When Someone You Love Dies and You are Far, Far Away

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When Someone You Love Dies and You are Far, Far Away

someone you love diesMy Grandma Jeanne died last week.

Death sucks.

Or, in the gentler words of my wise (and gentler) friend Sue, “I hate death.”

Even if she was in her upper 80’s and, as Lucy says, “That’s what happens to people in their 80’s.”

Even if she did die well, surrounded by loving family and as pain free as possible and before the horrors of bed-ridden Alzheimer’s irrevocably set in.

She died well surrounded by loving family and I wasn’t there.

She will be buried well, surrounded by loving family and I won’t be there.

Death sucks and being far, far away from the people in mourning double sucks. I feel I said goodbye to my grandmother a few years ago when she descended into Alzheimer’s. I visited her in December. So it isn’t a lack of good-byeing. She will be buried beside my grandfather, the man she loved well for their 60 years of marriage and I wasn’t there for his funeral either.

It is a lack of being with. I am not with those who are mourning. I’m not with those who gather around food and photos and memories. I’m the hole, the absence, the space. I’m not with ‘my people’ to close the door on that life and to look into the faces that have her nose and his chin and to say, “I love you. I’m glad you are in my family. I see her living in you. I treasure the legacy I see in your children.”

Being far, far away means saying I’m sad and giving in to those emotions brings with it the burden of being afraid I’m communicating I want to go back for the funeral and the burden of being afraid that I’m communicating I don’t want to go back for the funeral.

Because ‘want’ is the absolute wrong word. Of course I want to be there and of course I want to be here, that is not the point. Or maybe it is. That is the fundamental reality of being an expatriate, of loving two places, of living in two worlds.

My family is entirely gracious in how they respond to whatever choices we make about when to return to the US and when not to but no matter the grace they extend to us, we still feel burdened by the simple fact that we are not there.


Part of me doesn’t go back because it is hard to take such long, exhausting trips. So expensive. Part of me doesn’t go back because leaving the other spouse here is really challenging. Part of me doesn’t go back when grandparents die because I’m holding on.

I’m holding onto the irrational fear that something surprising and bad will happen to someone younger. A parent, sibling, best friend. And the money will be gone, the time will be spent, I won’t be able to go. So it is almost like I’m saving up for a future grief-stricken moment. Inevitable when you love people, yes. But something to plan around now? No. It is pretty foolish and faithless, in fact.

I believe in eternity and redemption and heaven and healing but death still hurts, though the sting carries hope, and tonight as I sip my apple cinnamon tea, I salt the water with tears. Death hovers like a cold dark shroud and when people gather beneath it, together, they keep each other warm.

When someone you love dies and you are far, far away, you are outside that warmth of corporate grief and shiver and wonder if you are in the right place.

*update: I wrote this post the morning after she died. I wasn’t planning to go to Minnesota but then couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to, that now was the right time to go back. Thanks to the generosity of others and a kind-hearted husband, I will be with these (my) people for about 3 days.

*image via Flickr

By |January 31st, 2014|Categories: Expat Thoughts|Tags: , , |30 Comments


  1. Juliette January 31, 2014 at 9:52 am - Reply

    I’m really glad you’re getting to go. I’m waiting for that same shoe to drop (grandmother, late 80’s, dementia setting in) and have no reasonable expectation that I’ll be able to be there. I’m debating whether a frequent flier ticket should wait in the wings for it, or be used to attend a dear friend’s wedding, or be used towards a certification exam, all of which are back in N.America. How does one even prioritize? Being far away can be so very hard.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones January 31, 2014 at 4:55 pm - Reply

      Exactly. I can see those choices running through your mind, that is just what I mean. And when some are in the future…there are no answers, just a deep thank you from my heart for understanding the tearing feeling.

  2. Debbie January 31, 2014 at 2:03 pm - Reply

    I recently wrote on this topic as our dear friend’s little almost 3 year old girl died of leukemia. No, they are not family but the pain and wanting to be there is still the same. We Whatts app-ed back and forth and also tried to be at the funeral via Skype. Yes, it was hard.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones January 31, 2014 at 4:56 pm - Reply

      Oh so sorry. Even if they aren’t blood, the grief is real and there is a power in being present. I’m thankful you were able to communicate, it still isn’t the same though is it?

  3. Mary Perry January 31, 2014 at 2:07 pm - Reply

    I’m glad you can go. When my grandpa died long ago, we were in Indonesia and it was out of the question for me to go home. Only my husband knew him, my children hadn’t known him because they were very small, so it was as if nothing had changed.
    I never corresponded with anyone about it, it was as if it had not happened.
    When I returned to the States there was the sudden gap in my life. I felt so sorry, and grieved for the first time.
    I think I lived in denial for those years in Indonesia because I didn’t know how to mourn or grieve the man who had been my only father figure.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones January 31, 2014 at 4:58 pm - Reply

      This makes me want to cry Mary. Thank you for sharing it honestly, that must have been incredibly painful. That gap – exactly. And others have moved past it, even if they are still grieving, it is like its fresh for you, the timing is off somehow.

  4. N Limones January 31, 2014 at 2:11 pm - Reply

    My aunt and grandfather died a couple of years apart while I was overseas. Mom had to go back stateside, but impossible for the rest of us. When I was able to go back quite some years later for my grandmothers funeral, it all hit me at once. I was grieving for three people, not just the recent loss. It was hard, but brought a sense of closure.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones January 31, 2014 at 4:59 pm - Reply

      These comments make me so teary. I know what you mean about grieving all at once. My other grandmother died while we were in MN so at her funeral I felt like I was at the funeral for her, my grandfather, and two of my husband’s grandparents. Overwhelming.

  5. SG January 31, 2014 at 3:25 pm - Reply

    I’m so glad you can go back, Rachel. Hugs to you. I feel so blessed that my grandmother and father passed away while we were in the US. God was so gracious that I could grieve with family. So many expatriates don’t have that opportunity. I totally get the stress of “is it financially, physically, emotionally worth the trip?” Tough, tough decisions.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones January 31, 2014 at 5:00 pm - Reply

      Thanks. I had a similar experience with my other grandmother. She passed away just a week or so before we were returning, so my whole family could be there. It WAS a blessing. So glad you had that too.

  6. Amber January 31, 2014 at 7:48 pm - Reply

    Dear Rachel,
    Love and prayers to you and your family. I’m glad you will be with your people for a few days. Grieving is strange and complicated and being with loved ones helps so much.

  7. mpieh January 31, 2014 at 10:02 pm - Reply

    “…no matter the grace they extend to us, we still feel burdened by the simple fact that we are not there.” So well said. Thank you for putting into words the tension I struggle with on a regular basis. And, as I’m sure you know, it’s not a tension that is only felt at the time of deaths and funerals. It’s holidays, 1st birthdays, graduations, weddings…so many milestones that are celebrated by the people you love…and you are NOT there. A few days after Christmas (just last month) I was on the phone with my sister and she let her 3 1/2-year-old, my nephew Ben, get on the phone. The first thing he said to me was, “Aunt Mandy, you missed Christmas.” Ouch…that made my heart hurt. 🙁

    We’ve lived far away from extended family for many years now (a total of over 13), we know that God has placed us where He wants us, we love where we live…it really is “home” for our family. But I believe that that tension and heart-ache will always be there. In a way, I’m thankful for it. It serves as a reminder of the tension of living in a world that separates us from the everlasting love and presence of God, and the longing of someday arriving in our true home. (That didn’t come out quite how I meant it, but you know what I mean.) 🙂

    • Rachel Pieh Jones February 1, 2014 at 4:28 am - Reply

      Good reminder to be thankful for it, Mandy. I totally know what you mean and there is a twinge of blessing in there, a longing that we can understand so deeply. That IS sad, what your nephew said.

  8. Whitney February 1, 2014 at 1:12 am - Reply

    If there’s one thing comforting about reading your story and everyone’s comments, it is that we are not alone in our unique grief as expats. My husband and I have had to make the same difficult decisions about not traveling back to the States for family events like funerals, weddings, etc. of very close friends and family. The pain never gets any less, but God is faithful to give us peace about our decisions, whether it is to stay or go. My heart goes out to you and your family; thank you for sharing your story.

  9. Rachel Pieh Jones February 1, 2014 at 4:30 am - Reply

    Exactly. I almost didn’t post this, or was going to take out some of the more personal parts. But I’m glad I did, it is really encouraging to know that other people really understand and can empathize. Thanks Whitney.

  10. Anne Boyd February 1, 2014 at 10:55 am - Reply

    My thanks to all of you for your courage, and loving heart sthat led you to share with us! It’s hard to type through my tears. Seldom do I allow myself to know how challenging it is to be an expat. God has given me a blessed, challenging “work” to do in poverty stricken Transylvania. I love my life here. This is my home now…but some of my loved ones reject me for following God’s calling…we pay a “price”…but I do not want to be anywhere else…I’m an expat…and down deep inside sometimes I feel it.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones February 1, 2014 at 12:48 pm - Reply

      “I am an expat…and deep down inside sometimes I feel it.” Oh my, Anne, exactly. I love how you phrased that.

  11. Anat February 1, 2014 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    I don’t know you, yet as a trailing spouse of a diplomat can relate to many of your stories.
    I was so happy to read that you decide to go home in the end!
    My grandfather died in Israel 6 months after moving to the US, and I had the same dilemma if to go back. Luckily my hubby didn’t hesitate for a minute and “sent” me home with our son. It was the wisest thing I could’ve done. Added to the grief was the very difficult transition to the US, and the trip back home was so very comforting. I now view my grandfather’s death (and it’s timing) to be his last gift to me. With his death he enabled me to go home, be together with family and friends, and thus to lift myself out of very heavy blues and also attend a nephews Bar Mitzvah I hadn’t planned on attending.
    Because his death wasn’t tragic, just a very sad goodbye, that closure was indeed a gift in so many ways.

    • Rachel Pieh Jones February 1, 2014 at 4:58 pm - Reply

      What a great way to look at it – his last gift to you, that is really precious.

  12. Jill February 1, 2014 at 10:34 pm - Reply

    Sorry, Rachel, for your loss. And for the added oddness that living in another world brings. Like having two different bodies, almost. I missed my Dad’s wedding. Marit missed her Grampa’s funeral, and the weddings of two of her closest friends. I’ve lost count of how many funerals our teammates missed — mothers, brothers, fathers…It’s a pain we can all relate to, and that is maybe one silver lining. Such a camaraderie in this community. Glad you get to come this way after all.

  13. Natalie February 2, 2014 at 6:50 am - Reply

    Both of my grandmothers have died since we’ve lived in Indonesia. I feel your pain of longing to be there. I couldn’t go, so for both grandmothers we held our own memorial service. I gathered pictures and through tears told stories to my children about the amazing women that their grandmothers were. On furloughs I have been able to visit their graves and have some closure. Blessings.

  14. Lana February 3, 2014 at 5:35 am - Reply

    Sorry for your loss. My grandmother is losing her memory. Hard. I’ve often thought that I probably will it be around when she dies.

  15. […] morning I checked email and learned that my maternal grandmother passed away, Thursday evening Minnesota […]

  16. Anna February 4, 2014 at 5:40 pm - Reply

    I’m sorry to hear. We’ve been in that position before. 🙁

  17. J September 22, 2014 at 9:14 am - Reply

    We had been overseas almost two years when my dad received a terminal cancer diagnosis. There were already many health issues and I had considered his death during our time away as a possibility, so in some ways I felt like I said goodbye for forever when we left the states. But still I was grieving and away and missing out on the work and difficulty of caring for he and my mom that my sisters were having to do, the burden and also the opportunity to serve, and the guilt (though it came not from my family) of not being there to help. I was wondering whether I should go to visit alone or with my husband and four young children. We did not have the money for all of us. And there were all the questions of whether I should even go, like you mentioned. His condition hit a low-point and my sister said then might be the last chance. Did I even want my children to see my father like this? They had only good memories. We did not know what to do. We prayed. We sought counsel. Our new bunny of three days suddenly died with us all surrounding her and we watched our kids grieve and we wondered. Then God provided through the generosity of some unnamed in our fellowship for us all to go. We took that as God’s answer and we packed and left a week later. At the same time my dad’s medications were changed and he revived. We were able to extend early bereavement leave with vacation time and visit my family, my husband’s family and our church family for over three weeks. And my dad was doing well, not take the kids out on the farm kind of well, but turn on PBS Kids so they will sit with him in the living room kind of well and one day look through a tractor book and get my oldest to read it kind of well and at one lunch with me and my kids attempt to pray, but immediately fall to tears kind of well and surprise us and go with us to my sister’s house one night kind of well and give me his ear and answer that he was trusting in Jesus’ righteousness alone kind of well and on a bad pain day when I hugged him again too tight to tell me it hurt kind of well, and to accept hugs and “I love you’s” from my kids kind of well. What a blessing! We returned thankful and yet grieving and even waiting for the inevitable, the death and not being there for that. We waited and kept talking and thanking God. And when my dad died “suddenly” four months after we returned, we grieved again. We had our own service of sorts here and I skyped in by myself at night to the service with my family. And now, three months later, we still grieve. I still grieve. It is often a silent grieving here, in far far away, sometimes, where no one else knew my dad or that last week was his birthday and that what I just said was some of his “material.” It’s not the same for my husband and kids. And sometimes I don’t know how to insert into the grief going on the other side of the sea, with my mom and sisters. But, God has been gracious, and we have talked some and even to acknowledge a memory together via email is good. But, yeah, it’s hard wherever you are, and I think returning to the states and him not being there will be another part of the grief for us. I look forward to when death has no sting.

  18. Kat March 20, 2015 at 8:41 pm - Reply

    I am grieving for my grandmother who has little time left. We only live a state away however our finances will not support a trip to see her. I have guilt that I am not going to see her. My heart is broken. This is the 5th person I will have lost since moving.

  19. valerie cummings August 10, 2016 at 10:00 pm - Reply

    Not all family funerals are the best to beat can be some family tension etc, for me I wish i could off been there to visit her when she was in the care home my-my mother that is: but last I heard she had another stroke and my brothers are there with her, do not know if its the last yet. I think being away shelters me in some way from a lot more heartache than actually being in this moment, I believe I find it so overwhelming. so I pray and think of her and wait to here, she’s gone on to be with the LORD or is still here.
    I actually am ready to let her go and being a believer know she be with the LORD and my dad waiting for her.

  20. Lene January 14, 2018 at 10:36 pm - Reply

    I live in New Zealand – I’m from Denmark – yep, two opposite ends of the world.
    I went back to see my mum in September 17, she was bedridden, we had a great time and I painted her nails, brushed her hair and we shared love and laughter.
    She has now died – last week – and I’ve decided not to go the funeral.( I think) Until I tell people – and they say – But why not? I feel I’ve said my goodbyes – although I’ve done that every time I’ve left DK after a holiday – she was 94.
    The thing that’s the hardest is – you’re on your own with your grief – yeah, friends,colleagues, husband etc are there with support – but you’re not around your own flesh and blood (4 siblings) and you feel like you’re “missing out”. I’m not full of money and could easily spend the $$ it costs to go on “nice things”… just my input – still deciding..

  21. sandhya angel December 18, 2018 at 11:11 am - Reply

    my grandmother died at night only everybody is there but i’m not there because i live far other country early morning i got call from there so i’m very much sad feel cry all time but being strong its very hard time even i’m not there couldn’t see her in last moment even very unlucky i’m

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