Losing Someone — Dealing with Grief as an Expat
The life of an expat is one to be coveted. Expats are viewed as brave. They uproot themselves from their comfort zone in their home country to go and have new experiences in a foreign and faraway land. It’s the life uploaded on social media with many hashtags that celebrate this free-spirited lifestyle; one to be admired by our peers as they flip through our Facebook and instagram accounts. It’s the perfect life including new friends, new adventures, new scenic and breathtaking views that read like the pages of the lonely planet guide books. Yes indeed, it is a great life. Or is it?
The Dreaded Phone Call
The life of an expat is without a doubt adventurous and exciting on many levels, but even with this excitement, there are times, when loneliness and longing for our loved ones creeps up on us, that we question our life choices. And, of course, there is not a more difficult time than when you lose a loved one.
It starts with a phone call. You answer it with the same excitement that you answer all your phone calls from your loved ones. You don't have a planned Skype or viber date but maybe the person on the other end just missed you or is calling because they have some time to kill. As soon as you answer, you realise that this is a different type of phone call. You can feel the somber mood from halfway across the world.
The person on the other side is hesitant, unsure how to break the news to you. How do they break it to you that someone you care about has passed on? Eventually they do. At first you are in disbelief. Did you hear that right? Thoughts start racing through your head: 'But this family member was just discharged from the hospital and they were on the mend'.
Within a few minutes, the person on the other end of the phone has to hang up. There are things to be done, funeral arrangements to make and an obituary to write. The person on the other end leaves you with; 'Let us know if you are coming for the funeral and when you think you will be here. We will pick a date to accommodate your travel'. The phone goes dead. You are left wondering if that just happened or you dreamt it up. You text your brother and your cousin just to be sure. They confirm the news and ask 'when are you coming home?'
Where to Begin
Minutes after you hang up the phone your head starts to spin. Where to begin? Taking time off from work is the first step. You go and talk to your boss, explain that you have lost someone very dear, he is sympathetic. He insists that you take the afternoon off and make arrangements to go home. You get to take all the time you need.
However, he is quick to point out that you only get two days of compassionate leave. This only covers getting home. He pats you on the back and says you can take unpaid leave, but in a very subtle manner, mentions a meeting next week which requires you to be in another city. You are still trying to wrap your head around the news you just received so you ignore your boss. You are a pragmatic person, after all, and there are things that need to be done. Those tears stinging your eyes, threatening to drop, and that scream in your head will have to wait.
You find the nearest computer and start frantically looking for flights home. The person who delivered the news on the phone hinted that each day at the mortuary is costing them a fortune. So you try to arrive as soon as possible. Your eyes are scanning the connections. There are different search criteria: you want the least number of connections, the least amount of connecting time and the cheapest flight. Your search engine cannot seem to put these important criteria together. The price tag on the screen makes you utter a few choice words under your breath. You do not have that kind of money lying around, but this is family and you cannot put a price on family.
Your mind starts to wander. When was the last time you spoke to the departed family member? Did you say kind words to them? Why did you not call more, visit more, oh heck, why did you leave in the first place?
Then you see a somewhat friendly price on a specific flight. You don't recognise the airline, but who cares. The connecting flight in Dubai will take 8 hours. You “beautiful mind” the math and realise that the whole trip will take 36 hrs one way. A few more choice words roll off your tongue. You scroll back up the and opt for a higher-priced ticket that will not take you three days. By this time, the news has spread around the office and people are flocking over to your desk to offer their condolences. You are fighting hard to hold back tears, as people ask 'What happened, was the person sick?' The questions come flowing. You try to be polite when all you really want to say is, 'Does it really matter? The bottom line is that this person is now gone!' Finally, you go home early just to avoid the pity.
The news has not even sunk in yet. You need to go through the five stages of grieving. What are they again? On your way home, you call your significant other and break the news. They are appropriately sympathetic, of course, and ask if there is anything they can do. You get home, pack and, before you know it, you are going through the security check at the airport. You just made it on time and are the last person to board the flight. You settle in to your seat oblivious to anything else around you. You are lost in thought. The captains' voice comes over the speaker but you do not hear a word he says. You are lost in thought.
You have hours to think and ponder, hours to grieve, hours on the flight, just you and that inner voice. Sure, in a few weeks you will remember that it was the said loved person who encouraged you to move and follow your dreams, who talked about how proud they were of you for living the life that many people are afraid to live. In a few weeks’ time it will make sense why you moved, why you left, and you will realise that it was the best decision, after all. But today you mourn, today you are full of regret and sadness. There will be no instagram or facebook uploads with the appropriate hashtags. The plane lifts off. You see the city disappear further and further. On this particular day, it sucks to be an expat.