People and Places
Tales from A trailing Wife - The dark & lonely aspect of Expat Life
I am thinking of a dear friend of mine who arrived in South Africa after a long haul flight from Asia to say farewell to her loved ones. I cannot imagine how she is holding up. Hardly slept; going through the motions of trying to board a flight, with stop overs and feeling so very heart-broken, wanting to share her sadness but knowing that if she opened her mouth she would start crying and might have a breakdown in front of total strangers. So she just smiles and looks down, keeping to herself, her grief written all over her face. She is traveling alone. Her husband asked her if she will be ok and without thinking she said yes of course, I will be fine and of course you cannot just leave work and come with me. Not for a second would we consider asking our husbands to go with us. They would if we asked them. Expat Wives have over the years become so independent and resilient.
Yes, not one but two, her beloved brother and mother. The fact that both died unexpected within two days of each other is one thing, but the fact that she was at the other end of the world when she got the phone calls is a part of our expat life that is indescribable. I suppose it does not make any difference where you are when you loose a loved one, but there are differences. YOU ARE ALONE. You cannot jump into the car and be with your family; you have thousands of questions, you are in shock which means you do not stay on the phone long because the person phoning you is also without words. You put down the phone in disbelief and then you sit there; alone. You have so many questions. You try to call back but the phone is engaged, non stop. Then you realize due to the time zone changes, anyone you could phone is now sleeping, or you think they are and cannot disturb them. And THEN the guilt hits you, right in the stomach and you can hardly breeze. Why did I not jump on the plane when I got news of the illness, why did I think they were going to come out of it just fine. WHY WHY WHY? Our logical thoughts know that there was nothing we could have done; that we had rushed home before and everything turned out well the last time; that it is always a tug of war of emotions; between wanting to be there and the question of finance. These on the spur of the moment air tickets are not cheap as we know. Your immediate thought might be, but money should not play a role in this. Well, let me tell you it does when you fly long haul flights 5 times or more a year to be with your family and children who live on different continents.
The other difference is that when you live far away from your family for many years you are also removed from their daily life and will find that at the memorial service you know maybe 2 people, the rest are not even aware that a piece of your heart is missing. And then you come back home where you live for now and nobody knew your loved ones. They do not know how they looked, how funny they were, how annoying; how caring, how loving, how generous. Talking about them means little to the others, yes your expat friends are there for you. But as we all know, it is more comforting to remember a loved one with someone who knew them. And because of that unfamiliarity it is quickly forgotten. Sometimes we are lucky enough to have been on an assignment long enough to make one close friend who feels comfortable enough to hold you up. Luckily I did have one when this happened to me and I am forever grateful to her, but for the most part you grieve in silence, pretending that all is fine for the longest of time, feeling alone in your sadness.
I wish I could find that young man who sat next to me on my flight home from Namibia to the UK. I wish I could apologize to him. I hope that my non-stop crying and talking about my deceased sister enriched his life in the end and not frighten him into despondency. I remember his comment to me that opened the flood gates – he was sad, felt uncertain and questioned his decision of heading to Europe on his own as his girlfriend had just sent him a “Dear John” letter. I launched into a lecture of how young he was, how lucky he was to be alive, how he needed to grab every opportunity and make the best of it. And not be sad. He was only in his early twenties. I wish I could thank him for his good manners and considered approach to me; how he allowed me to share my disbelief that my 28-year-old sister had died. I was still in total shock when I got on that plane. For this young man it was a long long trip of 13 hours. Can you imagine the pure trepidation when he saw me in line for the same connection flight from Amsterdam to London. Thankfully I realized this and waved him on his way.
Another emotion that surfaces at a time like this is the question of having chosen to live the expat life, removing you from your loved ones. Is it worth it? Did I make the right choices. Being so far away did not make us love our family any less. In our case I think the distance and infrequency of physical contact has made us even closer. Our families eventually understood the decisions that drove us to keep going. With friends it is another story. Most of the time out of sight also means out of mind. Again, we have been so very fortunate. Whenever we show up from overseas, a core group would make time for us and put a lot of effort into getting old friends together. Thanks everyone, you have no idea how much it means to us.
Back to my topic. If we could bag the guilt we feel in leaving our families, in not being there to care for our elderly parents, in not being there for our siblings in times of need, in not experiencing special milestones in the lives of our nieces and nephews; we would be so wealthy. But we cannot bag it, and even when we try to tell ourselves that this guilt we feel is wasted energy; it never goes away. Even though I have a very close relationship with my 80+ father and 77+ mother, try to see them as often as I can, when that call comes the guilt will be backbreaking. And the journey home for my last farewell will be a very, a very long one, and a silent one.