Grief is a Foreign Country

I have done a lot of traveling and the metaphor of ‘grief is a foreign country’ is very apt. Grief isn’t what you expect, takes a while to settle into and, sometimes, it is difficult to leave.

In September a close friend died suddenly – I had known Laurence for 17 years and, in the way of expat friendships, he knew everyone I had worked with, all my other expat friends and we watched the same movies (in the DVD days), read the same books (before Kindle) and coordinated overseas shipping for everything from vitamins to Christmas cards to pet food to coffee presses. He was my external memory bank of dozens of people and hundreds of events and he was gone from one moment to the next.

I had lost friends and relatives before so thought I knew something of sadness. And it turns out I was right. I had sadness down pat, but I was totally unprepared for grief. For weeks I would start crying at random moments, I avoided places I had previously loved, I was inarticulate, I could not cope with e-mail, daily routines honed over years went hay-wire.

I was not myself and suddenly all those scenes in movies of staying in bed for weeks and forgetting to shower made sense. I thought was dramatic license. Nope. Accurate. Grief did not take me like that – but it took me into sitting on my sofa for hours, staring at the walls. It took me to an inertia so solid that I left a basic appliance unfixed for months – it took me to blank weeks in which I went to work and came home but I have no memory of.

May this never happen to you. Oh yes, there are interesting aspects, you learn all sorts of things about yourself (I can hold perfectly coherent phone conversations with tears streaming down my face, who knew?). You surprise yourself – my mind could not cope with the fact that after almost two decades he wasn’t there, so I started talking to Laurence, speaking random comments outloud, informing Laurence of news I had just heard or something funny that had happened.

Grief picks you up and sets you down someplace sort of familiar but totally different; it’s a new land and you have no choice but to adjust to what you find. You can’t possible predict how the sorrow will hit you, how it will change you or when it will end.

I remember a close friend who I had coffee with once a week for four years – his order was always an espresso, followed an hour later with another espresso, always drinking them without milk or sugar. In the middle of the third year of knowing him, a close relative of his died. The first time we had coffee after that, he ordered his espresso, brought it to the table, reached out for a sugar packet, tore it open and dumped it in the espresso. Then put in another sugar.

I didn’t mention it, we never talked about it but I have not forgotten that. His hands tearing into the sugar packet, stirring in the sugar and me realizing that this kind and gentle man who was quietly discoursing on a book we had both read was not actually with me at the table, he was far away, away from being able to register what he was doing, what he was tasting. He was in the appointed coffee shop at the appointed time, and he was not. He was in the land of grief, where the smallest, most basic fact about yourself (I always drink my coffee black) could be changed.

And as blessed time slowly eases the pain, as you gradually leave, you won’t be able to know ahead of time which changes are permanent. I might spend the rest of my life making random comments to Laurence every day. I might not. I might get the AC in the spare bedroom fixed. I might not.

And if anyone tries to tell you to buck up and get on with it, Darling, as in most things, don’t go to the Romans (To no man make yourself a boon companion: Your joy will be less but less will be your grief – Marcus Aurelius), stay with Shakespeare


    Can counsel and speak comfort to that grief

    Which they themselves not feel; but, tasting it,

    Their counsel turns to passion, which before

    Would give preceptial medicine to rage,

    Fetter strong madness in a silken thread,

    Charm ache, with air and agony with words.

            Much Ado About Nothing

Missing Laurence

Expats and Grief

Creating a Happy Life Overseas: Warm Greetings and Interconnectedness

Creating a Happy Life Overseas: Beauty Routines and Losing Friends