Expat Life

Illness and Death in the Expat’s Family Back Home

The dreaded phone call. Many expats have had one. One of your family members or someone you love has had a serious accident, a life-threatening disease or has even passed away. And then- what to do?

I remember the dreaded phone call when my 2 year old daughter had been admitted to the Intensive Care Unit in The Netherlands, while I was still in China. I was supposed to join her, my husband and parents a week later. Now, nothing else mattered, I only wanted to be there. The flight back was the worst I ever had- feeling wise, otherwise it was uneventful. Luckily, she was fine in the end. There have been other urgent flights, though we are blessed our close family members are still alive.

Many friends have had to travel back unexpectedly as parents, siblings or friends passed away. I cannot even begin to fathom what those flights must have been like for them.

Going back or not?

Unfortunately, it is not always an easy decision to go back, especially if you are pregnant or have little children at home. Travel time might be so long that you are not able to make it for the funeral, or costs could be prohibitive. Two of my uncles have passed away over the years, and I decided not to travel back in the end. Sometimes, it will be possible to attend a funeral via an online system or the iPad these days.


Supporting your family through a diagnosis like cancer is challenging. You will not be able to be there for every round of chemo, or every operation when you live overseas. Illness and death can also bring out challenging family dynamics, where expats feel blamed (or blame themselves) for not being able to spend more time back home. Or what if they say it is not necessary for you to come- but you want to go?

3 Tips for Dealing with Illness and Death Back Home When You Live Overseas

1. Go if your heart tells you to

If you want to go, you have the means to and can free your schedule- go. Being able to hug and support your family (or friend) face to face is not the same as a Skype call. You may not need to bring your partner and kids, you could go by yourself.

2. Find ways to support family and friends from afar

Call frequently, send cards and flowers, have meals delivered or arrange a gardener to tend the garden. These are just some of the ways in which you can support a loved one, either who is sick or who has just lost someone. Keep track of important dates like operations and let them know you care. Sometimes it is not easy as our lives overseas is often busy too, and time difference can be a challenge.

3. Care for yourself as well

Self-care is very important in these situations. You are also impacted emotionally by these situations, and even if you are not there, it doesn’t mean you do not care and you’re not allowed to feel sad. Or you may feel helpless, alone, or grief. For me it feels like there is an undercurrent in my life, that is not visible from the outside, while inside my heart is aching and my head is spinning and my energy is leaking away. 

What can you do for you?

  • Be aware of your emotions, acknowledge how the situation impacts you 
  • talk about it with your partner or a friend,
  • journal about the situation,
  • go to the gym or for a walk,
  •  practice mindfulness or meditation
  • light a candle

In other words, do what you need to find an outlet for your emotions. Make room for your emotions and have rituals to process your emotions. You are impacted too, even if you are not physically there. Be kind to yourself.  

What is your tip for others in this situation?

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