Having Difficult Conversations


Dear John,

I know you don’t want to think about it, but I’m just gonna be honest with you. Going abroad is a beautiful, worthwhile experience but in certain ways it is also a risk and a difficulty. I remember reading through my pre-orientation guide in the month before I left for my study abroad semester in Alicante (because, YES, I’ve always read all of the instructions I was asked to read) when I came across the section on “difficult conversations to have before you go.”

Upon reading further, I realized the conversations they were talking about truly WERE difficult―what will I do if a family member becomes gravely ill? If a friend is in car accident and hospitalized? If someone close to me passes away? If a pet is ill? As someone who is very positive, they were certainly things I didn’t want to think about, let alone talk about! Still, my guidebook prompted me to do it and so I did point this out to my parents.

I realize know that they were probably caught just as much off-guard as I was and just as much shaken by the thought of discussing (at-the-moment non-existent) grave topics. And so they told me we didn’t need to worry about that. If the situation arose, we would discuss it then. I pointed out the paragraph that explained how it’s just as important to have these chats even if you don’t have any sick family members because the unexpected instances are the hardest. Still, my parents maintained that it was not necessary yet.

So we avoided those discussions. We just let them go. And I was lucky―no one in my biological family fell ill or passed away during my time studying abroad so I was never put in the situation of deciding if I would return home for a funeral. However, a person who felt like family did pass away and having to work through that on my own and far away from home was hard. Now that I’ve been living for years outside of the United States, I’ve unfortunately had time for those difficult talks to have really come into play.

Let me say this, if you’ve ever lost anyone close to you or received unexpected news of a friend/family member’s accident or diagnosis, you know how paralyzing those situations can be. Under any circumstances, it takes time for that reality to sink in and for you to understand how to react. Living abroad at the same time presents a whole new layer of difficulty.

Suddenly, being there for the family members is not just the easy choice to take a couple hours out of your life today to drive over to the hospital. Instead, you’re confronted with the decision to return home or not and you DON’T have as much time to process that. You have to consider the long journey and the high cost of those last minute flights. In some cases, it’s absolutely clear that going back is the right decision. In others, it’s hard to tell if it’s worth it, knowing you may not make it while that person is still alive.

Deciding what is and isn’t worth it gets into really personal, religious, and metaphysical beliefs, so we don’t need to go there together. Still, I’m sharing these thoughts in general because I DO think you should discuss this with your family. Every situation is going to be different and perhaps in the moment you won’t want to act as you had planned. Nevertheless, if you ever receive such bad news while abroad, it’s normal to go into a bit of shock or panic and so having a game plan will at least save you from having to consider everything from zero.


As you get into those discussions, here are a few things you might want to consider:

1.) How will I handle a family member becoming gravely ill, hospitalized, etc? What about for friends?

  •  Is that answer different depending on who it is? (This may sound like an awful thing to consider, but be honest with yourself. If you grew up going to one of your grandma’s houses every day after school and the other one lived across the country and you only got to see her on the holidays, your relationship is different.)
  •  Is that answer different depending on when it happens? (If someone is hospitalized just a week before you’re scheduled to return, would you get your flights changed and cut your time in Spain short or have faith that you will still be able to see them a week later?)
  •  If death seems imminent, what is more important―having the chance to see that person before they pass away or being there with family for the services? (Sometimes both are not possible; talking this through with your family can be helpful as you may have different perspectives.)

2.) How will I handle an unexpected death? Keeping in mind the previous questions as well.

3.) How will I handle either of these situations for a pet? (If you are not someone who grew up with animals, this question may seem silly but for those pet-lovers out there, I know these circumstances could be just as unsettling so be sure to think about them, too.)

Discussing death and illness is never enjoyable, but it can be a slightly better experience if you take the time to do it before the circumstances are real and while everyone can think clearly. It will give you peace of mind to know that you’ve considered it and will therefore be more prepared in the case that you have to deal with any of these awful situations.