Long-Distance Grieving: The Unexpected Sacrifice
We received an urgent e-mail from a cousin the other day: “Please call ASAP!” Time stopped; our heartbeats raced; our limbs trembled. We immediately made the dreaded call.
“My brother, Michael, was killed in a car accident last night.”
What do we do? What can we say? Can this be real? There is a lump in our throats, a pit in our stomach, and we feel very far away.
So what do we do? Lunch is ready, so we eat. Work demands are before us, so we return to work. And all the while I think, “Something is wrong with this!” I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t be going on with the activities of life as if nothing has happened. My family is grieving. Their lives have come to a sudden stop. Yet, we can’t be with our family to comfort, mourn, and share memories together. In addition, no one on this side of the ocean can share in our grief. No one here feels a loss. Their lives go on. And we can’t just sit around and do nothing. Nor can we get on a plane and go home. Nothing seems right, so we let life go on, too.
To be honest, I feel rather disconnected from this tragedy. It seems surreal, impossible, too far away. I have a whirlwind of emotions: guilt, indifference, sorrow, fear, cowardice, frustration. I feel guilty, awkward, and even a bit relieved, that life can on so normally for us. At the same time, I feel like a coward. Am I using the distance as an escape mechanism so that I don’t have to deal with the grief? After all, I am a wimp when it comes to death. I confess that I hate it. And I confess that I fear loss. The e-mail we received that day is just the kind of thing that I dread and fear. So, perhaps I am hiding from it all in the distance. I feel confused by all of my conflicting emotions. I feel like I need to feel differently than I do.
After pouring out these feelings to my husband, he said, “It’s funny, but being absent in times of loss is not one of the typical global workers sacrifices that people think about.” Exactly! It’s an unexpected sacrifice. When you miss the birth of a baby, you can celebrate at a distance, and look forward to seeing him in a year or two. The baby will no longer be a baby, but he will be there. When a friend or relative gets married, you can send a gift and look forward to getting to know her husband over dinner when you return on home assignment.
But when someone dies, the moment for grieving is immediate. It doesn’t wait; it doesn’t grow; it doesn’t even stay the same. And the environment for grieving is togetherness. When you return to the States there is a hole. Someone is missing. And for the first time you feel the loss. And that, too, seems unreal. I remember walking into my Grandma’s retirement home our first time home after she passed away. Grief overcame me in a way that I hadn’t been able to experience in the previous two years. I missed my Grandma. It was wrong to be in her home that was no longer her home. It was wrong just to think that someone else was living in her place. It was wrong to be with her friends and not have her there beaming with joy at our presence. It was awkward to be grieving in the present something that they had all been processing for two years.
So, how does one grieve from a distance? I don’t know, though I have been helped these past two weeks by phone calls home and e-mails describing the accident and the funeral, through prayer for my family, and by sharing the news with others – our supporters and our local friends. Each little contact with the news brings home a touch of reality. And when we go home, we will feel the loss. It will feel different. It will be delayed. But, it will be real. And then, perhaps, our family will be the ones comforting us!