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Every Expat's Nightmare

Both of our fathers have passed away since we have been expats living overseas. Usually news of a loved one's passing comes through a phone call in the middle of the night from family or friends. It is every expat's nightmare, suddenly your life is turned upside down. Under the best of circumstances, it is difficult news to bear but handling bereavement when living overseas can be much worse. My father had been ill for quite some time with leukemia. Eventually he was taken to hospital and my brother called me to let me know. We kept in touch regularly about his condition, which naturally deteriorated.

One of the later phone calls was alarming and I asked my brother if he thought it was time for me to come home. He was unsure, so I called the hospital where my father was and spoke to the nurse looking after him. I explained that I was living overseas and asked if she felt it was time to return. She told me 'not yet'. Unfortunately, this was not good advice as my father passed away early the following morning. Nonetheless, even if she had told me to come, I would not have got there in time to see him one last time. My sense of loss of a loved one who was not only my father but my best friend, was compounded by a sense of guilt by being so far away and not returning. Fortunately I was able to attend the funeral, which let me mourn his passing and meet up with others who loved him, let me say goodbye and have some sense of closure.

Facing the grief of the loss of someone so close was worse overseas as only my husband in my life abroad knew my father. To properly grieve a death you need to celebrate their life and I missed being able to talk about my father with others. Not being able to just sit with family to share the loss feels isolating.

Only six months later, we got another phone call, this time it was my husband's father. Again, he had been ill for months with cancer but even when one is expecting death it is still an enormous shock. He was told that if he wanted to see his father alive one more time, he had 48 hours to get back. We looked at each other and then our watches. Even getting an immediate flight right then, he might not make it. We also had full time work and a dog. So we agreed that I would stay and deal with things and he would fly home straight away. All in all, we received this call three times and each time he went back. The first twice his father miraculously came round, the third time was the last. It was a tremendous stress on my husband and his family. The last visit, he did see his father just before he died.

As an expat, there is little which makes you feel so useless as being so far from family at such a time. Not many of us think about that dreaded call from home. Everyone needs to make their own decisions as to how to deal with this kind of situation and must act in the way which is right for them.

Early on we made the decision that we would only return if it were our parents. Being both self employed and having a dog, would never make frequent trips back possible. I know many may think this cynical but this was our decision. Many expats feel under social and family pressure to rush back but it can be particularly hard on the self employed and those on small incomes.

Whilst I did not see my father one more time, my husband saw his. The most important part though, was being able to attend the funeral. If either of us had been unable to do that, we would have held our own ceremony. Another key for us was keeping in close contact with our families, so that we could share stories. It may be six years since our loss but we both still tell stories of our fathers. We each kept an item which belonged to them which reminds us of them.

There is no greater tragedy than losing a loved one back home but it is almost something never discussed or talked about. It is strange as we know in the back of our minds that it can happen at any time. As an expat, it is one of the emotional risks we take when living overseas and we never know how we will deal with this situation until it actually happens.

- if employed check with your company their situation on compassionate leave
- if self employed or not working, keep some money on one side for travel
- get a trustworthy and good neighbour who will be able to look after your children,
home and pets
- when booking flights, ask the airlines if they have a 'compassionate fare'. Many do and tickets may be half the price.