Contemplating death and dying as expats by Metrice Harris-Weedman

Contemplating death and dying as expatsAs an expat, there are moments when I miss having proximity to loved ones. Over the years, my family and I have missed weddings, births, and many number and many key life moments. While our inner circles of distant supporters have been understanding, I can’t shake the feeling the lifestyle we have chosen comes at a cost.


Photo: Evening light on a mazet near Magalas © Donna Corbett.



When we talk about living abroad, we almost always belabor the benefits involved with learning another language, expanding our horizons to include different cultural perspectives, giving our children opportunities to be global citizens, or enjoying the simple pleasures attached to being somewhere else. Yet, there are moments when this life is neither exotic nor easy. We would be remiss if we didn’t take a moment or two to think or even plan for how we might deal with something as earth shattering as death.


Its funny how rapidly time flies; we’ve been living in France longer than we ever imagined. The distance made us forget our parents were sneakily aging behind our backs. Not to mention the signs of aging that are becoming apparent in our own bodies.


When I got the call indicating my mother had collapsed, I was certainly taken by surprise. She was in her early 60s, recently retired, and still had a lot of living left to do. Perhaps I wouldn’t have been so surprised if I lived in close proximity and saw her in her day-to-day. Maybe there would have been revelatory moments to indicate her days on earth were numbered. The cancer believed to be in remission had come back with an aggressive vengeance. My mother had taken a turn for the worse and was being transferred to Hospice (which focuses on keeping dying loved ones comfortable through palliative care); being by her side became increasingly necessary for us both.


I was ever so thankful for the Flat International Phone Rates used to make daily (sometimes hourly) calls with my mother, family members, and health workers. Though not ideal, it is amazing what you can accomplish as a health advocate from afar using the tools currently available.


If returning to your country of origin involves a flight or train travel, think of contacting customer service and explaining the circumstances. The airline gave us a special rate and even surprisingly bumped us into Business class as a gesture of sympathy.


Here’s the hard part... the act of dying isn’t in the hands of doctors and can’t be easily predicted. Once arrived, my mother could have died within the week or not. As expats, we sometimes have the illusion time gets frozen for the people we leave behind. It doesn’t.


Nothing prepared me for the shock of seeing my mother’s physical decline. Time had caught up with both of us. While the essence of who she was still remained inside, her body could no longer get her where she needed to go.


My husband and I had made the decision to have our eldest accompany me on the trip home. While I would be losing my mother, he would be losing his grandmother and have his first brush with death. We spent much of our time just being present with her; Hospice allows families to stay overnight in the rooms. Touching and talking to your dying loved one can be essential in providing comfort.


I would encourage other expat/ international families to have a plan. Think about whether you have the resources put aside or the potential to access the funds necessary to make the return home. Speak with your loved ones about their plans so you can best advocate for them if need be. Investigate your employer’s policies when it comes to caring for loved ones, or read Contemplating Death and Dying as Expats to learn about bereavement days off.


My husband wouldn’t have gotten a lot of time off and my daughter was too young to really comprehend all that was going on in a way that would have been beneficial for her. Try to have these conversations BEFORE a crisis occurs as it takes some of the weight off conversations and gives people time to really reflect.


One of the hardest moments of my life was leaving my mother’s bedside to return home. My mother rebounded and would rebound multiple times prior to her death months later; this is the unpredictability associated with the process of dying (or transitioning). When I left her bedside, I knew my family and I wouldn’t be able to make another trip at a later date. Leaving was hard on all involved. While she lay in her bed waiting for the unknown to come, my grief process began as we made our way to the airport.


What got me through the coming months was the knowledge my mother and I had taken the brief time we had together to say some of the things our relationship had needed. If you have loved ones where there are unresolved issues, use the time available to achieve peace.


Transitioning is both heartbreaking and a transformative opportunity to work through unhealed wounds, transfer family history, and words of wisdom. It might also be an opportunity to tighten loving relationships.


Whether here or there, working at staying in touch and engaging in shared moments of togetherness became a motivating mantra of sorts. We have to remind ourselves we can’t simultaneously live in multiple places and things do get lost. My family would go on to lose 2 additional close family members within the same year. We have forever been changed by these experiences and understand the ‘art’ of dying is unique to each individual. Being abroad can heighten the grieving process because you may not have access to the support of extended family and life continues here (in France) as if nothing has happened. Give yourself the space and time to grieve the loss.


Don’t be surprised if loosing loved ones instigates morbid thoughts about your own eventual passing. My husband and I put those thoughts to work and began planning for our children’s future and unanticipated event(s). A trip to your local notaire can help you evaluate the multitude of considerations involved as it pertains to French law and/or being a multi-national.

Ask your questions, not under duress, but in a spirit of calm and thoughtfulness.


Consider guardianship desires for your children who are underaged and think about ways you can cultivate familial togetherness when the unspeakable moment arises.


We opted to be very transparent within our family to create an environment of openness and inevitability. You anticipate or plan now to have increased peace later for yourself and those you cherish.