Expats and Grief

I wrote about the difficulty of living overseas and making friends who move away [ Creating a Happy Life Overseas: Beauty Routines and Losing Friends ], of course even worse is the pain of friends who die. There’s all the grief of losing someone close to you, plus layers of complications when living in a foreign country.

Years ago, most large companies had specific housing for employees so your neighbors were work colleagues; that happens less frequently now and HR will not give out contact information (maybe because they don’t have it) so you are left scrambling trying to remember your friend’s sister’s last name or where his brother lives. You saw him every day for 5 years, but you have no way to get in touch with his family. And his friends are scattered across 4 continents. Full of heartache you sit on your sofa and try to reconstruct lines of communication with people who left years ago, that best friend of his who lives in Maui who you met when she visited, the woman who cleans his house, his friends from the sailing club who you heard about but never met.

There’s no center – everyone is sad but there is no one to direct condolences to, no place to send flowers, no one event to bring your grief to. His work friends will hold a gathering – his neighbors will meet to light candles – the people who he did sports with will say a few words at the start of their next event. But do you go to his favorite juice stand and let them know? What about the janitor who comes to your office weeping? You stand up and commiserate, but you have no language in common so you can’t share reminisces. You both are crying but you cannot hug or even shake hands. There is nothing to do but stand there and feel sad. You commiserate but there is, and always will be, a sense of incompleteness.

If a relative comes, they will sit in a hotel lobby for two hours to meet people. You can’t have the event at someone’s home because women can’t go to a strange house and no one would be able to find the house and certain expats want alcohol which means other expats won’t come… better to just suggest his brother sit in the lobby of X hotel and people can come to him. A few words and the lingering sense that more should be done or said.

If a local has died, then the parameters are clear and you can simply follow as you are told. I remember the first time a local colleague passed away, there was an e-mail to all staff and, the next day, a woman came to my office beckoning me to stand up. She looked at my outfit, nodded, then motioned me to follow her. I joined a group of other women on a bus, was given a headscarf and off we went.

We stopped at a house and, as we milled around by the front door, someone adjusted my scarf. We all went in, sat on sofas, drank a cup of tea and then left. One of the other women from UK/ USA complained afterwards but I was kind of relieved. I hadn’t known what to do (I didn’t know the man well) and glad someone organized the proper response.

Every culture has its traditions for funerals and if you are in your home space, you know what will happen, when how and why but the fun freedom of mixing cultures loses some of its luster in times of grief – this is when you need the guardrails of traditions to keep you on course.