Guilt and Not Being There in Times of Need

It is almost inevitable that during your time abroad, occasions will arise, that will make you really feel the distance from home. This may be something wonderful that you miss such as a wedding, special birthday celebration or birth. But far too often it is something much worse, such as illness or death. In the times of positivity, it is much easier to reconcile with not being there, we know those we love are experiencing great happiness, and though we wish we could be there, we know that those we love are doing well. But in the less good times, when we cannot be there, it is more likely that we become overwhelmed with emotion and guilt.

Guilt: Golden Gate Bridge in Distance

Feeling Far Away

We have previously discussed coping with the death of a loved one while abroad in this touching post.

So, what about those times when you can’t be there? As much as we plan and make contingency plans, and hope, that when such things arise we will be able to be there. This just isn’t always the case. This could be due to family commitments, a travelling partner or children’s schooling, work commitments, we all know that vacation days aren’t in abundance here, or because flights, especially at short notice, are an expensive thing. Whatever the reason, how do we reconcile to not being there? And how do we cope with the guilt this not being there brings?

Guilt: Woman alone looking at San Francisco Skyline

With ageing relatives and family members with long-term illness, this is something that has recently been experienced by members of the Life in the Bay team and community and reflects the wider experience of the international community. Though a lot are able to go home and be with their family at these times, some cannot. But how do you decide when it is time to head back to support those you love, and when is a time, that though they would love you to be there, they will get by without you. This, of course, is something we will never know until it happens, we wait by the phone with baited breath, planning in our mind what needs to be done if it is time to scurry off to the airport.

In all of this, one of the main things that people who have been through this agree on is that there is always guilt. The thing we must keep in mind when we feel this way is that this is almost always an emotion of our own construct. Your family do not want you to feel guilt, they are happy that you are out in the world enjoying your life. And further to this, guilt is a wholly useless emotion. Your feeling guilt does nothing to help you or those at home. So, leave the guilt to one side where it belongs and look at what you can do. I have recently experienced this, when my mother, who has been unwell for some time, collapsed with no explanation and was rushed to the hospital. Though she now seems to be fine and is at home, receiving the news from my younger sister, who is there coping with my mother’s ill health daily, overwhelmed me with panic, guilt, and shame that I am not there to help. But what did all of this do? It made me into a sniveling mess who could barely articulate a word, let alone a sensible thought. Not particularly helpful!

Whilst I awaited news, debating whether I would soon be scrambling to find a last-minute flight and get from the Bay to the UK I pulled myself together and tried to figure out what I could do to help. I decided that for the present the best I could do was be there digitally, phone switched to loud, day or night so that if they needed me, I could do my best to be a presence even if not a physical one. Even if my sister just wanted to talk, I wanted to be there, doing my best to support her and all of my family no matter how far away I was. Keeping up to date and being there to listen and support alleviates at least some of the guilt.

All we can do is our best, have a backup plan for those times when we absolutely need to be there and remain as connected as we can to those we have left behind when we cannot. Sometimes we think we are failing those we love, but life throws these curveballs and sometimes it doesn’t matter how nearby you are, you might still not be there when disaster strikes.

Here are some great tips for coping with the guilt of not being there.

Do your best, let go of guilt, stay connected and love those in your life whether they are near or far. Enjoy this adventure you are on knowing that it is what your family would want for you. We might wish we could be there more but that is never the case. Life always gets in between whether you’re at home or abroad.

Have you experienced the pain of not being there? Tell us about your experiences below.

About Sarah Jennings

Less than five years ago, I got my first passport and went on my first short holiday outside of the UK to the absolutely stunning Croatia. And it feels like I have never looked back! Since then I have spent 2 years living in beautiful Copenhagen, before arriving in the Bay Area in early 2016. It has been quite the whirlwind adventure. I have used my expat adventure to reignite my lifelong dream to become a writer and editor, returning to my studies and slowly building experience through work and voluntary roles to make this a reality. I have recently left the Bay Area and returned to the UK, to live in London, another place I haven't lived. You can follow my journey at my website -

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