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  • Henriette Johnsen

Advice for expats on grief: How to cope with grief whilst living abroad during the corona crisis!

Most people have seen their life change dramatically over the past weeks or months. Some have lost their jobs. Some expats don't know if they are staying or going? And if going, where to, how and when? Some have been working full time whilst trying to parent and teach their children from home. Some have been ill or know someone ill from covid-19. And some have lost a loved one to death - not necessarily from covid-19, but just as likely from another disease, an accident or from old age.


The death of a loved one is always painful. Regardless of circumstances, we are never ready to lose a loved one, and grieving the loss from afar not to mention during the corona crisis can be particularly challenging for expats.


How does life abroad affect grieving for expats?

For most people, the corona crisis has shaken up life and made what we might have taken for granted less certain. Many people experience heightened levels of fear and anxiety; and with the seemingly constant change in restrictions and guidelines, huge amounts of energy are spent figuring out how to go about everyday life.


If you imagine having a certain amount of energy available every day, finding energy to accommodate to those changes can be difficult with grief also demanding energy - just as well, as it can be difficult to find time and energy to grieve in the midst of the current turbulence. Even without the added layer of complexity of the corona virus for travelling and socialising, grief in itself is a major demand - one that can easily overwhelm even the strongest and most stable of people.


For expats, grieving from a distance can be exacerbated by not being able to attend the funeral. For many, the funeral provides a sense of closure, and some mourners express not being able to fully embark on their grief process until after this ceremonial experience. Not attending the funeral can alongside not having been around during the last phase of a loved one’s life instigate emotions of guilt, and one’s choice to live abroad can easily turn sour.


In modern age, some cultures don’t have many rituals available to mark the ending of a life besides the funeral. Besides mourning the loss of our loved one and providing some sense of closure, attending the funeral acknowledges the life of the deceased - this acknowledgement is essential to grieving.


Whilst exchange of words can be releasing, living abroad, particularly during the

pandemic, means you are less able if not totally incapable to take in-person support from your close network back home. Furthermore, it is unlikely that your circle of friends in your host country will have known the deceased. Adding to this, many people lack proper vocabulary to express profound emotions of grief and are afraid of naming death for what it is. Death is the only certainty in life; and yet, modern day people have become afraid of talking about it. Those who do have words to express themselves may not feel met if talking to people who don’t.


With less spare time activities to attend, you may have more opportunity for rumination as hobbies and interests may not be available as distractions. With increased national and international uncertainty, the potential worry of job stability, financial stability, health concerns etc. people are more vulnerable and as such, more prone to overthinking.


Depending on your media use, being reminded of corona and its death toll may add to your personal grief as well as make you worry about further loss.


As such, it is easy to see how the loss and the accompanying grief can become a lonely and isolated experience for expats.


A few good tips for expats for dealing with grief from afar

  • Keep in close contact with friends and family at home who are also grieving. Share memories about the deceased.

  • Be curious to learn the details surrounding the death; not knowing often spurs the imagination in unhelpful ways.

  • Talk to your loved ones at home about your emotions surrounding the death. Share your vulnerability and sorrows around not being able to be at home during this time.

  • If you lack motivation to reach out to others, it may be helpful to set up online video sessions in advance to hold yourself accountable.

  • For some, it may help having an object which reminds them of loving memories of the relationship with the deceased. Looking through old photos, reading old letters or making a scrap book can be helpful.

  • Remember, it’s important to have time to grieve, but also to allow yourself to enjoy your life the best you can given the circumstances. Find a good balance between time to grieve and time to do restorative activities.

  • Refraining from over-indulging in news can help you settle worries over further illness and death.

  • Practise self-compassion. Given the pandemic, this is a more challenging time to grieve. Not being aware of the additional stress can set you up for self-blame.

  • If there’s a grave, make sure you visit it the next time you are home. Although this can be painful and bring up grief, it can also be cathartic. It’s good to have ceremonial closure. If there’s no grave, you can visit a place you have shared with the deceased. Prepare a few words to say or think, a song to sing or something else which marks the end of the life lost.

  • Be prepared that loved ones back home might be further in their grieving than you are - simply as expat life shields you from fully understanding the loss as you are not home to experience how life goes on without the deceased. As such, for people back home, the loss may feel more real.

  • Remember that grieving is never a straightforward process; nor has it got a time limit. Be gentle, self-compassionate and patient with yourself.

  • If you feel stuck in your grief and/or experience feelings of guilt, therapy can be helpful - click here for more information on therapy



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