Dr Lucy Fuks, clinical director of Community Help Service in Brussels, offers some advice on how to deal with the death of a loved one when you are miles away from home.
Disbelief overwhelms you when you receive the dreaded phone call: “It can’t be true! I’ll be able to ring him again, as I used to…”, “She’ll come and welcome me at the airport, as usual.”
We have been familiar, for a long time, with the various stages of bereavement: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance, as Kübler Ross puts them; C.S. Lewis identifies three stages we go through: shock, grief and resolution. But we now widely accept that those stages were never meant too literally. There is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our life.
Mourning is a complex process which will have a different impact on various members of the same family. Some may spend quite a while in denial; others will be seething with rage. Not all will accept to go on living with only memories of the lost one, alive in their heart. These unresolved bereavements may lead to chronic depression.
Dealing with grief as an expat
But why is it more difficult for expats? Being far away from home will make death all the more surreal. It’s always difficult – almost impossible – to grasp: one moment ago, it was possible to talk to him, to see her, to touch her, perhaps even to dread her suffering. The next moment, a loved one is gone, never to come back again. This is so painful that we may be tempted to deny it. Maybe they are alive back home, as usual, and we’ll just have to wait a bit longer for the next phone call, or the next visit.
Another frequent complication of bereavement is guilt. We feel responsible for the loved person’s death: “If only we had called the doctor sooner; if only I hadn’t worried her so much…” But it’s not easy to take care of an ageing parent long distance. How can you combine looking after your young children, keeping your professional obligations, and travelling long distance to visit someone ill with cancer?
And once he or she is gone, who will remember them over here? There are no neighbours who will know how she used to take care of her garden; no friend who will remember what a good teacher he had been. So you are left on your own, twice alone, to deal with your loss.
- Participate, as much as possible, in the mourning ceremony: this will of course vary if there is a religious belief or not, but try, as much as possible, to make it personal (speeches, favourite poems, music etc.)
- Look at pictures, talk with people who were close to the deceased, and if you are far away, email them or phone them.
- Share your feelings with people around you, even if they didn’t know the person who died. If they are your true friends, they’ll understand, especially if they have lost someone themselves.
- If you get very angry with people around you, bear in mind that your anger may be deflected from your mourning process. If this has negative consequences on your daily life, at work or in your family, seek help.
- If you find it really difficult to go on living, if you are constantly obsessed with sad thoughts, if you are overwhelmed with guilt, and especially if this lasts, despite your attempts to talk about it with people around you, seek help.
Dr Lucy Fuks
Clinical Director of CHS
Community Help Service, which runs the Mental Health Centre in Brussels, is a professional team of psychologists, psychotherapists and psychiatrists who offer confidential support and professional services to English speakers of any nationality, including bereavement counselling.
Mental Health Centre
Boulevard de la Cambre, 33
1000 Brussels Belgium
Tel: +32 (0) 2 647 67 80