In so many ways, Skype is a godsend for those of us living abroad. It allows you to stay in touch with family and friends back home, virtually attend important events, even connect with therapists who speak your language when outside of your home country. However, despite all of the ways that Skype can help to smooth some of the wrinkles of living abroad, it doesn’t make receiving bad news while abroad, any easier. While laughs, smiles and exciting updates are nice to be able to share via video chat, less than welcome news shared over a computer screen, such as the death of a loved one, just seems to emphasize the miles and time zones that lay between you and those you hold dear.
Yes, Skype may allow you to cry, reminisce and come to terms with reality, despite the distance, but it still falls short in one of the aspects that I think is essential during difficult times–
you can’t hug over Skype.
While I’ve helped several clients through their own grieving process in the face of losing a loved one, this week marked the first time in my experience of living overseas that I received the news that a family member of mine had passed away back at home. I’d previously anticipated how I might respond when faced with this sort of news while living so far away, but like most moments in life, you really can never fully imagine how you’ll respond when that moment ultimately comes to pass. In my own situation, it required me to honestly acknowledge how I was feeling emotionally and accept that sometimes life is going to affect me in a way that prohibits me from doing my job. In order to be able to be fully present for my patients later in the week, I had to take a day off to allow myself to grieve: plenty of journaling, connecting with friends here in Madrid and getting as many hugs as possible from those people who are physically near me.
When someone important passes away, it’s important to remember that grieving is a natural process that follows a series of stages (and that they might not happen in this order):
Denial and shock
Anger and guilt
Depending on how close the person is to you, the death might require a trip home to visit family and other loved ones. It also might cause doubt to creep in regarding your decision to live so far away. You may worry that your family needs you at home or even start to think that if you were closer you might be able to prevent this sort of tragic thing from happening.The death of a loved one, wherever you are, is a difficult moment to face in life. It leaves us feeling out of control, leading us to desperately look for things we can control. And yes, the decision of where we choose to live is something that is within our control. But it’s important to keep in mind that moving home will not help you to soften the grieving process that your loved ones each have to inevitably go through themselves. Nor will it allow you to prevent future deaths of family and friends. As one of my clients said in session this week, “life is life.” Whether you’re near or far, death is a natural part of life.
It’s important to keep in mind that in the face of this kind of news, and the intense emotions that result as a consequence of them, it is not the time to make drastic decisions regarding your life choices. Sadness, anger, and overwhelming homesickness may abound, but these are likely to be temporary feelings as you move forward in accepting the news.
So if packing your bags and jumping on the next flight to relocate back to your home country is not the answer, what should you do when receiving bad news while abroad?
Validate how you’re feeling
Often our emotions get the better of us when we try and deny or hide from them. Crying is good news and helpful in the healing process.
Create your own memorial
Especially if you won’t be making a visit home to attend a funeral, consider creating your own memorial to remember the person who has passed away. Record your memories in a journal, share stories and photos via Skype and whatsapp with family back home. Write a goodbye letter.
Lean on the people nearby
Even if you can’t be close to family, this is a chance to lean on those who are physically nearby. Consider this a chance to be vulnerable and grow closer to your friends in your home away from home. Because these are the people who are going to be able to give you those oh so necessary hugs you need when Skype falls short.
The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares.~Henri Nouwen
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Sadly, but predictably for anyone who has lived abroad for 7 years, I have experienced a few deaths. Luckily when my father passed away, I was able to make it home and have a few last days with him before he died. In other cases, the news has come via the phone.
Thanks for posting this good advice.
Hi Greg! Glad to hear you found this advice helpful. Death is an inevitable part of life, but the distance sure doesn´t make it any easier! I hope you feel like your experiences abroad have outweighed the difficulty of receivng such sad news from far away.