When Someone You Love Dies, and You are Far, Far Away

by Rachel Pieh Jones on October 2, 2015

Holy Ground w quote

Note: This was written a year and a half ago, but still holds true for today.

My Grandma Jeanne died last week.

Death sucks.

Or, in the gentler words of my wise (and gentler) friend Sue, “I hate death.”

Even if she was in her upper 80’s and, as Lucy says, “That’s what happens to people in their 80’s.”

Even if she did die well, surrounded by loving family and as pain free as possible and before the horrors of bed-ridden Alzheimer’s irrevocably set in.

She died well surrounded by loving family and I wasn’t there.

She will be buried well, surrounded by loving family and I won’t be there.

Death sucks and being far, far away from the people in mourning double sucks. I feel I said goodbye to my grandmother a few years ago when she descended into Alzheimer’s. I visited her in December. So it isn’t a lack of good-byeing. She will be buried beside my grandfather, the man she loved well for their 60 years of marriage and I wasn’t there for his funeral either.

It is a lack of being with. I am not with those who are mourning. I’m not with those who gather around food and photos and memories. I’m the hole, the absence, the space. I’m not with ‘my people’ to close the door on that life and to look into the faces that have her nose and his chin and to say, “I love you. I’m glad you are in my family. I see her living in you. I treasure the legacy I see in your children.”

Being far, far away means saying I’m sad and giving in to those emotions brings with it the burden of being afraid I’m communicating I want to go back for the funeral and the burden of being afraid that I’m communicating I don’t want to go back for the funeral.

Because ‘want’ is the absolute wrong word. Of course I want to be there and of course I want to be here, that is not the point. Or maybe it is. That is the fundamental reality of being an expatriate, of loving two places, of living in two worlds.

My family is entirely gracious in how they respond to whatever choices we make about when to return to the US and when not to but no matter the grace they extend to us, we still feel burdened by the simple fact that we are not there.

grandma

Part of me doesn’t go back because it is hard to take such long, exhausting trips. So expensive. Part of me doesn’t go back because leaving the other spouse here is really challenging. Part of me doesn’t go back when grandparents die because I’m holding on.

I’m holding onto the irrational fear that something surprising and bad will happen to someone younger. A parent, sibling, best friend. And the money will be gone, the time will be spent, I won’t be able to go. So it is almost like I’m saving up for a future grief-stricken moment. Inevitable when you love people, yes. But something to plan around now? No. It is pretty foolish and faithless, in fact.

I believe in eternity and redemption and heaven and healing but death still hurts, though the sting carries hope, and tonight as I sip my apple cinnamon tea, I salt the water with tears. Death hovers like a cold dark shroud and when people gather beneath it, together, they keep each other warm.

When someone you love dies and you are far, far away, you are outside that warmth of corporate grief and shiver and wonder if you are in the right place.

What has helped you to cope when you are far away from the grieving ones?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Marla Taviano

    A month ago tomorrow, our dear friends and old neighbors in the States (we moved to Cambodia 9 months ago) lost their precious 2-year-old son to cancer. He was our favorite little neighbor boy for half of his life, and we miss him so much. I wrote about him on my blog to share his beautiful story with everyone I know, and his mama & daddy asked me to write another tribute to be read at his funeral since we couldn’t be there. It was (and is) still so hard, but I was so thankful that my words were a blessing to them and was so honored to be a part of remembering him. (And I know what you mean about saving up for a future grief-stricken moment. I have this mental war going on. Whose funeral would we go back for? How many of us would go? Then what if someone REALLY close to us dies and we can’t afford to go…? Trying to trust and not borrow trouble.)

  • Kristi Lonheim

    I think it is missing out on the community aspect of grieving that makes not being there so hard. And yes, when to wisely use our resources for long, expensive trips take lots of wisdom. Expat life is not all glamour and fun, is it?!

  • Richelle Wright

    I’ve not found anything to help with the grieving other than walking through it… sometimes wallowing in the grief, sometimes keeping busy enough to not feel it, not apologizing for it and trying to remember the bigger picture – like you wrote, we “believe in eternity and redemption and heaven and healing but death still hurts…” What was also hard was finding out that we grieved all over again when we returned and those who we love but are now gone are no longer gone in “theory” and from far away… but are gone from all those places and times and events where we’d somehow still expected them to be.

  • Anna Wegner

    We had to have the difficult talk about which people’s deaths we would return to the US for. In a place that is isolated and hard to get in and out of at times, you can’t take the time to think about it once a death happens. That was hard, but at least I knew we would have a plan to help in those times. What sometimes helps me with grieving is taking some time out of my schedule to have some time to process. Otherwise, I just ignore the feelings and find that they crop back up later.
    I was in a culture (Congo) where grieving is a group process, but it was hard for me to tell others about my own grief. I’m used to withdrawing to deal with emotions in private, but I found that sharing those things made me closer to my friends there.

  • Holly Lovegrove

    So very true. First my grandmother, then my mother, then my father ad finally my brother-in-law have died while I was serving God overseas. I only managed to get back for their funerals, and even that was sometimes a real financial hardship. My grandmother hadn’t known me for years and she was old; one has a sense of rightness. But my dearly-loved mother died of unexpected cancer at only 69; I did have a month with her before she became seriously ill, but I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye really. Years later my father reacted badly to a combination of medications and killed himself in a depression caused by them– again, no chance to say goodbye. I tried to do better with my brother-in-law when he was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor; although I could not see him personally before he died, I did write a letter which helped me take my leave. Still, it is always hard and feels wrong to not physically be there with a loved one in their last days. It’s one of the prices paid for a life overseas; Luke 18:29 sometimes feels rather small comfort.

  • Care Families

    My step mom died this last January during our 4th year serving in Kenya. Usually step moms are not grieved well by their stepchildren, but mine – she was someone who helped put me where I am today. I wrote a tribute to make me feel better. It did for a while yet not being with those who loved her when she left formed a tender emptiness that hurts to touch. Last week, my mentor died. We are still in Kenya. The emptiness is bigger and more tender. Writing eases the pain a bit.

  • We were facing loss from the far away place at the beginning of this year. For me, writing did make it easier and somehow connected me to those grieving far away. Writing to family, writing a blog, and most importantly writing a tribute. http://themongers.blogspot.com/2015/02/kniting-legacy-thoughts-from-far-away.html

  • Nathanael Davis

    We recently lost a friend. Her death was far from pleasant. It was tough for my wife and I to be here and not there. It was hard to grieve around people who never met her. Who didn’t care about her. Who were not grieving the loss. Thanks for sharing. It was refreshing.

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