Yeah, it has been rather a long hiatus from the blog, and I’ve learnt from reading a lot of other blogs in the last few months that a few words of explanation to whatever following I have are required. So here goes, with a post that I have definitely been putting off writing – Dealing with Death as an Expat.
After the Christmas break, which we spent on home leave, I got back to Korea the day after celebrating my dad’s 71st birthday with him in London. And three weeks later, I was back in London because my dad wasn’t doing very well, and three very short, but at the same time, horribly long, days after I landed at London Heathrow, he passed away on 15th February 2018.
The next five weeks that I was in London were a mix of sadness, family togetherness and paperwork and admin speared by a constant sense of longing and loss. Everyday brought new challenges and tasks that my mum, brothers and I had to work out how to deal with – the same as anyone who has lost a central figure in their family has to do – and we learnt a lot about our resilience as a family through the process. I’m not going to bore you with all the things that have to be dealt with in the UK when a person dies, but I will say this – if you are in a position that you might have to take the lead in making such arrangements in your home country then make sure you know what is required well before. Getting off a plane and trying to find out what to do and at the same time, get it done, is hard. We, sadly, had a lot of support from family who had been through all the processes, which made registering the death and organizing the funeral so much easier and without that, we would have been lost.
One of my personal biggest challenges was getting on the plane to come home to Korea. SO. MUCH. GUILT. Leaving the country that was my dad’s home hurt. I desperately wanted to stay in London but I equally desperately wanted to come home. Wherever I was, I would be leaving someone behind and at that moment, it was more than I could bear. It was scary and hard but I’m thankful for a supportive family, in both countries, who made it all easier.
A couple of days before I left London, a friend who had gone through his own family bereavement as an expat wrote to me and shared his experiences and top of the list was that coming back to Songdo (especially as a non-working spouse) feels weird. Weird. Yeah, total understatement and it starts with the flight. Those long hours by yourself that you spend wanting to relive every memory that you possibly can but at the same time, you don’t want to think about your loss, because doing do makes the tears come. Realising that next time you fly into the country, there is going to be a big, person-shaped hole. Feeling like wherever you are, you need to be in the other country. I personally dealt with those feelings by getting drunk in the lounge. Yes it was a morning flight and I was the only person pouring large glasses of wine at 9am, but never mind. So yeah, the flight home was hard. I landed on a Friday and straight away just threw myself into the things that needed to be done here – distraction is key and for the most part, helps. We’d also planned to spend the weekend in Seoul, and again, having things to do and keeping busy helped to settle into what feels like an entirely new life, all over again. Of course, it’s different for everyone, but here are my tips for coping with bereavement as an expat… some will say these are tips for coping with a bereavement wherever you are, but when you are far away from your loved one’s home, the isolation is real and can be harder to overcome.
I cannot overstate this enough. Yes, you will have responsibilities and things to do each day, but being kind to yourself is so important. Don’t let a day stretch out in front of you with nothing to do (see the next point…) but equally, don’t overload yourself and try to be superhuman. Feel your feelings whenever you need to don’t push yourself to do too much too soon.
Have a plan. Give yourself a reason to get dressed and leave the house everyday. If you are the kind of person that can go for a walk just for the sake of it (I’m not!) then that’s great, but I can only go for a walk if it has a purpose. So I re-started my step goal (much reduced from the recommended 10,000 daily – it has to be realistic or not meeting it is another thing that will get you down) and my walking purpose is now to meet my step goal. But that’s me. You could do anything, from getting a coffee from a different shop each day, taking a selfie from a new location to send your family, getting daily groceries instead of doing a big shop, whatever. The point is, to get out and break up your daily scenery. It’s OK to have the odd day of staying in glued to Netflix, but just don’t let that become your everyday if you can avoid it.
Hang a Picture
In Indian culture, when a parent dies, you always hang a picture of them in your house. Mine is hanging in my living room where I can see my dad everyday, and have a little chat with him as I go about my chores. Just a quick few words, rather like the WhatsApp message we would exchange anyway with what I’m up to, which makes me feel ready to start my day.
Start a Memory Box
I have a memory box filled with random things that belonged to my dad – some that I gave him, some that have no use to anyone else but I will forever associate with him. Some days, I look through the things in my box and have a little smile. I’ve put all my dad’s old hankies into my own hanky rotation. Just a little part of him that I get to keep with me every day.
If you’re not taking all your photos from home with you, make sure you have a few scanned to take with you, so you can look at the photos as you want. I recently read something that said ‘You think photos don’t matter? Wait until they are all you have left.’ So true. I was in the habit of making a photo calendar every year in any case so I had a lot of photos on my computer but now, these pictures have been so valuable.
Get Back into Your Routine
Obviously, take your time, but getting back into your routine is so important. Mine has changed up slightly – I go to my trainer twice a week at the moment, as I recognised that I don’t have the motivation to do my homework twice a week, so it’s a good change but having the regular things to do that I would do ‘before’ helps. It’s taken me a month, but I’ve also started writing my blog again (hello!) and thinking of ideas for the next few posts. Throughout it all, remember to always be kind. I’m aiming for a post every two weeks now, instead of every week, but at least it is a start. I’ve always spoken to my mum daily, wherever I’ve lived, and we have kept to this, even if all we have to say is a three-minute ‘you ok? yeah, you ok? yeah.’ before we get on with our days. I plan my week on a Sunday evening while Raj catches up with emails and if any day is looking a bit on the lean side, it gives me a chance to think of something to do… usually going to Wolmido Island because…
… it is where I scattered some of my dad’s ashes. For sure this isn’t for everyone, but I brought some of my dad’s ashes back to Korea with me (make sure you have the right paperwork to do so!) and Raj and I went to Wolmido Island, walked to the top of the mountain and I picked a spot to scatter the ashes over looking the docks to the right (he was a sailor at heart) and from where he could see Songdo to the left. I’ve been back there once or twice, eaten a sandwich, read a few pages of my book and always left with a sense of peace. I know we won’t live in Korea forever, but I know that spot will always be there and I know that the international traveller that my dad was, he’d be happy knowing he makes his final home in three different countries (England, Korea and Canada, where my big brother lives.)
Take Your Time
Last but not least, take your time. Nobody can dictate how long you’ll take to process your bereavement. Counselling is SUCH a great help, and if you are in an English-speaking country, or a country where you speak the language, you’ll be able to find the support you need through your local hospital/insurance provider. Even where speaking face-to-face isn’t an option, there are so many therapists who offer online counselling – via Skype or webcam. It can often be easier telling a stranger about your feelings than anyone else so do you research and do what’s right for you.
There’s no magic wand that you can wave to make your pain disappear and it is SUCH A LIE that the pain reduces over time. What is true, is that your life continues to grow around your pain, accommodating and acknowledging it at every step, and one day, you’ll realise your joy outweighs your sadness. It can take a different amount of time for everyone – a month, 6 months, a year, whatever and that’s just fine. I can’t tell you how long it took me, because I’m not there yet, but, with my dad looking down at me from the wall, I can say with confidence that I will get there, because that is what he would have wanted for us all and letting him down just isn’t an option.
Anyways. That’s me and my hiatus explained. I’ve got a few different post ideas in mind for the next few months including our trip to Iceland, the changes at Incheon Airport and the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics 2018 to name a few. So keep posted, keep your questions coming and above all, let me know what else I can research to make your transition to Songdo easier!
At my Indian Engagement 2013
Family Holiday, Dubai 2004
Family Holiday, Morocco, 2009
Appa’s 70th, 2017
Wedding July 2014
Reception Speech, August 2014
London, September 2017
London, September 2017
Appa’s 71st, 2018
The Four of Us Now