I often feel like I’m not an expert when it comes to being an expat; there are so many other people out there who have been away longer, been to more places, had more difficult lives in incredibly challenging countries. But lately, involuntarily, I have become an expert on losing loved ones and coping with it away from home. I’ve lost my father and my grandfather already this year; today it’s my beloved Nanna’s funeral. And instead of being with my family, holding their hands and saying my goodbyes, I’ll be watching on a webcam what seems like a million miles away, unable to touch them, comfort them; unable to be comforted, and feeling like a fraud when I turn off the computer and get on with my life.
There are advantages to living abroad: this is not one of them. No, I don’t have to partake in the painful process of watching someone waste away, or deal with hospital visits and the challenges of the british healthcare system, or have to be on call day and night, ready to jump in the car at a moment’s notice. I don’t have to be responsible for anything because there are people at home who are nearer, within the same time zone, more able to take it on due to their sheer proximity. I don’t have to hear terrible news stood at a bedside, or sit while chemo drips from a bag, or watch until a life dwindles away. I can’t be the one to make the calls to family or deal with funeral arrangements. I won’t stand in a crematorium in a dreadful, heartbreaking replay of the last time, and the time before.
But that doesn’t make it easier, just a different kind of hard. As an expat you don’t just miss the bad bits, you never hear about many of them; or if you do it’s a sanitised, cleaned-up version of the mess that already happened, because you weren’t in the room, or awake, or you couldn’t get there in time, and the people you love just got on with things and there was nothing you could do in any case to change the facts. You make calls to phones that go unanswered, over and over again, because the people who are there are driving, or in a hospital, or talking to a doctor, or just getting on with it all, and don’t remember to constantly remember you are sitting several hours away fretting endlessly not knowing what’s happening and wondering when might be a good time to call. You send messages, and hope the people that are there remember to pass them on, but you’re never able to check – to say, ‘by the way, did you tell that person that I loved them like I asked you to?’ You have to make choices – terrible choices – about when to get on a plane, or whether to get on a plane at all, or live with the fact that you were too late to make the choice. The feeling of complete helplessness that you feel being unable to be there shouldn’t be underestimated.
It’s not just the uselessness. There’s the inability to grieve as everyone else is doing – together. My grief leaks out in tiny rivulets, and being at such a distance, not confronted with the realities of life without them, I find myself unable to believe they are all truly gone from my life. Our summer trip home will make it all real, finally, but it will come all at once, pooling around me in glorious technicolour. Life goes on. That’s how we all cope in the end. But living away from home, it’s a different life that goes on, from the one I will return to. For everyone else, time will have faded their grief a little, and they will be at a sad but subtle advantage having lived through it, in comparison to my ‘bubble’ existence that has kept me going in blissful ignorance of my true feelings of loss.
There’s the isolation too. No-one here knew my dad, or my grandparents; our relationships, our history or what any of them meant to me. They have very little idea of my life back ‘home’, and so although I have their sympathy, my loss – my true loss – is all but invisible.
My grief is no greater than anyone else’s. But like a lot of things, as an expat it seems heightened, magnified for brief moments in time, before I am plunged back into a life where it is unacknowledged and unaccommodated. I love my life in Dubai, I love that we chose to have this adventure, and can accept now that there are good times and bad, and that life will always go on without me, even as it ends. But there is no greater sacrifice, no greater distance between me and the people I love, than today. Oh for those Ruby Slippers.