When tragedy strikes the expat life

D,” W says over the phone, hiccuping sobs, “J’s dad. He’s passed.”

Muffled cries, inaudible words.

Oh my god,” I manage, feeling the pit of my stomach tighten and tears instantly fill my eyes.

I think I hear her ask me to come to where she is. Even if I don’t, it doesn’t matter. It’s Feb. 27. J’s birthday. And, over dinner with friends, they have just gotten word that his father passed unexpectedly. In Wales.

I grab my keys and rush down the street to where they are. My heart breaking into a million pieces just imaging the pain he is going through.

W stands on the street outside of the restaurant, surrounded by friends. I walk up silently to her and wrap my arms around her. She turns to me, streaks of wet rushing down from her swollen eyes. Her normal smiling face eclipsed by the shock and grief.

I grab her again, hugging her hard.

I’m so sorry.”

She takes my hand in hers and we walk down the street.

Come over and have a drink with us,” she manages.

Are you sure that is OK with J?”

W nods her bobbed auburn hair.

The two of us stand outside the store, waiting for J. He looks up at me.

Hey, D,” he says softly.

I can barely speak. Just looking at the anguish on his face kills me. I walk up to him and hold him tight, my chest constricting as I fight my own sobs.

He cries on my shoulder and tells me to go back with them to their home.

W and I walk hand-in-hand down the street, her fighting audible sobs as she clasps her free hand over her mouth, tears streaming down her face.

His birthday. His father. His unexpected passing.

The two of them were just getting all of the pieces to fit for their lives in Thailand … and now … tragedy in a time when everything was going right.

We sit at their house, bottle of vodka being liberally poured in the warm February night. The three of us don’t say much at first. We just cry.

I don’t know J’s father, but I know J. And W. The two of them have been incredibly important people to me since I met them in September. Seeing them so overcome with sadness … imaging myself in their position … it just shatters me.

What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?” W asks over and over, holding her hands to her head. “It’s your dad. You’ve got to get home. I have to go with you. What are we gonna do?”

I scramble to help them look for flights, researching bereavement policies, figuring out how quickly they can get home.

Fuck,” J says through tears. “Fuck.”

The tickets are expensive. Especially since they are last-minute.

What are we gonna do?”

I volunteer to help cover some of the costs, then another friend messages me and says she will cover the remainder of J’s ticket.

You have to go home,” I say quietly to J. “You have to be with your family. I missed my grandma dying, J. I missed her funeral because I couldn’t get back in time. You are going to go home. We won’t let that happen to you.”

Memories rush back to when my grandma passed away when I was in Croatia. Being alone … being so far from home … it is the worst feeling in the entire world. And those days after death? Forget. It. 

When she died from ALS in 2010, I never felt so powerless. So little. So devastated. I would never wish that pain on anyone. And now, here they are, going through something so similar.

Except, thankfully, they are not alone in this country. They have people who care about them. Who love them. Who will help them.

The amount of love the people in my life here have shows no limits, and it took J’s father passing to learn that. As W and I walk down the street to book him a flight, both crying, Nico sees us and his normally bright face clouds over.

What has happened?” He asks. W can’t respond, so I choke out the story the best I can. We sit down, and he makes W a hot booze-filled drink. Neighbors who love W come by and see her, and stand with her and talk. Later, Nico and his wife and baby, Beau and Bella, and our friend Paula (who also helped cover the cost) come to the house and we all sit together while they grieve.

As the alcohol flows, J begins to share stories of his father with us. Funny stories about his childhood, moments he spent with his dad. Between the laughs, of course, there are tears, but just being able to sit and listen to him … it is what friends do.

The next few days, I reflect.

Barren landscape in Sri Lanka

What do you do when you are an expat and your world comes crashing down?

When my grandma died, it was expected. I received an e-mail from my dad, telling me to call him.

My friends, the other night, in Thailand? They did not.

We just talked to him three days ago,” she says between sobs. “He was fine. He was fine.”

Life as an expat can be amazing, it can be beautiful, but then there is the other side. The tragic, heart-breaking side. The reality nearly every expat faces but never wants to discuss. The reality of loss.

What do you do when you get word when someone you love passes away and you have to uproot your life in order to get back? What goes through your mind about being so far from home?

Coming home to sadness is never the way you imagine your return to be. You imagine getting on the plane, excited to see people you care about. Excited to re-visit your old life (perhaps). But then … that picture in your mind is shattered. Destroyed to bits with one phone call. With one message.

Someone you love has passed away. You need to come home.

As an expat, it is the biggest fear I have. I consciously made the decision to leave my old life, to leave my friends and family on the other side of the world. But, that fear never ceases. As an expat, I know I miss out on so much. Weddings. Births. Milestone moments. Sickness. Aging. Death. But, it is a choice I made.

Sitting with my friends, witnessing their loss, suddenly I got scared. Petrified.

This could be me. Sitting with my friends. Immersed in grief and vodka and feeling entirely powerless. Utterly helpless. Then, I look at my life. Where I am. What I am doing. And, I have to wonder, what is it worth?

I know my family would never want me to stop what I was doing to come home and wait for the unavoidable. When my grandma was dying, I asked repeatedly if I needed to change my flight to come home.

No,” my mom would say. “You don’t need to come home and wait for death. You stay. You do what you do.”

Except when grandma passed, and I was alone, and so close to coming home, I was devastated. Heart-broken. Not only for my loss, but for the impact the loss was having on my family. I wanted to be there to comfort them. To ease my pain. To ease theirs. But, as an expat, you don’t get that chance. You don’t get a re-do. You don’t get the last word. Instead, you have to constantly let people who are so far away know how much you care. Know how important they are. Because, you never know …

This post is dedicated to W, J and J’s father, Roger. 


Published by dtravelsround

Awakening the soul while traveling ... a story of being on the cusp of adulthood.

32 thoughts on “When tragedy strikes the expat life

  1. This is a beautifully written post that conveys my feelings perfectly. Yes, I made the decision to leave my friends and family, and it is a decision that I don’t regret, but it is a hard decision. I experience a tiny knot of fear every time I see a text message from my mum in the middle of the night, or when I don’t expect to hear from home. I worry that it could be carrying the message that I know will come one day, death is a certainty after all, but hope it’s just not now.

    All I can hope for is that I will have the time to come home if something happens.

    Thinking of your friends at this difficult time.


    1. Thank you so much for the sweet words. I understand what you mean about getting that tiny knot of fear. There are times I have minor moments where my heart stops when I get something unexpected. My family had to put my dog down a couple of months ago, and every time I saw an email with his name as the subject line, I could feel the tears start to burn my eyes. Thank you for the support.


  2. As an expat, my heart goes out to all involved. I admit, too, that this scares me because it’s something I try not to think about too much. What a blessing to have such loving, supportive friends in such a difficult hour. You’re all in my thoughts and prayers.


  3. How heartbreaking! I often thought about this when I was an expat. I worried that, first of all, my family might not tell me. And, second of all, that I might not be able to get home. I was lucky enough that it didn’t happen while I was overseas, but I definitely worry about this if I go overseas again.


  4. I’m not an expat, but this is my biggest fear when traveling internationally. We were in Chile last year when my husband’s grandfather died. They held off on the funeral for a few weeks until we returned, but the worst part was not being there for our family in the immediate aftermath of the the loss. My heart goes out to your friends right now.


    1. I think not being there for the family is soooo hard. When my grandma passed away, it made me sad, but it shattered me that I was not there for my mom. Thank you for the kind words and for sharing your story.


  5. Ugh, I obviously don’t know these people but my heart breaks for them. That is a fear that runs through my mind whenever I’m travelling and I can’t imagine the horror of actually having to face it. Sounds like they’re lucky to have such caring friends in their lives to get them through this.


  6. Sadly, this happened to me last year while I was living in South Korea. My dad was in a farming accident and lost his life instantly. For about 6 months after I completely gave up of my travel dreams. I went back to South Korea to finish my contract but I made plans of moving home and never leaving again. I realized during those 6 months that I cannot stop living even though something horrible has happened to me. I have to keep seeking happiness and joy, and for me that is on the road.

    My heart goes out to both of them. It’s an emotional ride for a couple of months and although it gets easier to handle your emotions, life is never the same. Loving family and friends is what helped me, sounds like they are both in good hands.


  7. I can’t even imagine what you’re friends must be going through, such a horrible tragedy. If there is even a sliver of silver lining in such an awful circumstance they seem to have a wonderful support group of friends with them.


  8. This is so sad, but I think all of you handled it wonderfully. I think that being an expat can be very lonely, but when tragedy strikes, or even when you just open up about your problems and ask for help, the response is overwhelming. I remember being so sad about something as trivial as missing snow for 2 years. I asked one person to take a photo of a snow angel for me. I ended up with an entire album of snow angels with my name written next to them in the snow.

    I was lucky enough not to have to deal with any deaths while I was abroad. However, my boyfriend, who is from Puerto Rico had a great grandmother die on his birthday last year. Like your grandmother, it was expected, but that doesn’t make it much easier. I played the level headed role and researched bereavement policies and called airlines for him.

    I wish J and W the best.


  9. It’s so awful when this happens. I’d know as it has literally just happened to me. Well not me personally, but a friend, just like with you. It happened suddenly and unexpectedly too. As we are in Spain it isn’t as hard on the purse strings getting back quickly, but only God knows how he must have felt upon his return. That, I expect, is when it really sinks in…


  10. I was in Colombia when my Pepere (grandfather) unexpectedly had a stroke, started to get better (we thought) then 3 days later suddenly died. I was in the Colombian countryside, in (a suddenly invaded by) guerrilla territory, and couldn’t get out safely in time to come home for the funeral.

    I totally feel. I think it is so sweet you helped cover costs. Being an expat can be quite hard sometimes, but you have to take the good with the bad. The pain makes you appreciate the pleasure so much more.


    1. I would hope that if I was ever in the same situation, my friends would be able to help me in my time of need. 🙂 You are right, you do have to take the good with the bad. It isn’t always easy, but it is life. I’m sorry you lost your grandfather when you were away. I totally feel your pain.


  11. This is the worst part of travel, by far. Or when something happens to you.
    A few years back, a friend of mine suddenly passed away. I lived in Seattle and would have had to travel to Chicago. My husband was having a cancerous tumor removed the day before her funeral. It was by far, the most trying time of my life because I had no family to help me and couldn’t get home to comfort my friend’s family, who I know very well.
    I feel for your friends. It’s hard being an expat and I am glad they at least have you.


    1. Well, now they are in Wales. I miss them heaps and have really been missing my family after this tragedy, too. It just makes you realize how incredibly precious life is. Thank you for sharing your story.


  12. I have sat in absolute shock and horror reading the emails that are rolling in lately about my own grandmother’s rapidly deteriorating health. I went to Florida to see her in December right before I left on this trip and she was fine — today she’s being moved to hospice.

    I have a feeling I’ll be writing a post like this myself sometime soon. It’s the worst part of traveling.


  13. How incredibly hard. I remember I was traveling when one of my grandmothers died and I wasn’t sure what to do. Given this was so quick and unexpected, the pain must be compounded. This is just one of the things that DOESN’T make our lives a cake walk. My heartfelt condolences.


    1. I know when I went through it, it was one of the most difficult things in my entire life. You are right, it definitely does not make things easy.


  14. This completely describes one of my biggest fears about moving abroad. Since December, I have lost both my great grandpa and, just three weeks ago, my 2 year old cousin. I was supposed to be in Guatemala right now but I didn’t go due to different circumstances and I can only be thankful that I stayed here because I cannot imagine not being here when everything happened. Grief itself is so hard but to grieve without your family or friends and to be so far away is much harder.


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