Expats – The News You Dread (Part I)


The news came by email. Like a punch in the gut.

Expat and death of a loved one

‘Mum died last night.’

Lisa is stunned. She can’t detach her eyes from those four words.

Her brain understands the meaning too well. Her senses can’t grasp its reality.

Living 15000 km away, she has no chance to jump in the car and see for herself.

She has to wait.

The purpose of this post isn’t to tell you what to do in case your mother (or any other loved one) passes away.

Nobody can.

My intention instead is to stimulate your thoughts so you can consider any action you need to undertake now to avoid regrets or additional trauma later.

Trembling all over, Lisa reads the rest of the message.

‘Sorry to inform you by email, but I need you to know asap and by the time you wake up, it’s going to be late here. I’ll try to get some sleep because there are now so many things to organize in the next couple of days. Talk soon.’

Lisa recognizes Maddy’s style. To the point.

Her sister is truthful to herself. Efficient.  Pragmatic. Rational.

Lisa stares at the screen. Mum D-I-E-D?? How come it happened so suddenly? That sounds impossible. She spoke to her last week: Mum was fine! Sure, at 84, she wasn’t so young any more. But she was in good health and underwent regular check-ups.

Or so Lisa thought…

What if the family had hidden some terrible facts not to worry me?

Or what if they had been negligent?

Did Mum suffer?

Had I lived nearby, I might have noticed troubling symptoms, alerted her doctor, insisted on carrying out further analysis. When the worst was looming, I could have held Mum’s hand, refreshed her face, giving her — by my presence and my love — a few more reasons to hold onto life.

Instead, here I am. Stranded. 15000 km away. Cut off from the scene. My hands tied. Glowering at a screen.

So many questions, so many doubts. But no answers. At least for now.

With the time zone difference, Lisa is afraid to call anyone. It’s the middle of the night over there.

Her husband is currently on a plane for a two week business trip. The children are at school.

She is alone.

Her head hurts. A knot of fear tightens her stomach.

Her mind looks for an explanation. Her attention comes back to the screen: she wrinkles her forehead, her gaze hardens.

How can you give such a news by email?

“Maddy has no heart! Of course, an email is a quick and efficient way to convey facts. It’s available everywhere and targeted to the very person you want to reach. But how cold!

Did she even think about how I’ll receive it at the other end? What if I was in the car? Or in the street? It’s as if someone had thrown a bomb at me and ran away.

I wish she’d had given me a phone call at least!”

But a few hours before, Maddy herself had to face the dilemma.

“Shall I call Lisa? I’m scared of her reaction. She’s always so emotional. I’m not sure I can handle it but I can’t wait till tomorrow. She’s so often complaining about being the last informed because she’s far away. The least I need now are reproaches. I’d better break the news by email.  So she’ll get over the first shock and then we’ll talk.”

Getting over the first shock, that’s what Lisa is now trying to do.

Each memory of her beloved mum makes her burst into tears. She didn’t even get the chance to say good-bye.

“Mum is gone and I haven’t told her how much I loved her. I haven’t told her how guilty I’ve felt all those years for being so far away. While she was always there for me as a child – at my bedside when I was sick, preparing the best food to support me during my exams, driving me around for all my activities – I haven’t been able to give back as much as I wanted. She never made any complaints but I’m now left with my doubts.

I also wanted to spend some time with her to make a family tree. Who will tell my children about their roots? Their identity? I don’t remember all the family stories. I didn’t live during the war. This is part of a precious heritage for the future generations. It’s even more important because the children raised abroad are exposed to so many different cultures.

Sadly now the opportunity was lost.”

Now over to you: what’s your preferred form of communication in those critical circumstances? Have you talked about it with your loved ones?

Do you have any unfinished business that you’d like to address before it’s too late?

Stay tuned for the second part of this article. We’ll talk about the choices to make that have a direct impact on grief.


Photo credit corridor07 via photopin (license) Music credit Piano Society



  1. My mom died 8 years ago. I was living in Switzerland. I was at a party at my son’s school and my husband showed me in silence a text from his mother saying my mom had died. I have never talked to my husband about this, but even nowadays I feel hurt, angry and sad that he did it that way, in the middle of the party, in front of everyone. I guess he was shocked too but I wished he had taken me to a quiet place and told me the news instead of showing me a text. I also wish it wasn’t my mother in law that gave us the news but unfortunately she knew someone at the hospital where my mom was and it seems she gave her number as a contact. If I could choose, my sister would have phoned me. I had to phone her instead.

    • Dear Carla, thank you for sharing this deeply moving memory. May you find some solace and peace in getting it off your chest and in knowing that you’ve been heard. Warmly, Anne.

  2. jean-luc says:

    A child at the hospital, a grandmother dying……
    Kind of things that happened and consumed you until you came back. Being far away makes you feel powerless and maybe a little guilty.

  3. Thank you Anne for sharing this difficult topic! I know from my recently experience how hard it is to be alone and far away from home. Time will help!!! It helped my husband and I to think that Love is every thing in life! Take care Elena

  4. It’s a thought that very often I am facing. Living in U.S with a widow mother in greece. She is not getting any younger and I feel very bad that I am not there by her side when she is struggling with health issues. It’s a hard topic that makes my stomach turn thinking that phone call and also my sister that will have to face it alone. One of the worst things being am xpat.

  5. My father died just as I had moved to settle overseas and I was told of his death over the phone. It is never easy whether by phone or email as you dread the fact that you were not there but then how many of us are able to be close to everyone we love when he or she is dying. I think it is destiny and one should accept that maybe being there might have effected us worse – there is always a reason in life for whatever happens so we need to stop feeling guilty after all when we moved away we knew things like this could happen but each and everyone of us had other major priorities.

  6. Tallessyn Grenfell-Lee says:

    This is such an important issue. My mother always relayed this kind of news by phone. She would leave messages saying it was an emergency, and to call her right away. Because she modeled this approach, all of us have followed it. I find it helpful, to hear news by phone rather than in other ways. However, I can imagine some people would prefer to get an email, so I suppose it’s best for a family to work these systems out in advance.

    Another important aspect of this particular story is how it feels to lose a parent. My father once said, after both his parents had passed, that having your parents is like having a mountain; and you can just go sit by the mountain and be. And when they are both gone, it is like you are missing a mountain. I have thought about that image for a long time. I think it’s partly about identity – who are we, without our parents? Our identity seems to shift into a nebulous place, where we are now expected to become the elders, whether we are ready or not.

    In my own faith tradition, a verse of scripture says, ‘I will not leave you as orphans.’ (John 14:18) When my mother passed, I asked my pastor and friend not to preach that ‘we will all see each other again in heaven.’ I wasn’t against the idea, it just wasn’t what I needed to hear. So she preached on this text instead – about how we are never orphans. The love we give and are given changes our very bodies and the fabric of the universe, and those changes are eternal. I think the writers of this scripture understood how frightening it can feel to find out you are an orphan, and I think they also understood the deeper truth that we are never orphans. The Creation and a web of Love and Life always surrounds us and holds us.

    My father is failing, and I imagine he may well pass away before I return to the US, leaving me without parents. I hope these ideas and words, which give me strength, courage, and comfort, may be helpful to others, too.

    • Dear Tallessyn, very grateful for such an in depth reflection and for expanding the conversation. Thank you so much for the beautiful image your shared with us. It touches me all the more that I live at the foot of a mountain. Sending you lots of warm thoughts. Namaste, Anne

  7. Well done for bringing this up Anne. It is the fear of many migrants and expats. One of my experiences was with my father dying. “If you are going to come, you have to come now.” My sister said on the phone.
    We have to include in our thoughts of preparation for these events, the people who have to deliver the news. With a dying parent there are many dilemmas to consider. When do you go? I have dedicated part of Chapter 12 Births, Marriages and Deaths to this in my book, The Emotional Challenges of Immigration. Death is never easy it is great you are offering help to migrants to help. I look forward to your following blog.

  8. Felicity says:

    I had the terrible experience of my mother dying while on a visit to me in an overseas country. Not only do you have the dreadful task of communicating the loss to your family in your home country, but you also have to navigate the local (and unfamiliar) authorities. Thank goodness I have a local husband who helped so much.

    • Dear Felicity, this goes even a step further in the process. Thank you for sharing your story with us. Sending you lots of warm wishes.


  1. […] just lost her Mum. It was totally unexpected. They lived 15000 km […]

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