Preparing For The Worst: Death of a Spouse Overseas

A change of pace today, caused by some sad news which has me thinking deeply.

Everyone has a file stored in the back of their mind under ‘things I’d rather not think about’  but which anyone living overseas has thought about quietly and planned for in the event the worst ever happens.

It’s happened to two girlfriends of mine and a male colleague of the Captain’s – the death of a spouse while living overseas.

A tragedy like this is horrendous enough when surrounded by family and friends in your home country. When it happens abroad the additional stresses on top of heart-wrenching  grief are enormous.

There is enough information on the internet for all the practical things you need to know, and the Consul for your home country will advise and support you through the paperwork. It’s the emotional fallout that leaves everyone floundering.

We know death of a loved ranks number one in the scale of stressful life experiences. The isolation, fear and apprehension of how you will cope in a foreign country, maybe not speaking the language, is an overwhelming scenario.

Friends supporting a grieving spouse, striving to do the right thing, can feel as if they’ve been dropped on a foreign planet without a guidebook.

There’s a good article for friends on the Expatwomen website which gives some great advice to on how to support a spouse who has lost their partner. Please take a moment to read it – we all might need it one day.

Some of the practical advice in the article I’m going to quote here, as it has important information for all of us :

‘… there is merit in the old adage ‘keep all of your important documents together, as well as cash for emergencies’. If you have not already done so, help your friend gather copies of important documents (passports, residency visas, employment contracts, marriage certificates, bank account details and so on) in one, safe place.

Do this for yourself and advise your other expatriate friends to do so as well. Have them all together and somewhere safe where the whole family can locate them quickly if need be.

Your friend will need to access some money fairly readily so help her get that underway if she does not already have an emergency fund somewhere, which is strongly advisable. If she needs to transfer some money from home, this could take a few days to arrive so it is best to do this now rather than later.

Again, I would recommend you and your friends also have some money easily accessible for emergencies, either to fly to your friend’s home, to fly to your own home or to fly family members to you.’

It’s a family joke in our house that Mom has a, ‘Death and Disaster’ book, left out every time we travel. It has our birth certificates, insurance policies and contact details of accountant, lawyer, bank and family members. And of course an up-to-date Will made in the country you’re living in. (Don’t mess with this one – I may have been light-hearted when in Where there’s a Will there’s a Lawyer, but it’s no joke)

I started the D&D book in Louisiana when every hurricane season we were poised to evacuate. We kept a fire-proof lock-box with our current insurance policies (life, home, car), passports, birth certificates, bank details and wills. Oh and a large amount of cash – in an emergency they’ll never be a working cash machine or it won’t give you the amount you need.

In the years we were there we had two serious evacuations before the big one, and knowing that box was ready to pick up and go was a huge relief. And trust me, when an emergency does happen, you say a quick prayer for having taken a couple of hours on a rainy afternoon to put it in place.

The practicalities do not help to alleviate the pain of loss, but it’s one thing you can do for a friend, numb in disbelief at facing his/ her worst nightmare, and this is only the beginning.

Whilst we were living in the USA, a Canadian girlfriend who had happily followed her spouse from Montreal to New Orleans with three children, found her husband dead on Superbowl Sunday from an unexpected heart attack.

Of course everyone rallied round – her church, neighbours and new friends she’d made. Devastated didn’t come close. You would have thought things couldn’t have got any worse. They did.

Her husband had arrived in the States ahead of her, as many spouses do, to set up a home and life before the family arrived.

In the USA, on her husbands visa, she had no right to reside there without him. The Immigration authorities advised her that when the visa ran out she would have to leave the country. Unfortunately this was soon after her bereavement.

Should she have tried to stay she would been arrested and deported at her own expense and banned from re-entering the US for 10 years. That would mean her children would have been denied university places in the USA. Their schools were told by the authorities that the children would not be allowed to register for the next semester.

Her car was taken back by the finance company because it was not in her name.

The mortgage company were on her case immediately as the mortgage was, guess what, not in her name, nor were the bank accounts and there was no Will.

She had three children, all in high school who, having just lost their father, with university places planned and bright futures ahead, were wrenched from everything they knew and loved – their home, their friends, their lives.

My friend left the States in a beat up mini-van donated by her church, her worldly goods and children on board and drove herself back to her home country, but with no home to go to and no future in place. The only money was from money raised by friends as the bank accounts were all frozen.

Watching that situation unfold the Captain has made sure it will never happen to us. It is a gift I appreciate more than he knows.  Everything is in joint names, both cars in mine (there is a backstory to this), something he insisted on.

Yesterday morning the Captain phoned to let me know a colleague in the states lost his wife unexpectedly the other day. No illness, but probably a heart attack. She was my age. It’s been a bit sombre in our house the past few days.

It makes for some serious thought.

About wordgeyser

Our anglo/american family used to live in four countries (USA, Canada, UK and the Netherlands) on two continents, separated by distance, time zones, circumstance and cultures. It has been a scary, enriching, challenging place to be. The only things guaranteed to get us through were a sense of humour and the amazing people met along the way. . . This year everything changed with a move for us from the Netherlands, – and a move along with us for our son and his wife from the UK – to Houston, Texas, the same city as our daughter. With our youngest in Vancouver, Canada, we are now all living on the same continent. How this happened, and more importantly why, will be the subject of this ongoing blog...
This entry was posted in Expat Experiences, Family Life, Personal challenges, The Netherlands, USA and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Preparing For The Worst: Death of a Spouse Overseas

  1. Jenny says:

    Hi, thank you for this read. Not all the information that I need to know is here but a good start. My spouse & I are separated, have been for a while, and he may be going to live in the UK with his sisters. My sons & I live in S.A. His health is not good … long story … and as a result I decided not to pursue the divorce. However a friend advised that I look into the possibility, well actually probability is more like it, of him dying in the UK. I am not sure how to go about this so would appreciate any advice.

    • wordgeyser says:

      Hi Jenny,

      You don’t say what nationality you/ your husband are, if he has returned to his birth country, if S.A is your birth country or you are just resident there, if you have dual nationalities and what nationalities your children are. As you can see any advice will be dependent on your individual situation. What nationality you/ your spouse are and where you are both living now will also influence which country has jurisdiction over any Will.

      Your best option would be to contact your embassy in S.A. (if it’s not your birth country) and they will be able to at least point you in the right direction for further advice. From what you’ve said it would make sound sense to figure out any pitfalls now rather than later.

      Good luck!

  2. Pingback: Getting Our ‘Misfortune’ Act Together « Adventures in Expat Land

  3. Pingback: Repatriation of the Deceased : If you die overseas do it in the Netherlands | wordgeyser

  4. Thanks for posting this, really a great service (and sober reminder) to all of us. This is a good swift kick in my backside. I, too, tend to stick my head in the sand about this stuff. We’re halfway to a D&D kit, and I need to just pull it all together in one place.

    Also visited Finding My New Normal’s site – absolutely beautiful. I’ll be back there soon.

  5. I haven’t lost a spouse abroad, but I can tell you that losing a child abroad is no walk in the park. No family nearby, not knowing how things work, not knowing what to do or who to contact. It’s all very confusing.

    Luckily my fellow expats reached out and helped me along the way. But it does make you think about the distance more. It’s one of the not so great things about expat life.

    • wordgeyser says:

      Your story has been heart-breaking, but how you’ve dealt with it through the pain and grief has been an inspiration for so many. Fingers crossed everything works out, you deserve it.

Please feel free to leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s