My paternal grandmother passed away yesterday. It did not come as a surprise, she had terminal cancer diagnosed a long while ago, so we all knew it was only a matter of time. But when you are living thousands of miles away a ‘matter of time’ does not have the same meaning. Distance puts an invisible and impenetrable barrier between me and my loved ones. Unless I am ‘lucky’ to be home when death strikes, I cannot help, I cannot support, and I cannot say goodbye when goodbye matters most. Until last year all four of my grandparents were still alive but all over 85, and clearly not going to live forever. With each trip back I have to quietly say my goodbyes to these old people whom I love so much, in case it’s the last time I see them. I strive to make my peace with it but the bottom line is I’m not there.
There is a school of thought that death is easier to cope with if you are far away. You don’t have to deal with any of the nasty, you don’t have to see what’s happening, you don’t have to help, simply because you can’t. There is no way of being with them in an ambulance, or dropping a hot dinner round to their home, brushing their hair, or holding their hand at the bedside. There is no true understanding of what that person is going through, nor the terror, grief and worry of the other people who are there to provide all the support that you can’t. I have no real clue to what my dad has been doing these past months to assist his parents, just as I have no proper understanding of what my mum went through caring for my grandfather before he passed away last year. I am sheltered from all of this. And when a person dies, I am sheltered all over again, from everyone else’s grief, because I am not there to see it.
I toy with the idea of flying back for the funeral but I feel guilty, as if I have just turned up for the easy bit and missed all the hard stuff everyone else has been through. I cannot be part of the process, I can only turn up to the party. But it is not easy sitting here by myself. Grief is a lonely business when you are far away. I might not be able to help or support my family but there is no-one to help me either. A comment from another post I read on this subject said this: “We must be self-reliant in a way most grievers do not have to be…Grieving solo is one of the hardest things to do…(and) can also prevent us from the closure that other people receive from going to the funeral, the wake, the reception.”
And I am discovering for the second time now, that the process for grieving is difficult when you are doing it by yourself. I rely on phone calls and emails to keep me up to date with funeral arrangements, but no-one really wants to talk to me about how they are feeling over the phone, it just isn’t the same. No-one will ask me how I’m doing because they will unconsciously (or consciously) assume that I am somehow less attached for being far away. I will watch other people with less attachment, less history, less loss than me become more involved than I can possibly be in the grieving process because I am not there. I wrote an email and sent text messages to tell my grandmother we loved her but it’s unlikely I’ll ever find the right time to ask if they were delivered before she slipped into her last sleep. I cannot comfort my dad, my sisters, my grandfather. I cannot sit and have a cup of tea with them just to have the company of another human being who is going through the same thing. I cannot hug anyone. No-one can hug me back. I hate that I am not there to help, I resent that I am not there to be part of the grieving, I am devastated that I could not say goodbye when it was truly time.
Every expat must face the possibility of someone they love passing away while they are abroad. We face grief all over again when we return for visits because life has changed unalterably, again, and whilst everyone else has gradually come to accept the change, it is thrown at us like a bucket of cold water. My grandmother (she would have loved that I’m calling her grandmother, and that I’m writing about her, by the way) probably had the most understanding of my situation of all my family. Her own siblings emigrated to California decades ago and she has dealt with all the pleasure and pain that this brings. She was a meddlesome old bat sometimes (and she knew it) who I didn’t always agree with, but she managed to keep herself relevant and even with her great-grandson bouncing around the room claiming all the attention, she would always take time to ask how I was doing, how I was feeling. I write this for her, because I know she would understand where so many others might not, how I am feeling right now. This is my goodbye, Nanna. Rest in Peace.