Death in the Family: How I Coped While Living Abroad

When my husband and I decided to leave our lives in England and move to Silicon Valley over 5000 miles away hundreds of questions went through my mind. A big one was, “What if something happens and I can’t get home in time?” The reality is it’s going to happen. That was sadly the case for me when I had to deal with the death of my beloved aunt who passed away from cancer in April last year.

We knew it was coming, just not as soon as it did. My Auntie Marg was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer in March 2015. By the time she was diagnosed the cancer had already spread to various parts of her body. She was given two short years to live but would have chemotherapy to reduce the cancer tumors and hopefully give her a good quality of life.

A family photo
All our family knew everything that was going on through group messages on WhatsApp and I always felt in the loop. Because we were given the two-year prognosis we decided to stick to our Christmas plans for that year, and head to Lake Tahoe with friends. We fully expected that we would be able to spend the following Christmas with her. We had also booked to fly to the UK for a family wedding in July, but I wanted to see her before then as she has been hospitalized a couple of times with pneumonia and chest infections. I decided to take my 3 and a half year old and 8-month-old sons back with me in early February for her birthday. I was dreading doing the flight on my own with two small children but my husband had to work and I felt it was worth it. I got to spend a few precious days with her and then all too soon it was time to fly back to the US. We promised we would see each other in July and I told her to keep fighting.

Only a matter of weeks later she was in the hospital with pneumonia again and deteriorating. I was so undecided, should I go back? I desperately wanted to go back but it wasn’t that simple. If I do go back, do I fly on my own or take the children and my husband too? There are lots of things to consider. If I fly alone who would look after the boys? My husband has to work, I can’t expect our friends to look after them too much and to find daycare full time is hard enough here even without short notice. Money comes into to it too. If I fly back now, can we still afford to fly again later if she pulls through this time, (which she had done before,) and also for the funeral? Sadly in the UK, the time between a death and a funeral can be a couple of weeks, so do I take the boys back for the whole time and they miss weeks of school/daycare, their routine and their Dad who wouldn’t be able to come back for weeks at a time.

A family photo
Sadly that decision was made for me when she passed away, her death came suddenly, before anyone expected it.
I was on a girly weekend away with my friends when I would actually talk to her for the very last time, if only I knew that then….

My cousin texted me on my first day away to say that my aunt wanted to talk to me and “see my face”; it wasn’t always a good time to talk to my aunt what with the time zones and her tiring very easily so I jumped at the chance to speak to her. My cousin prepared me and said she didn’t look very good but even with the warning I was still shocked. She was hooked up to many machines and the machines helping her to breathe were very noisy so she couldn’t hear very well.

We spoke for a few minutes and ended our call with me telling her I would send her some photos of my girly trip. Once off the phone I took a few minutes to compose myself and went back to my friends. I didn’t really feel like having fun after that but I didn’t want to put a damper on my friend’s weekend. We did have a great time and once I was home I was exhausted so I went to bed fairly early. Strangely I woke up after only a couple of hours at around 12:30 a.m. and checked my phone. Alarm bells!!! Numerous missed FaceTime calls from my mum and sisters, multiple texts, WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger messages. I knew what this could only mean. She was gone. I managed to speak to my youngest sister who was home alone. In a way I’m glad it was her that broke the devastating news to me. My aunt was my Dad’s sister and having never really seen my parents cry, that in itself is something really hard to deal with. My Dad had gone to work super early and was tying up loose ends and coming home, my other sister was finishing her night shift at the hospital where she worked and they were all driving to see my aunt which is where my mum was. After speaking for a while we hung up. I was downstairs whilst I was on the phone to my sister and once I was off I just sat there alone trying to process everything. It was early morning in England and the day had just begun, for me it was the start of a long night. The same questions were going round my head, “I want to be with my grieving family, do I get the first flight home or do I wait for a funeral date” I put my sensible head on and decided to wait for a funeral date.

My mum, who was still in the hospital with my cousins, uncle and my aunt, called me on FaceTime. My cousins asked me if I wanted to say anything to her and I said I did. I’m forever grateful to my cousins for asking me that. The internet connection was really bad in the hospital so there was a slight delay but I got to say my goodbye to her and the only other thing I wanted to say to her was ‘thank you.’ She was the matriarch of our family. I wanted to thank her for giving us so many happy memories that I’ll never forget. She was the life and soul of every party. Her love for her family was immense and she was happiest when she had her family around her. I always remember going to her house and ringing her door bells, (she had 2 but we never knew which one worked so rang both,) and seeing her run to the front door and open it saying, “Hello my Darlings”

I sat and thought about all the memories I had with her and decided I didn’t have as many as I would like but would hang onto the ones I had. By early morning I went back upstairs and woke my husband and told him. Her funeral date was given and we decided I would fly home on my own. My husband was going to stay back with the kids and luckily his parents flew out to help with the boys so they weren’t pushed around to various friends or put in daycare full time.

Whenever I fly home it’s always with excitement, however, this was bittersweet.

I flew home for just under a week. I saw my family and went to her funeral. As a family we laughed together, cried (a lot) together, got drunk together, reminisced together and then I flew back. Once I was back in the US I felt very far away from my family. I spoke to them frequently but it wasn’t the same as being there with them. I wanted to be around people who were feeling like me, I wanted to talk about my aunt some more, retell funny stories and I did that with my US friends but it wasn’t the same as talking to someone who knew and loved her.

A laughing family photo

A few months later in July we made our first trip back to the UK since her funeral. I was so looking forward to seeing my cousins and always have and always will enjoy being around them. That hasn’t changed. We all went to a family wedding. It was a beautiful day, but there was a tinge of sadness because Auntie Marg wasn’t there.

Since Auntie Marg has passed away, I have been home and although it isn’t the same visiting her old home I still get comfort from going there. It breaks my heart that my children won’t remember her but I will talk to them about her and we will do the things with them and their cousins that I did with mine, like going to the amusements along the seafront, walking down to the local shops and splashing in the bath together.
If I was to offer my advice to someone living abroad it would be to make a generic plan for situations like this. No one likes to talk about doom and gloom but things do need to be said and provisionally arranged. My husband and I had discussed before what we would do if a family member were to pass away and in these circumstances we had time to plan it but, it will depend on the situation. As much as we want to be there for every occasion, it’s simply not that easy. Money, school, work and life happens. You need to do what is best for yourself and your family and accept that there are some important things you may miss.

Feeling homesick? You’re not alone:

About Louise Bennett

Louise moved to the Bay Area in 2011. Originally from the UK, her story is like many others, she moved for her husbands job. She is currently using her awesome skills as former a nanny and preschool teacher to entertain her two adorable young boys.

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