When there is a death at home and you are living abroad

It’s something most expats don’t even consider when planning to move abroad and hopefully for most it doesn’t occur. However if you end up living abroad for an extended amount of time you have to be ready as it may just happen.

For me it’s happened twice. Both sudden. Both dearly loved family members. Both heartbreakingly sad.

Being on the other side of the world has this strange way of making you feel like time stands still at home. You know it doesn’t but you experience this odd disconnect with the daily life of home that sadly you are just not a part of now. So when a situation like this occurs it almost doesn’t feel real. It’s like a bad dream. One that you can’t wake up from.

Both times I got the phone call whilst at work surrounded by people in my new life that didn’t know my family, didn’t know my relationships with those dear to me, that I didn’t feel I could talk to about what had happened at home. In that moment you already feel alone but feeling alone in your grief on the other side of the world is a whole different kettle of fish. Thankfully I have an amazing partner and the very best friends and family both here and at home that I could lean on. But I couldn’t imagine if I was somewhere where I didn’t have that.

The decision to go home for me was always an easy one. I wanted to be with my family. I wanted to support them and wanted to say my own goodbyes. I was lucky enough to have a manager who understood this and gave me the time off, I had my emergency fund for a flight home and a family who knew however much they told me not to come that I wouldn’t listen. One thing I would say is to not just go home for the funeral try and stay longer as this is when people need it the most and when you need it. Once the dust of the funeral settles and everyone starts going back to normal life is actually when your family most need the support.

It’s hard posting about a topic like this as it’s so deeply personal and everyone deals with grief in different ways. That said it’s a fact of expat life and if this helps someone in a similar situation then it was worth it. If you are reading this while in this unfortunate situation then here are a few things to remember ..

Its ok if you can’t make it home to say goodbye or for the funeral.

Your first reaction is always going to be to get straight to the airport to get home.  But what if you can’t get the time off work as you’ll likely need a week or two to get back home. What if you can’t afford it? What if the funeral is straight away and you’ve not got the time to get back. These are all very real situations and as much as you desperately want to be there you might just not be able to. And that sucks and as much as it will hurt remember it is ok if you can’t make it back. Your family will understand and to be honest they will likely tell you not to come back (numerous times!). If you can’t get back then make peace with the decision and don’t be too hard on yourself. Trying to get back at a later stage will mean just as much as if you flew out straight away.

The world isn’t that big

It’s really not. It will feel massive and the distance between you and home will feel like it will take an eternity to get back. For most places, it will take no more than 2 days to get back. If you are able to get home then you’ve got flights ahead of you which will be the hardest flights you’ll ever have to take. All these people around you excited about their holidays and your in a weird limbo of being happy that you will soon be with the family and sad that you didn’t want to go home in these situations. The time on the plane will give you the chance to reflect and reminisce and once you’ll step off it will feel like it took no time at all getting back.

To think about having an emergency fund

I’ve always tried to make sure I always have enough money in my account just in case I need to go home. It’s worth it sometimes just putting a little extra away each month so if the time comes when you need to decide if you’re going home that you can afford it.

To rely on your network both here and at home

Talk, reminisce, cry, shout, laugh, sob, whatever you do just make sure you get it out. You have family and friends that love you and that want to help you through this sad time. If you are abroad and haven’t yet made your network then call home. We are fortunate enough to live in an era where you can facetime/skype/call over the internet without the extortionate prices. Speaking to friends and family will be the comfort blanket you need at this time.

That the pain will be intensified but it will subside

When you first get the phone call. It breaks you. It’s a hard enough to have the phone call when you are in the same country but when abroad it’s intensified tenfold. You just have to ride through it and know it’s all part of the grief process. Just trust me the pain subsides. Eventually.

That time heals

It’s the oldest cliche in the book but it’s true. Whoever has passed would not want you giving up on the experiences you initially set out to have. So try to not let the sadness take over. Every day will get easier and just by moving forward every day and by taking in every new experience will help. Enjoy it for them as much as you need to enjoy it for yourself. Make the most of your life and just be thankful that they encouraged you to travel, inspired you to look for the best in life and that they helped make you the person you are today.

At the end of the day, you need to follow your heart, enjoy your memories and be there for those you love. Death is a part of life and there isn’t anything we can do to stop it whether we are back in our home countries or in our new countries. If you have any other advice to impart or want to share your story please do leave a comment below.

To live in hearts we leave behind is not to die.

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46 thoughts on “When there is a death at home and you are living abroad”

  1. You have captured it beautifully Melanie, the pain, the sadness, the importance of being with your family and the decisions to be made. Lovely post and we’re so glad you made it home despite telling you not to come. Xx❤️

  2. That has to be the worst part of being an expat. My uncle was in ICU earlier this year and we didn’t think he’d make it through. I couldn’t leave the country because I wouldn’t be allowed back in. He was lucky to have made it through.

  3. This is my biggest fear as an expat and something we seriously considered before moving abroad five years ago as we both have aging grandparents and other family members with poor health.

    I am so sorry that you have had to be so far from friends and family twice while experiencing loss. But thank you for sharing your experience and tips because it is so incredibly helpful for those in the same situation.

    1. Thank you so much Sarah. I first moved away 11.5 years ago and didn’t even think I’d be away long enough for anything to happen like this but sadly life took over. Thank you for your kind words on this post I really appreciate it.

  4. Very heartwarming to read. As an expat myself, in the last 2 years there has been many grandparents passing away and I had chosen not to go back for all funerals. Those phone calls are always the worst.

    1. Thanks Suz it wasn’t an easy one to write but felt it was something that should be shared as I’m sure others have been through it may find themselves in a similar situation xx

  5. So sorry to hear you’ve experienced this twice, this is such an important topic for people living abroad! It happened to me when I was living in Ireland (originally from Australia) and the decision to go home or not is so hard, especially when you don’t have the money to fly there and back. I love the points you make in your article though are so true! Especially that the world really isn’t that big, it’s a very comforting thought 🙂

    1. Thank you so much Lisa. We are both Aussie expats (I’m living in the U.K.). So sorry to hear this also happened to you. It’s not something most people even consider could occur. Thanks so much for the lovely comment

  6. Wow, great article. This is something that is on my mind constantly as a digital nomad. It’s nice to hear from another perspective, thank you for sharing.

  7. So sorry to hear you had to go through this not once but twice. You have raised some important points here Mel, points expats don’t usually think about until they have to! Xx

  8. Thank you so much for your vulnerability in sharing this article. I couldn’t imagine not being with family when we need each other in times of grieving, but it is something that we are faced with when distance and budget prevent our hearts desire. These tips were so helpful and it feels good to know we aren’t alone when grieving away from the support of our family.

  9. A well written post and I am sorry you have had to deal with it twice . A pertinent subject for us ex pats and one we will all have to deal with at some point I expect . A very helpful post 🙂

  10. My family travelled a lot and it was always one of my fears. As it happens I was with both my parents when they passed away – and I still don’t know how I would deal with the challenge of being abroad. My condolences

  11. Always a tough siruation. Sorry for your loss Melanie.
    I’m not an ex pat but from a huge closeout family that is spread across the world so can totally relate xxx

  12. I have a sister out west and her son was killed in a MVA. My mother, sister and I went out for the funeral ASAP. It was afterward I realized two of us should have went for the funeral and the other should have gone say 2-3 weeks after the funeral when everyone else was gone. That is when I truely hits you. This was a great post and needed.

    1. I’m so sorry for the loss if your nephew. It really is those few weeks after that are the hardest. I was tankful I got to spend a week after with my grandma so that once everyone else had left my cousin and I got to spend some time with her helping her get used to life with grandad. Such a hard time for all involved. Hope you and your family are ok and thank you for sharing your experience. X

  13. Such a sensitive and true post. This is all so hard to deal with.

    We have emergency fund too. You just never know when you might HAVE to use it! 🙁

  14. Can’t imagine having to go through this, sorry that you had to. This made me cry because you wrote it so beautifully. Sending my love to you ❤

  15. Well written Melanie, it is a subject that one never considers when moving away, but it is so important to think about. I was soooo glad that you did come home, it was lovely to see you but a shame that it was under such sad circumstances. We did make some lovely memories while you were here which will stay with me forever. Thank you.

    1. Thank you Grandma. Not an easy post to write but one I felt should be put out there. We had some wonderful memories from that week and I was so glad I could be there with you and hopefully see you at Christmas . Love you 😘

  16. So sorry that you’ve been through this twice. It remains my greatest fear in expat life.

  17. A very touching and well written article. It’s a subject that often crosses my mind as I am away travelling, and my grandmother back home is very old and frail. Very sorry that you’ve been through this, but thank you for sharing your experiences – I think it will help a lot of people.

  18. You’re so right about time standing still, and I’m sorry for your loss. This has happened to me too. I have a fund, but find myself taking time out to honor my people even if I can’t physically get to them. It’s a strange feeling, but because I live away, it’s like they’re still around because I didn’t see them go. Weird, but comforting. <3

  19. This was comforting to read. My mum died yesterday and I got the news when I landed for my connecting flight after a Christmas trip home. Devastated doesn’t even cut it, and you’re right that at that moment in time you’re absolutely broken. I’m fortunate to know my work will give me time to fly back for the funeral and that I can afford it. To be honest, even if I couldn’t, I would have made it work. As bad as it sounds, there re some people I probably wouldn’t back for, but my immediate family would always be a yes. In the day I’ve been back to my country of work, I’ve found that speaking with my dad and brothers has helped, and leaning on my girlfriend here has been a huge help. It’s still all very raw and the tears have definitely not finished, but reading other’s similar experiences does help. Thank you for taking the time to write this article.

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