Death and the Expat: When Sad News Arrives

I have to admit to feeling a little heavy hearted today. I’ve just written two condolence letters – one to a dear friend who has lost her mother and the other to her father who has lost his wife of over 60 years. I’m a tad ashamed too, as these should have been written before now but although I had the cards, the words wouldn’t come.

I always have the cards.

In a country where cards written in English can be hard to find or not suitable, I tend to buy them when I see them, condolence cards in particular, because this is a card that has to be right. Of late I’ve chosen to buy With Sympathy ones that are blank inside so I can write my own response to news that will, at best, be deeply sad and, at worse, devastating.

My friend Amy and I met fifteen years ago, both newly arrived in a foreign (to me) country. She the english wife of a US Naval officer, who met and married her husband in Naples, Italy while working as a WREN attached to the US naval fleet. After they married she followed him to various postings in the states, arriving when we did in Louisiana.

As well as nationality, we had three children the same ages in common so it was inevitable we would become friends. Perhaps in a different life we wouldn’t have been – we are poles apart as people, but far from home raising our children in a culture removed from the one we grew up in, formed a bond that will connect us all our lives.

In the years we have been friends she left Louisiana for a three year posting in Hawaii then returned. She helped me through some tough times, I’d like to think I helped her too. As we watched our children grow we got to know each other’s family when they came to visit. The parents, the brothers and sisters, the friends who felt like family.

We shared the sad times – the untimely death of her beautiful niece Lily, from leukemia at age 5,  the death of my husband’s sister three days short of her 46th birthday leaving four children without a mother. Shared together on a continent thousands of miles from home, round a kitchen table where friendship deepened over cups of tea, glasses of wine and boxes of kleenex.

Amy moved to North Carolina, we moved to the Netherlands. We speak regularly on the phone as well as email and Facebook. These past months there has been a lot of talking – her mother told she had stomach cancer as my father was undergoing  radiotherapy. My father survived, we knew Amy’s mother wouldn’t.

When Amy emailed me the news her mother had passed away I called her on the phone, listened to her talk, felt the pain of her tears, wishing for that kitchen table to be between us not the Atlantic Ocean. We talked about her flight home, how long she would stay, how long she could stay.

She got back in time for the funeral despite the volcanic dust from Iceland – her sister flying from Canada was stranded at Schiphol airport en route to Scotland, Amy changed her flight to avoid the problem. Stress none of them needed.

I knew Amy’s mother, of course I did, as I knew all the family whether I’d met them or not. We had enjoyed each other’s company over the years on her visits to the US, a happy smiling lady who adored her children and grandchildren. I knew Amy’s father, a kind, smart, sociable man in whose company I always felt comfortable.

The day of her funeral I wished I could have been there to hug Amy, her father, her sisters, to have been a part of their lives once more. But that is one of the downsides of the nomad’s life – sometimes we can’t be there and there’s not the closure to life events there would be if we were home.

So we sit and write our letters, try and put our feelings into words and hope the recipients understand our hearts break for them wherever in the world we are. That we weep too.

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...
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6 Responses to Death and the Expat: When Sad News Arrives

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

  2. MA Dmochowski says:

    Beautiful, Jane. And so true. About making friends when in another life you may not have been friends. About sharing lives over a kitchen table and by email/phone/letter. We are so blessed for easy close communication. In the same situation, I send along fond memories which I appreciated receiving when my own mother died. God be with you all.

  3. Heartfelt condolences. A wonderful tribute to a special friend. I remember when my father passed away and we were living in Egypt how much I appreciated the comforting words from family and friends. It helped the healing process, knowing that others understood and shared my sorrow whilst so terribly far away from home.

    • wordgeyser says:

      It’s always difficult to know what to say at these times and not sound trite or cliched, yet we have to try as words are the only thing we have when attending funerals aren’t an option. I’m glad you found comfort from friends even though they weren’t there – at least we know words count for something.

  4. Oh I am so sorry about this. It’s very hard to be away when you’d rather be there for each other in person. But knowing you, I’m sure Amy and her father both know how you feel and appreciate your support. This is a beautiful tribute to expat friendship, even the bittersweet.

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