Expat Grief

My Swiss Story Blog Banner

Staying Healthy in Times of Turmoil

Angela Warm: Health Editor

It’s an expats worst nightmare, (who am I kidding, it’s anyone’s worst nightmare). But as expats it comes with an extra layer of challenges, being thousands of kilometers away should something unthinkable happen. The 4am phone call that tears you from your slumber only to hear “there’s been an accident”.  Your heart racing as you search for flights online between uncontrollable sobbing and endless questions.  And then how to keep your sanity during the grief and aftermath.

This is what happened two days into our spring holidays in April.  I thought my mom had accidentally butt dialed me as she knows better than to call in the wee hours of the morning. But after the 2nd or 3rd time, I answered it. It was my step dad telling me my mom was being rushed to the hospital with severe brain hemorrhaging and that things “didn’t look good”. 

I was able to book a flight that morning, but not before a nail biting wait for my passport.  That for other reasons was in our camper van 3 hours away with my sweet family.  My husband rushed to the airport with less than a minute to spare before the check in desk closed. I was able to give him a quick hug, before begging strangers to let me cut in the security line. 

Long flights in general have always made me weepy for whatever reason. I wonder if other expats experience this. It’s like we all live with knowing deep down that this could be our last goodbye. But this flight was different. Not knowing if your loved one would still be alive when you land… that mix of hope and fear changes you on a cellular level.

My mom was everything to me – she was an amazing mom yes, but she was also my favorite travel companion, having instilled in me the love of different cultures from an early age. She was my therapist on all manner of life issues; career, parenting, relationships, and my trusted financial advisor having had a strong background in accounting. And she was a magical “Mimi” to her 6 grandkids.

She was in short my best friend.

IMG 6948

I thought I’d been given a pass on additional family tragedy, having lost my dad at such a young age (he 50, me 26).  I thought she’d live forever or that we had at least another 15 – 20 years together. At 72, she was healthy and happy, enjoying retirement and the ability to travel again now that Covid had passed.

But life had other plans. 

I arrived at midnight and spent the first of many nights at the hospital by her side.

The next few days were going to decide her fate and ultimately everyone she touched.  

When it became clear, shortly after Easter, that things were not going to improve, the tough decision had to be made to honor her wishes and let her go in peace.

To say I am shattered would be an understatement.  Just writing this blog is challenging for me. But it is also a way to honor her memory and process my grief as well.

I am in a different place than I was 26 years ago when I lost my Dad. I was single, had a good job and was told over and over by many thoughtful people that time heals and things will get better.  I jumped back into “normal” life, not really having dealt with my grief.

IMG 1901

But this time I am feeling a different pull.  

To dive into this tragedy, to protect my energy and put the pieces back together at my own pace. I know I am privileged to have the time and space to do this.  I wish it were that way for everyone suffering a loss. As it has become abundantly clear that we don’t honor grief like we should. We tend to sweep it under the rug, not talk about it or put it on a high shelf to deal with later. I believe that if we don’t deal with it, it can lead to other problems. I know I have something to learn from this although it may be a little cloudy and tear stained at the moment. 

For most of us, we don’t know when our last days will be or how many more visits we have with out loved ones. That is why it is so important to live life now and not wait.

Most of us are either surrounded by grief or have experienced some type of grief in our lives. From the collective grief of school shootings, endless wars, and planetary destruction, to the personal loss of friendships, careers or loved ones. It is these personal and planetary losses that leave many of us feeling anxious and soul sick on a daily basis. 

How we navigate and embrace our various degrees of grief, rather than ignore and stuff them on the shelf will determine the ultimate outcome for us all. 

Grief is soul work. 

We all know deep down that loss can happen at any moment.  It is the price we pay for loving deeply. 

So how am I managing? 

Nourishment 

I know it sounds cliche coming from a Health Coach, but eating healthy has become second nature for me and has sustained me through this ordeal.  And I am far from perfect. But just the simple focus on vegetables first, protein and some healthy fats works for me.

When I first arrived stateside, I opened my suitcase to find twelve pairs of pants and no underwear.  A true testament of not thinking clearly when I hastily packed a suitcase not knowing how long or the ultimate outcome.  On a “brief” trip to Target to get a few necessities I grabbed two bags of easter chocolate (peppermint patties – my favorite and dove dark chocolate – mom’s favorite).  I thought I may “need” these to get me through this tough time.  But the truth is I never did.  After a good number of years focusing on my health, I realized that emotional eating wasn’t going to sustain me – not this time.  In fact it would just make me feel worse and I didn’t want or need that.  I felt bad enough.  So I ended up giving the candy to the nurses and family members that visited. 

anna pelzer IGfIGP5ONV0 unsplash

It is just like I tell my clients – make eating well second nature so that when life throws you a curve ball, and trust me it will, you aren’t reaching for the junk food to get you through those trying times.  Life in general is constantly testing us.  Junk food isn’t going to make it better.  Reach instead for some fruit, some protein and some vegetables instead.  Your physical and mental health will thank  you. 

Rest

On top of losing my mom, we also had an impending move to deal with back in Switzerland.  After more than two years searching, we landed a gorgeous new apartment and our landlord luckily found a new tenant for our old place right away. This meant we had less than two weeks to pack up our old apartment we’ve lived in for more than ten years and settle in the new one. 

My energy levels were quite low upon my return and I knew I had to protect them.  I prioritized rest, I took things very slowly, I napped. I didn’t stress, really – even my friends were like “Why are you not so stressed about this move?” I wasn’t, I didn’t have the energy for it to be honest. I was excited, but I was also dealing with some heavy grief. So I knew I had to take it slow and honor what I was going through.

I am not sure if it is the solitude of our new apartment, the heavy grief or the less time I’ve been spending on social media, but I have been sleeping like a baby since we moved into our new place.  And it feels amazing!

In a society that honors more… more followers, more money, more stuff – I am honoring rest and solitude. 

zohre nemati 6sNQftdA3Zs unsplash

Community

I’ve always prided myself on being fairly independent and self-sufficient, while at the same time appreciating my friendships and place in my community.  I’ve relied heavily on my friends these last six weeks.  I had friends offer to fly up and be with me both stateside and here. I talked to several friends on a daily basis for a few weeks. I could not have gotten this far along without my friends and family. I realize that everyone processes grief differently, and while many shy away, others rise to the occasion. I am grateful for my friends and family members who cried with me, consoled me and supported me in so many big and small ways.  Helping me pack, organizing the movers, offering a hand with the kids.  I cannot thank them enough.  And it felt good to ask for help and accept it.  I needed it and that is OK.  

melissa askew tSlvoSZK77c unsplash 1

Acceptance

It feels strange and I am still trying to get my head and soul around it – but it feels a bit like the changing of the guards. A new chapter is emerging.

I am honoring my grief right now and when I start putting the pieces back together, I know the picture is going to look different than it did before.

I think every expat wonders whether or not they made the right decision living overseas far from family. People often ask if I regret not living closer to my family.  Not really.  I think the distance actual made us closer.  We texted almost daily, spoke weekly and our visits although few and far between were lengthy and cherished.  Yes my family back home, misses the occasional violin recital or end of year event, but we make up for it when we do get together. My mom was 100% in support of us living abroad.  Given the state of affairs in the US, she knew it was the best place to raise our family.  

IMG 4135

Her last text message to me was saying How excited she was that we landed this new apartment.  And I can honestly feel her presence in everything I do here. I just wished she could’ve seen it for herself.

I still have a long road of grief ahead of me, but I feel I am on the right path, as broken and bumpy as it may be.  I will come out stronger and am grateful for the focus on both my physical and mental health I have committed to that have help keep me strong through this turbulent time. 

Grief dares us to love once more 

Terry Tempest Wiliams

Leave a Reply