Grief as an Expat

“Grief is like the ocean, it comes on waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”

Vicki Harrison

On December 16, 5400 miles from where I was, my grandfather passed away quietly in his sleep at nearly 90 years old and my heart was broken. Only two other times in my life have I experienced the loss of someone so close to me. Once, when I was 21 I lost my high school best friend in a car accident and again at 28 when my grandmother passed in her sleep while holding my grandfather’s hand.

Both the previous times I experienced death I was overwhelmed by sadness. Carried away by grief that I didn’t know how to deal with. I remember crying nearly every day after Eric died. Sometimes stopping in the middle of the hallway to breakdown because walking forward anymore seemed too daunting. With grandma it was little reminders that hurt and I’d break down in the Asian aisle of the grocery store looking at Japanese snacks she used to buy me.

But this time, it was different. I received the call while I was in the midst of a girls trip to Germany for Christmas markets. I was away from my family, I was away from Tim and with girls I’ve known barely a year. But that didn’t matter, my expat girls have become my family here. They know what it’s like to be so far from home and they’ve all experienced what’s like to worry about the health of others while you’re thousands of miles away.

When the news broke that grandpa was gone, I felt numb. I cried and shook and then I got dressed and went to breakfast. What else was there to do? A weird fog enveloped me after that. I enjoyed shopping and crafting and taking photos of the German countryside. We drank Gluewein and ate some of the most beautiful countryside. And for much of that time, I was able to forget that a world away my parents and grandfather’s friends were so raw with the hole he left in their lives.

One of the last times I facetimed with grandpa, he asked me when we were coming home next. I said, “we’re coming home in March for your birthday, Grandpa.” and his response was, “March is really far away.” This is what pains me the most when I think of losing him. It’s guilt. Guilt riddles me that I couldn’t, didn’t come home sooner. We were holding out to celebrate his 90th. I know he was so proud of Tim and I and always said how great it was that we were seeing the world. But it doesn’t lessen the guilt I have. And that’s something I am going to have to learn to carry.

I guess what I’m trying to say that grieving as an expat is very different than grieving at home. It’s simultaneously easier and harder. You’re away from family and friends who knew your loved one an without their physical support (phone calls and emails make this a little easier now-a-days) but also, you’re without them and anything that really reminds you of your lost loved one. In my day to day life, nothing here reminds me of my grandparents, save the photos from long ago. It’s easier to go through the motions in a way. But that’s not to say I’m not missing them tremendously. Just maybe in a different way than my parents who were there every day at the end.

I feel like this is all a mash up of feelings and emotions and I don’t even know where I’m going other than to say this is raw emotion. I am trying to move forward. I am excited about continuing to travel and make grandpa proud. I will begin sending postcards to my grandpa’s neighbors and friends who were so dear to him and there for him until the very end. I hope that in that way, I can bring some joy and support to them, even from across the world.

Have you had to grieve as an expat? How did you cope? Please share if you’d like.

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