everything will go back to normal. The pain and sadness we experience may stick to us for a while and often it may seem that these feelings will never disappear or diminish – that there is no hope.
Shock, numbness, and denial are common during the early phase of grief. Each of us will react differently. In my case, prompted by my husband, who already knew of my sister’s passing, I called my mother. That phone conversation was short, and the memory I have of it is blurred. The part I distinctly recall is my scream in agony and astonishment, after finding out that Angelica was dead.
There are several stages of grieving and the way to describe them vary from source to source. The most accepted stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Most of us will go through all, or some of these stages on our way through bereavement. Awareness that most people will go through a similar process may help us better cope.
Recently I had the opportunity to attend the presentation – Holding Together – The Crucial Role of an Empathetic Community When Loss Strikes the Global Mobile Family at a FGIT Conference (Families in Global Transition). Melissa Dalton-Bradford, the presenter, is an award-winning author of two books – “Global Mom” and “On Loss & Living Onward.”
She lost her oldest son while leaving abroad. Her generous presentation shone a light on my journey losing family members. My strongest takeaway was – “Just be there for those dealing with grief and do the practical, everyday things for them, WITHOUT offering advice. Your presence is the biggest gift you can offer during this difficult time.”
Due to the nature of the mobile expat community, we may have distinct challenges dealing with a sudden death while living abroad.
Here are some important ones I noticed over the years.
If at all possible attend the funeral. It will bring a sense of closure and will aid us with our sorrow. However be reminded that attending an unplanned funeral while living abroad can be, at times, difficult and even unrealistic. Logistically speaking, there may be no time to get to the location. Some cultures bury their dead the day they pass on while others allow time for the family to travel and join the funeral ceremony.
Our current situation dictates what can be done, and we have to accept that.
I didn’t get to attend my sister’s funeral.
If attending the funeral is unfeasible, creating your own ceremony may be helpful. Invite family and friends who are nearby. If it’s comforting, place a photo of the deceased on a table, light some candles, bring flowers or burn incense. It all depends on what is right for you.
You can read passages from a religious text, share stories or remember special moments. You may also choose to bury the photo to finish the ceremony.
Rituals and rites may help us cope.
Guilt for not having been there at the time of death, or not having attended the funeral, is to be expected. In spite of our guilt, we should pay close attention to not exacerbate these feelings and forgive ourselves.
“Guilt is perhaps the most painful companion of death.” Coco Chanel
After my sister’s sudden death I learned to accept the unknown and somehow prepare myself for the unexpected. This approach allows me to live a more relaxed and happy life.
Here are a few things I do that may serve you as well:
– Maintain valid passports.
– Have reserved funds for necessary expenses with emergency trips.
– Have valid parent authorizations for minor kids to travel internationally. (Brazil requires all minors to have a valid authorization from the non-traveling parent. Please check the necessary documentation for your own country/ies).
– Have all your passports with you while away from home. (Some countries won’t allow their citizens to gain admission with a passport from another country. This applies to those of us holding multiple citizenships.)
– Accept that you may lose someone close to you while living abroad.
– Accept that you may be unable to attend funerals of some family members and friends.
Finally, I believe that we are the keepers of our emotions, and so I use a mind game to deal with sadness. It’s a very simple technique I learned from someone in the past.
Memory Replacement Game:
I replace a sad memory with a joyful one. My command word is NEXT. Each time I find myself thinking about why my sister had to die so young, instead of going down a negative spiral, I pull from my memory bank a positive memory of her.
Of course, there are many pessimistic thoughts in my head regarding her death. But, by using the word, NEXT, after each negative thought, I direct my attention to the positive part of Angelica’s life. This way I honor her memory with my thoughts and feelings, and I can live a favorable life even after her loss.
As I drove home this morning, I took another look at the roadside memorial set up at the entrance of our neighborhood. Well-meaning people, most likely, unrelated to the family, brought flowers to pay respect to the deceased’s family.
After almost a month since the “suicide by cop” incident, I believe that the young man’s family may still be in total shock, trying to understand what happened to them. Meanwhile, I also observed that some of the memorial’s flowers are starting to wither and contrast with the blooming plants around them.
I take this as a sign that there is hope, and even happiness after the death of a loved one.