Having Difficult Conversations: Preparing Yourself for Grief and Loss While Living Abroad
You probably don’t want to think about this, but we’re 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. Not only is there the everyday balancing act of caring about two separate worlds, there’s also the possibility that tragedy will strike your family (or even the world as a whole) and you will be far away and alone as you try to figure out what to do.
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 and that’s why we can’t urge you enough to have these difficult conversations BEFORE you move.
And we get, we’ve been there too—super excited about our moves, wrapped up in the chaos of paperwork and packing. What we were going to do if grandpa got sick or if a pandemic hit were the furthest things from our minds. In fact, Dani distinctly recalls reading through her pre-orientation guide the month before she left to study abroad in Alicante when she came across the section on “difficult conversations to have before you go.”
Upon reading further, she 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 a car accident and hospitalized?
If someone close to me passes away?
If a pet is ill?
They were certainly questions that Dani, a super positive person, didn’t want to think about, let alone talk about! Still, the guidebook prompted her to do it and so she did point out these concerns to her parents. Their response, though, was essentially “don’t worry about it.”
In hindsight, Dani can now imagine they were probably caught-off-guard just as much as she had been and so the idea of discussing (at-that-moment) non-existent grave topics shook them a bit. Still, they assured her that if and when any of the situations arose, they would discuss them then. As a family, they chose to avoid those discussions and let those topics go.
Thankfully, Dani was lucky and no one in her biological family fell ill or passed away during her time studying abroad and she was never put in the situation of deciding if she would return home for a funeral. However, a person who felt like family did pass away and having to work through that on her own and far away from home was hard.
After living for years outside of the United States, we’ve now unfortunately had time for those difficult talks to have really come into play. After going through the difficult times without a plan, we most certainly advise you to have one ahead of time. In fact, we believe it’s perhaps even more important to have these difficult conversations if you don’t have any sick family members because the unexpected instances can be the hardest.
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, which is more important to me―having the chance to see that person before they pass away or being there with my 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?
Consider all of the same questions you considered in the question above. It can be difficult, but important to acknowledge how your actions may vary depending on who has died, the timing, etc.
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, we know these circumstances could be just as unsettling so be sure to think about them, too.
As uncomfortable as these conversations may be, we believe they are very important things to consider before you move abroad. In many cases, returning home unexpectedly can be costly and difficult and it’s helpful to have already established expectations with your loved ones. 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.
When tragedy hits, at the very least, it can be comforting to know that you have already discussed a plan previously. If your family already knows that you cannot financially afford a last minute flight home (for example), then this makes the blow of not attending your uncle’s funeral more bearable.
Of course, you can always change your mind! Who’s to say that you knew back then how you would feel now? Every situation is going to be different and perhaps in the moment you won’t want to act as you had originally 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.
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.
Have you experienced loss while living abroad? What else helped you work through that difficult situation?
*As we update this post in 2020, we would be remiss not to acknowledge that worldwide health crises like the Coronavirus pandemic are also something you may want to discuss ahead of time. Of course, in these situations there will be national (in Spain, or wherever your home abroad is) and domestic (in your home country) laws in place to guide your choices that you can’t necessarily predict. Nonetheless, discussing expectations with your loved ones can save you some headache and heartbreak down the line, if such a situation were to present itself.