Grieving a Loss or Death as an Expat Far from “Home”

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Agni Pooja infront of the sacred Ganges river. Those who are cremated on the banks of the Ganges or who die in the city of Varanasi recieve instant salvation.

I found out through Facebook that my great uncle in Canada is expected to pass away in the next very short while. I knew he was sick. He hadn’t been doing well recently but then suddenly there in my facebook news feed was a post that today may be his last day. Sitting in my office at work during a break I was instantly reduced to tears. He was the last of my grandfather’s generation still holding on and active to the end. As a child I always adored him. In a family full of chaos he was a constant calm. He was always a gentleman whom no matter what our age treated us with respect.

But here I am in Korea. Distance and cost make the trip home for final “goodbyes” impossible. In 11 years abroad this isn’t the first time I’ve found out about passing of friends and family online. I found out about an old teacher’s passing from condolences on his facebook page. Confused, I scanned through them only to find that they weren’t for someone he knew but for my friend himself. Another time I went to send a message to an elementary school friend I hadn’t spoken to in some time only to find out that she had passed away 2 years earlier. Because we hadn’t spoken in a while, Facebook had filtered her posts not to appear in my newsfeed. I hadn’t even known she was sick.

I also got an email about my grandmother passing after she had already been buried and her things divided up among her children or sold off. I got a message from the mother of the boy who I consider to be my first love. We were best friends for years but had drifted apart when I went to university. We had just reconnected online when I got the message that he had passed. Since it came in an online message it was even harder to believe than usual that it wasn’t some crew joke. Even the passing of one of our very good friends here in Korea was announced online. I turned on the computer and there it was.

None of this is unique to expat living. In this “digital age” finding out through social media of the passing of loved ones has become more and more common. And rather than one tragic phone call or letter, the news is announced to us over and over each time we turn on the screen. As an expat though, the distance in time and space complicates things even further. Family may gather but we are unable to attend. Whose death do we return home for? Can we return home for anyone? How do we mourn?

As an expat it can be incredibly difficult to get enough time off of work to return home. You may get a few days off but that only covers the trip itself and leaves no other time for arrangements. I know of more than a couple of people who have had to give up their jobs abroad since they had to suddenly go home for an extended period for emergencies like an illness in the family. It is not a stretch that some would be on shaky terms at work if they needed to leave for a week or more for deaths in the family.

In countries like the Philippines where so many traditionally work abroad, viewings and funerals can last around 3 weeks but even then it isn’t always easy to return. When my husband’s lola passed away in 2006 he had just started a contract at a new job and wasn’t allowed any time off yet. We can’t quite remember why we didn’t return at the beginning of 2012 when his lolo passed away as well. But it was around the time I was finishing up my degree, we both had work, were either in or heading on a trip through Northern India and I was either pregnant or we were trying to become pregnant. It was a busy time. My husband’s parents are getting older now. Both my husband and I know that if we move to Canada in the next few years and they pass away he likely won’t be able to make the trip all the way back home for their funerals.

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Finally visiting lolo's grave 2 years after he passed

If we don’t attend there is the guilt of not showing enough sacrifice and love for the family, of not helping enough during this difficult time. This is coupled with the guilt of being far away before they passed and of not sharing in enough events over the years. One of my friends died young and tragically. If I had been at home could I have perhaps guided him to a better path?

More often than not these days, mourning ends up taking the same approach that the announcement did. We change our profile photo, post pubic condolences, and maybe post a little memory of the loved one. Then we internally debate about when we can change our photo back, if it is appropriate to share something else in our news feed yet and if it is ever ok to “unfriend” someone who has passed if they had a social media account.

When my grandparents moved abroad it would have taken months sometimes for them to get the news through mail. All this digital connection has given us opportunities for those of us far away to connect nearly instantly and to mourn together over social media but it all feels rather empty. While those around me can relate to the loss of a loved one, no one around us actually knew them. There are no past stories to be shared over drinks.

There is no finality of the funeral. No seeing them one last time. In our minds they remain as they were the last time we saw them. There is no good bye or closure. The act of mourning seems to be missing in formality and in return we are either cursed or blessed with their image of them forever young, as they were when we left our homes to go abroad.