As you read this I am back in Britain attending a funeral. It is one of the hardest aspects of expat life – being away from family and loved ones at times of sickness and bereavement. I’m lucky that I can be back in England within hours. I know many expats have it much tougher (like my brother in the US) when they need to be back in their passport country, the place that is still home to those we care so much about. Words I wrote last week ring in my ears,
“Normal life continues at home or away with all its ups and downs. Moving overseas does not mean there is no more drama in your life, or that you can escape what happens back ‘home’. Sometimes it can actually make problems worse as solving issues back in your home country is harder. Expat life is not an escape from life.“
When something bad happens that makes me want to go back to my birth country, it is never a question of just jumping in a car and heading off. Not like it would be if I still lived in England. Life as an expat means it’s not straightforward to be there for loved ones the moment you are needed. It takes time. It takes planning. Travel needs to be booked. Emergency funds are needed. Logistics take over.
On top of that loved ones back ‘home’ inevitably say things like, “don’t feel like you have to come back” or “no one is expecting you to fly over for the funeral” or stronger still, “don’t come, there’s nothing you can do anyway.” They are genuinely trying to make life easier, take a decision out of your hands. But I know in my heart if I can be there then I will. Expected or not. Easy or not.
Because on one occasion I couldn’t be there, and it haunts me still seven years later.
This time I’ve headed back alone. My children need normal life here in the Netherlands to carry on. They don’t need to be at a funeral. That sentiment is not expat related, it’s just a parenting choice. Last week, as a couple my husband and I needed to think ahead, to juggle, to scamper around in order to make it work so I could get a flight back to England, stay overnight in Wales and fly back to the Netherlands the following day.
Whilst I was making plans last week so I could be in Wales today it struck me that there will only be more of these moments in the future. None of us are getting any younger.
I have been back to England on one previous occasion for a funeral and that time too I flew back alone. The news was out of the blue. It came as a hard hitting punch. It was heartbreaking to be there at the graveside but I wanted to be there for my family, to show I cared, even though I had been no part of the pain they had been through in the months and weeks before the end. Being there without my husband and my own little family was tough but it was no tougher an experience than not being present at my gran’s funeral seven years ago. The absence that haunts me still, seven years later.
My first son has just been born, I was an emotional wreck, he had no passport, I was breastfeeding waiting for my milk to come in properly. And then I learnt that my gran has passed away. I had seen her in hospital a few months prior to her death; she’d had a stroke. It broke my heart to see her so different to the grandmother she had been to me growing up. Whilst I held her hand as she sat in her hospital bed I knew it was a possibility that I would not see her again. But I hoped. And as the new year rolled in the news did seem to be getting more positive. There was a glimmer of light, a hope of at least a part recovery. But the light went out. And I couldn’t be at her funeral. Logistics. Timing. Expat stuff.
So I know in my heart, if I can be there, I will. The alternative is harder to bear.