Expat-living raises many questions, mainly to do with making a new life for one's self: finding friends, work, extra-curricular activities, and so on. When I first came to England, my BFF would regularly ask how my day-to-day life was going. Was I making new friends, establishing routines, hobbies, driving, acclimatising to my new world etc.? Exciting times for sure, exploring back then.
Beyond exploration, England is where I married, where I loved and lost my in-laws, and continue to live with my husband and family. England is where I reside, but Georgia is never too far away from my mind. Make no mistake about it: I don't spend my days pining for Georgia; on the contrary. But I do often feel that I'm missing out, be it publicly or privately.
Publicly, I can join in debates, vote etc. and contribute as any citizen does, even if I am not a part of the change and progress made. And privately, I can telephone, Skype, FaceTime and visit. Over the years, however, I have come to understand that without being a part of the day-to-day fabric of a life, you miss out on much: births, weddings, celebrations and deaths, not to mention the emotional and mental nuances that come with these life events.
Of all these things, however, coping with loss from a distance is one of the most challenging aspects of expat-living. Recently, one friend wrangled with the question of going home to Eastern Europe to bury her uncle; another mentioned being caught off-guard by the death of a close friend in the US, and feeling deprived of the opportunity to share in the loss; and yet another spoke of guilt for not being there during a family member's dying days.
In my nearly seventeen years in London, I have lost a host of relatives, friends and acquaintances, in addition to all the loss I hear about on Facebook.
It's an awkward space to be in, and conjures up disconcerting feelings of guilt. And out of this confusion and guilt, I am toppled with heaps of questions. Shall I go? When shall I call? How do I pay my respects to the deceased? How do I partake in the bereavement like everyone else?
Though I haven't found all the answers, I've learned by trial and error that mourning from afar deserves to be put into perspective. Everyone grieves, apparently going through five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, though recent research suggests that people don't go through these stages in a linear fashion. We oscillate. In any case, we grieve differently and individually. And when you add distance to the equation that adds another dimension. Thus, I've come to rely on four points to ease the process:
- Acknowledging the loss. This goes without saying, right? Not necessarily. Just because you know about someone's death doesn't actually mean you get it. For me, acknowledgement often means making a phone call to the bereaved, even if I don't know what to say. Most recently, that meant calling my mother on the loss of her only sister, and then my first cousin, an only child, on the loss of her mother. While eloquent expressions of sympathy didn't roll off the tongue, and never do at times such as these, I felt better for making the call. I expect they did too after hearing from me.
- Taking part in the bereavement. The phone calls, messages etc. have not only been key for me to acknowledge the loss, but also to share the loss with those closest. Certainly, I have sent flowers, too and supported in other ways, but the niggling question for an expat -- at least for me -- is should I go? The answer to this has to be personal. For each person, much is considered: the scope of the loss, time, money, other commitments etc. The decision for me is always tough. Years ago, when my Aunt Fannie died, a hurricane was in full force, making my decision crystal clear. Still, I found myself wrestling with guilt for years, which leads to my next point.
- Relinquishing guilt. Not an easy thing to do when it is programmed into your subconscious that the most appropriate way to grieve is to go to the funeral. Perhaps when I lived closer, this made sense. But now that I am further away, I have to consider the distance, if nothing else. Hence, I've made a paradigm shift. And as part of that change, I try to stay in touch in the first place. Over the years, I have found that keeping relationships in good stead has eased the pain of loss. There's nothing to feel guilty about: end of story. A good memory for me is that Auntie (Dorothy), who recently passed, was an expatriate, too, loosely if you will, as she moved from Georgia to Ohio, when she was younger. She would have understood.
- Speaking of memories. Focus on these! Most of us find it therapeutic to remember fondly the person who has gone. Every departed person leaves a hole in many lives. Some are bigger than others, especially if the person is a part of our day-to-day life. In the case of an expat this is rare, unless phone conversations happen daily. But in any case, good memories fill the gaps.
One of the most moving readings that I have ever come across is 'Death is nothing at all' by Henry Scott Holland. I read it at my mother-in-law's funeral, and while doing so, death surely felt like something. Still, it has been a reading that has added perspective to coping with loss, and certainly to coping from afar. Upon reflection of the piece, I am encouraged to consider that 'Life [after death] means all that it has ever meant ...' whether we are near or far. What a golden thought ... and one well worth remembering.