Expat Grief: When You Can’t Get Home in Time

Unfortunately, not for the first time, I’m far from home and mourning. Death & travel don’t play well together. I’ve talked about grief from far away before, because I’m not new to crying my eyes out in foreign lands.

Mourning and Spanish custom

I’ve been living in Spain, and traveling as often as I can manage for almost a decade. I’m very fluent in Spanish, and increasingly so in the local culture,  but loss has been harder to master. In Spain, custom dictates phoning people personally to communicate your sympathy and burying the deceased straight away–no embalming required. For an American, used to sympathy cards that can be ignored, or discarded at will, the flood of phone calls when someone passes away can be overwhelming. At visitations, corpses are displayed in refrigerated glass boxes like Snow White, condensation beading in crystal drops on the surface.  After visitation and a funeral, coffins are usually shoved in the high-rise big-city version of a cemetery plot–a niche.
death & travel, mausoleum niches in Montjuic Cemetery, Barcelona

A block of niches in Barcelona’s Montjuic Cemetery

Death and the illusion of escape

The illusion of living abroad, of seeing far away places is too often an idea of escape–from boredom, from work, even from death itself. As if life’s lows somehow can’t touch you when you’ve left your hometown in the dust.
But life is real everywhere you go. Bad things happen everywhere (how do you think I found out about sympathy phone calls and Snow White visitations?) .  Even bad things that happen back home will go the distance that some friends and family members can’t or won’t and land on your door-step, thousand of miles from where you grew up.
Beyond the actual loss of a loved one, one of the worst feelings you’ll ever have is knowing you won’t, you can’t possibly get there in time. You won’t get to where you need to be in time to say goodbye on someone’s deathbed, not to say goodbye at last rites, not to comfort the loved ones left behind and worse still, you know it’s not the last time you’ll be too late or too far away.

When home isn’t a place

Because one of the realities of living a well-traveled life, and meeting and befriending people who are open to the world is having your heart fractured in a million different directions. You can never go home again, not completely, because home isn’t one place or just a few people anymore and no matter where you go, you’re leaving someone dear to you behind because you’re not the only one who’s moved away. Having everyone (or nearly everyone) important to you in one house, one town, or even on one continent becomes impossible. Seeing the world, and falling in love with other cultures is exhilarating, enriching, and worthwhile. But just like staying in one place—sometimes it’ll be hard, and sometimes VIPs will leave the game without your consent or approval,  never to return.
Today a cousin not so much older than me was found dead. The why or how are still unclear, but don’t much matter. She’s left the field–without my or any of her loved ones’ permission.
Today would be difficult, no matter what.  While part of me longs to rush home (I wouldn’t make it in time anyway) and be physically there for my family another more selfish part is happy to be able to look for distraction and skip seeing my favorite childhood baby-sitter lowered into the ground while her son, her brothers, and her parents look on. It’s not a visual I’d cherish or easily forget.
Instead I’ll think of her gorgeous smile, sometimes effortlessly sweet, sometimes forced because she was stressed, but wanted to be welcoming and friendly, anyway. I’ll think of her strength and compassion, as she dedicated her life’s work to helping special-ed kids, started-over more than once, and found her truest love in motherhood and taking care of others.

Some tips on coping with loss from far away

  1. Write it out.  Sometimes just getting your feelings of anger, loss, and grief down on paper helps.
  2. Speak to a friend. When you’re ready to share, call up/skype a friend, and talk out your feelings, or make plans to meet up and speak in person.
  3. Distract yourself. If you’re not ready to face your grief, or you find it creeping in too often, give yourself a break. Watch a funny movie, read a book, get some exercise, create some art, or do something fun that will keep your mind occupied.

What do you do to cope with grief at home or on the road? 


  1. So beautifully said. We grieve, and then life goes on. We remember the good, and our shared memories are balm for those who have crossed the threshold. They are with us. In silence we hear them.

  2. Richard Ciolli says:

    From one Ciolli to another Ciolli. We love to travel and we love to cook. We also love Barcelona. Love my AFAR subscription and that’s where we discovered your work. We look forward to exploring all of you travels and articles.

    This month my wife Elaine and I will be visiting Amalfi and then visiting the ancestral home of my maternal heritage in Trento, Italy.

    We are foodies as well. Keep the recipes coming.

    1. Thanks for looking me up! It’s so interesting to hear from another Ciolli. I hope you enjoyed your trip to Italy, I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus from my personal blog, but have lots of posts scheduled in the New Year. I’d love for you to follow along.

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