How To Cope With The Loss Of A Loved One While Overseas
By Dilara Earle
Sometimes our goodbyes are more profound and are for forever, as we know it. Death can come by in many different ways. When we decide to go travelling there is such an excitement with all the adventure that beckons. So, what should we do when the one thing that would bring us home in an instant – the loss or threatened loss of a loved one – actually happens? Or when we are due to go on our travels and someone dies?
There is no prescription for loss. I wish there was. The amount of time I’ve sat and suddenly found myself keening in bewilderment with the astonishing tides of grief when, within 53 weeks, my father and grandma died.
Each death was at either end of the spectrum. With my dad, I found out whilst at home and very soon after I had to get onto my pre-booked flight to Australia. I didn’t have much of a choice, given what I wanted at the time, and it was only as I found myself doing the last things on Earth I wanted to do - picking dastardly corncobs - that the full loss hit me. Receiving the news of the passing of my grandma was very different. That time, I was overseas when I got that phone call that we all fear, especially when so far away. Hearing the words: I think you need to come home is something you hope that won’t happen to you, ever, and with the added distance between you the loss sometimes hits harder.
But who can pick a time with death? If you find yourself in either of these situations, perhaps sharing the things that I wish I had known may help you deal with your loss.
I barely had time to register my father’s death and what it meant to me except in rare minutes that I got to myself with a 6-day farm job. Isolation is hard to deal with at the best of times, let alone hand in hand with grief. That would be the first thing I would have done differently – to make sure I was in a place where I could easily access normality, instead of working in remote country. It is crucial you aren’t cut off from the world – try to socialise with others. If you’re completely new to a place team up with another traveller and see some of the sights together. Try to use your surroundings to take pleasure in the small things. It doesn’t matter what makes you smile, if you can find it, it will give you strength. If returning to a place where you’re living temporarily, arrange coffee (or a herbal tea!) with your friends. Make plans and don’t be on your own for too long. Like with any grieving process, it is really important, however, to find a balance of alone, quiet time to process the loss and being with others.
I wish I had known that telling people might be hard and that I was not actually duty-bound to tell them what had happened. Reaching out and letting people know helped me build a support system but I had expected everyone to react the way I wanted them to. Not everyone will, even the people who know you well. Grief is so personal and with it come many, many facets. Sometimes, it is so exclusive that it is very hard for others to grasp its depth. Don’t be afraid to tell friends and others how they can help you, especially if they are upsetting you. Often just a listening ear can help hugely, whether in person or on Skype.
With strangers, it can be uncomfortable. Remember how it felt when you heard similar news before this happened to you. It is hard to know immediately what to say, isn’t it? Words are words – it is in your power whether you hold on to the hurtful, tactless responses or not. It is never ideal, but whether they are or aren’t close to you, remember that you have no obligation to make them feel at ease. If you don’t want to share details or put on a front, you don’t have to. Share only what makes you comfortable.
Eventually I struggled so much with my work that I went above my supervisor to the manager, who was better equipped to assist me. He listened and went about to help my situation. The relief was enormous. If you are working abroad in a casual job it is harder to claim time off for bereavement. However, they will likely try and work around your own circumstance. It is completely understandable to expect that some days are just too much. You can request to take a time out for even just 10 minutes to collect yourself together, or take quieter shifts. At the end of the day it benefits everyone if you are functioning the best you can, so don’t be afraid to go to your boss for help.
Sometimes you’ll meet others who have gone through the same thing. You can connect with them and it can be a powerful bond to have. One sentence of understanding is sometimes all you need. Perhaps it will be by chance or you can look for a support group. More often than not, you can just turn up at the meeting and listen to similar experiences. It can help more than you expected and there is no number of meetings you have to attend.
Anger is one of the five stages of grief that we hear often about. What I didn’t expect was how powerful it could be. With such deep emotion it’s so important that you find an outlet that works for you. Yelling in a field helped me a lot! I probably traumatised the cows but some things have gotta give. It certainly helped me clear my mind and go back home calmer. Sometimes just the pure sadness can bring you to your knees. That’s okay too. You will get through it, I promise. Not every day will be this intense and when you catch yourself feeling guilty or confused about being numb, whenever or however long that happens for, that’s natural too. Perhaps you may have not been close, but no matter how distant your relationship was, death is a hard thing to accept and it may still a very profound loss for you – no matter what other people say. I found that some people expected me to grieve less because I grew up without seeing my dad a lot, but that didn’t take away from the fact that now I never could.
It is also okay if you don’t really feel any of these stages! Everybody’s process is individual and often there are a lot of unexpected factors. Go easy on yourself.
When my beloved grandma got sick, I had to make a decision that was both really hard and incredibly easy. For me, I wanted to try to say goodbye face to face and judging from the state of things, it looked like there was not long left. But it was hard to drop my life that I had created abroad: friends, lifestyle, my job and my future plans. For a while I felt guilty about this but it was a normal reaction. It was not as selfish as I’d thought – simply put, I just wished that my grandma could live on forever and resulting of that, my happy life abroad could continue undisturbed and calm.
This situation is so personal I couldn’t possibly tell you whether or not you should return home. There is no right or wrong way to do it and it lies with you alone, though I found asking my family for the facts helped a lot in my decision.
All relationships are unique. Perhaps you’ve said all that you need to say to each other. You don’t always need to be in the same room to feel each other’s love. Ultimately they want you to be happy. My cousin was traveling in Mexico when she discovered her grandpa was dying. She rang him and he insisted that she stayed abroad – he wanted her to have fun and discover the world and so, with his blessing, she continued her trip overseas. Perhaps that could work for you too – if the circumstances are appropriate, set up a phone call or a Skype with your loved one and you can have that chat with them. On the other hand, you may not want to worry them by suddenly returning. Families are as different as they come and everyone will process this news very differently.
Your family may need your support and/or vice versa – it’s not always only the relationship between you and the deceased that needs thinking about. On the contrary, you may feel that things would be best if you stayed abroad and you can honour your loved one away from home.
The practicalities need some thought too. Do you have the money to return home? Sometimes we don’t. Your family might be able to help you or you can use your overdraft.
Have you taken a look at your travel insurance details? You might find that they cover a sudden family death; if they are a ‘covered’ family member. You’ll find a list of covered members in the definitions section of your plan documents though each plan is different. However, be prepared for the fact you may have to provide a death certificate and proof that the deterioration was not directly linked to any pre-existing condition. Insurers will, generally, also cover you if you can argue that you had no knowledge of their pre-existing condition before you arranged your travels, though there are plans that provide coverage for such conditions. Unfortunately, however, the death must have not been the result of suicide or mental illness in most insurance policies.
Know that grief can turn into depression and while they share similarities, keep an eye on how you feel after a longer period of time. Depression has a wide spectrum. Take care of yourself. Try not to indulge too often in letting go of normal routines - once, for a week I didn’t wash! But that didn’t happen again (all my friends were appalled and told me off) and I made sure I didn’t walk around a mess on the outside, even though I felt like it on the inside a lot of the time. This helped me hold on to the normalcies of life and carry on with my plans – even if that was to buy some Hoola Hoops from the newsagents.
If you’re feeling out of your depth and are struggling more than you cope with, there are many mental health services worldwide that can help you, even when you’re abroad. For example, in Australia there is beyondblue.au and The Black Dog Institute. If you are registered with a GP then you will have to book an appointment and get a referral from them in order to visit a counsellor, psychiatrist or a psychologist. This usually will be free if you carry a Medicare card – meaning you have access to free healthcare, resulting from the reciprocal relationship between the UK and Australia. If you can prove relationship to an Australian Citizen, have applied for a permanent visa or have citizenship from any of these countries: New Zealand; the United Kingdom; the Republic of Ireland; Sweden; the Netherlands; Finland; Italy; Belgium; Malta; Slovenia and Norway, then you can also benefit from free or cheaper healthcare. Bear in mind that these agreements do not replace private travel health insurance!
Death is confusing and hosts everything you didn’t expect. You’re strong and I promise it is possible to return to a more stable rhythm in your life. Reach out to your support network and they’ll help you. Your loved one will also be there helping you – every time you think of a happy memory with them, they are right there, present and you are in comfort.
UK | 24 | Currently Exploring Sydney, Australia | https://instagram.com/wanderlustvines