A family emergency when you live abroad. Here's how to cope.

This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

What to do when you are living abroad and back home someone close to you is ill or dying? Do you drop everything going on in your life? Your project deadline? Your child’s school schedule? Buy a ticket and go home? For how long? Do you go immediately or wait? When is the best time to go? Do you go for the operation, after the operation, or during the recovery to help them? Or if it is, unfortunately, for a funeral should you go from the other end of the world?

This situation when your nearest and dearest in your home country falls ill and you are abroad is probably the most difficult problem expats and long-distance travellers face.

Sometimes the problems back home can be foreseen; and, maybe, some measures can be taken in advance. For example, all parents get older (even if we would prefer time to stand still) and we can begin preparing how we will help them one day.

But sometimes – more painfully – illness strikes unexpectedly, resulting in a shock and a feeling of helplessness. Someone says they have been diagnosed with cancer and given a few months to live. You can cry with them, but there is no way to hug them, to bring them chicken soup and to cover them with a warm blanket over Skype. Or, worst of all, someone dies unexpectedly, in an accident perhaps, and you never even had a chance to say goodbye. And for the last [X] years you missed his/her birthdays, you did not experience daily wins or failures together; or, if you did, it was superficial because how much can you experience over Facebook or WhatsApp?

And what if you go home because someone is in a bad condition, but before you arrange for a vacation and buy an air ticket that will not destroy your budget for the next two years, there is no one to go to anymore. Or the person is still there, but does not recognise you now.

I would really like to know what to do in such moments and how to deal with the accompanying emotions. I have experienced such situations and they were the worst challenges in moving to another continent. They remind you that:

We live in a global village and everyone can contact everyone, in any time zone, at any time. But if we want to be really close with someone, it cannot be done via screen. Text messages may fly through optic cables, but if you want a hug, you need to physically move hundreds, thousands of kilometres and that takes time;

  • An immigrant is torn in two (it is not perfect to stay abroad, it is not perfect to return home - relate?). We forget about it a lot of the time because why would a global citizen be bothered about the fact that a mere dozen hours of flight separates her from her family. But this comes back like a boomerang when someone at home falls seriously ill, and then the boomerang keeps beating us over the head for months of guilt;
  • If you have some unfinished business back home, did not have some anticipated conversation, or simply you were not there for someone when you could have been, it will be very hard to replicate this interaction thousands of kilometers away. So do it next time you are home;
  • If you cannot remember all those birthdays? Use Google calendar, buy cards and postage wholesale and send them in bulk once a month. Even if no one sends you any cards in return, so be it, this is a way for you to stay connected.
  • It is worth it to call your nearest and dearest, send them pictures, spam them, force them to learn how to use Skype or Facebook. It is worth it to have a blog, even a password-protected one, or to email a mass newsletter. It is worth it to visit your home country as much as you can, even if it eats up all your vacation. Instead of getting to know Thailand or Argentina, you rediscover your parents’ flat. It is worth it to send cards and gifts, even if the post office is a long trip away and mailing a package costs as much as a good dinner.
  • It is worth it to talk often, even if you do not feel like listening to complaints about how cold the winters get, along with hidden comments that people who go away have it easy, because they do not have to deal with this or that. This may be tough to listen to as we have our own challenges abroad, which are not understood by those at home. It is still worth it to stay in touch, or you might be sorry afterwards.
  • Fly home if someone gets seriously sick. You can buy a same-day air ticket. And it is worth the expense, even if it sets you back in your budget. Go, as fast as you can, even if it will mean an equally fast return trip because you need to return for your own important operation, for example. The most important thing is to be there for at least a little while.
  • When you are abroad, show your love twice as much, because you are twice as far away. This may require greater emotional exertion, but these are the consequences of your life choices to live far from your family.

What do you do when someone falls ill in your home country? Any tips?

Popular in the Community