Lisa just lost her Mum. It was totally unexpected. They lived 15000 km apart.
Once she can cry no more, her numb brain emerges back into practical reality.
Beyond the pain of loss, Lisa needs to think about the logistics:
- Will she go alone to the funeral? The trip is expensive.
- When and for how long? The answer to those questions depends on everything but her.
- Will the children come? How long can they miss school? If they don’t accompany her, who’s going to look after them? Her husband can get a few days off but not weeks!
- What does she need to bring with her to honour her mum, put in her coffin or eventually help her take care of any unfinished business?
- Does she have to prepare the eulogy?
- Where will she stay during her visit? She could sleep at her parents’ place but if the children are coming, this might not be the best choice. Her dad will find it hard to cope with a bunch of moody kids. She doesn’t want to be a burden. She wants to support her extended family and make up for the moments she hasn’t been around.
- How will she take care of herself? Jet lag and trauma are a heavy combination to deal with. Both place body and mind under high stress.
In such an emotional turmoil, Lisa has a hard time making any decision.
The purpose of this post is not to recommend any particular course of action in case your mum (or any other loved one) passes away.
The answer is different for everyone.
I invite you instead to consider for a minute the choices you may want to make to avoid additional trauma later.
How can you know what’s best for you and your family?
The response to each loss is an emotion — grief — which is the “complex amalgam of painful affect including sadness, anger, helplessness, guilt and despair.”¹
It’s a normal and healthy process. But we all grieve differently.
Several renowned psychologists have made significant contributions to understand how human beings react to loss and we can use their insights as guidelines to help make better informed decisions along the way.
For the expat situation, I find Worden’s work built on Bowlby and Freud’s legacies particularly helpful.
Worden has identified 4 tasks for the griever.
- Accept the reality of the loss
This seems to me the most critical part.
We, as expatriates, have a double challenge regarding this first task.
By living far away, we may not always be able to go back and attend the funeral, making the loss seem unreal. We don’t notice the absence as acutely as if we lived next door and shared meals on a regular basis. But what is the impact – longer term – of not having been able to say good-bye?
And this brings us to the second challenge: we have already experienced loss, albeit of an ambiguous kind. In living far away, we’ve already grieved part of the relationship. We had the psychological presence of our loved ones in our memories, our thoughts, but have already had to cope with their physical absence.
By being cut off physically from the sensorial experience of death and dying, we only make sense of it remotely by a cognitive process. Our brain, our reason, our logic accept the facts. Our senses plunge us into doubt.
Can you imagine how children live through this experience at a distance?
What does it mean for you and for them to be able or not to attend grandma’s funeral or at least have it shared through photos and video?
- Work through the pain of grief
The hardship when being far away is that you find yourself isolated. The distance prevents you from visiting the grave and get comfort from this connection. There are no common mourning rituals with the people surrounding you either because they’re from another culture or simply because in Western society mourning is considered as a private matter since the beginning of the XX century.
Couple this with classic myths about grieving like “Don’t talk about it,”, “Time heals,”, “Be strong for others,”, the comfort we could give to each other in communicating clearly and compassionately is severely impaired.
For sadness and grief, you need human connection and the opportunity to grieve in your own way, whenever you feel like it, without criticism and with the support of comforting others.
Pinquart & Sorensen
Note that your remaining parent and relatives back “home” are likely to feel lonely too, adding guilt and frustration to your sorrow.
- Adjust to the new environment after the loss
In your daily routine, this might be the easiest step for you. However you may have to find special arrangements for the survivor parent.
- Emotionally relocate the deceased
This last step is part of a process that some researchers like Murray and Klass name “integration” arguing that we don’t detach from the lost person but we integrate the loss as part of ourselves.
‘When you lose someone you were close to, you have to reassess your picture of the world and your place in it. The more your identity is wrapped up with the deceased, the more difficult the mental work’ writes Megan O’Rourke in her memoir ‘The long Good-Bye’ after the loss of her mother. She also adds ‘The people we most love do become a physical part of us, ingrained in our synapses, in the pathways where memories are created.’
This idea however has long been denied in Western society where psychologists and psychiatrists until recently considered pathological a person who wouldn’t want to sever their bond with the deceased, let go and move on after a couple of months.
So what can help to maintain a relationship with the deceased?
Klass mentions physical objects linked emotionally to the deceased, prayer or religious ideas, memories and identification. The latter refers to the embodiment of some values or characteristics of the deceased in your rearranged way of life. Suppose your mum displayed such courage and dignity in front of her terminal illness, you decide to live up to those particular values in all your future actions.
Curious to know what Lisa decided?
She went back alone but made sure to gather enough evidence to support the reality of the loss for her children.
She spent three weeks at her father’s place and arranged with her brother and a close friend to have regular get togethers for comforting talks.
She made sure to keep 30 minutes a day to herself for relaxation and meditation practice.
She took some earth from her mum’s grave to bring back.
She helped her father to find a bereavement group nearby.
Have you found yourself in that same situation? What did you do and what helped?
(1) Raphael 1984 – ref article Australian Social Work June 2005 Kellie Goldsworthy