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Grief and Loss when Miles Apart: Coping with Transnational Bereavement

Updated: Sep 18, 2023

There’s no escaping that grief and loss are inevitable. However, losing a loved one while living in another country further complicates things. It brings practical barriers alongside difficult and unexpected emotions.

The Influence of Anticipatory Grief and Migratory Loss

A common theme in therapy with immigrants is a fear of losing a loved one while abroad. A study on immigrants coping with transnational death (Nesteruk et al, 2018), shed light on how immigrants grapple with his. Anticipatory grief, which often precedes the actual loss, becomes an integral part of how the grief process is experienced. Knowing that a loved one is ill or ageing while separated by vast geographical distances may lead to feelings of guilt and shame. You may find yourself torn between the desire to be present for your family and the responsibilities in your host country. If the person is unwell, and there is a significant time difference between your new country and your home, you may find yourself in a state of anxiety during your workday, as you wait for your family or friends to wake up and inform you of progress. Once the person passes, not being present for the burial or for other important rituals can impact one’s sense of closure, social connectedness and support. This can evoke feelings of helplessness and isolation (Garcia et al, 2022). Our link to our country of origin often remains via our close friends and family who continue to live there. Therefore the loss of the person from the home country can also shake our own sense of identity. On the contrary, for some the physical distance was found to provide an “emotional barrier and protection from prolonged grief” (Nesteruk et al, 2018), offering psychologically protective elements both in the short and long-term. As is often the case with expat-living the sword cuts both ways. Below our tips for navigating loss when living abroad.

Tips for navigating grief when miles apart:

1. Seek a Support Network: Reach out to fellow immigrants who may have experienced similar losses. Grief cannot be avoided. The feelings are often large and distressing, and help from peers that have been through something similar can offer comfort.

2. Stay Connected: Leverage technology to stay connected with your family back home. Regular video calls, sharing stories, and memories can help you combat feelings of isolation. Be mindful that feelings of guilt or shame can lead to us withdrawing and reducing contact, whereas what we need is to actually dial it up.

3. Honour Cultural Traditions: Maintain cultural traditions and rituals related to grief and remembrance. You may not be able to carry these out in the same way you could if you were physically there. But get creative and find ways to adjust them, such as symbolic actions if the actual ritual cannot be performed.

4. Create a Supportive Environment: Communicate with your employer or academic institution about your situation. They may be able to provide flexibility or resources to help you manage your grief.

5. Professional Help: Don't hesitate to seek professional help if you're struggling to cope. Here at Hola Therapy, we have therapists and grief counsellors who can offer specialised guidance and support plans for migrants experiencing loss.

With the right support network, cultural preservation, and self-care, it is possible to participate in the grief process in a healthy way no matter where you are in the world. Honouring the memories of your lost one while building resilience in your new environment. Remember that you are not alone in your journey, and there are resources available to help you cope with grief, no matter where you are in the world.

References:

Djelantik, A. M. J., de Heus, A., Kuiper, D., Kleber, R. J., Boelen, P. A., & Smid, G. E. (2020). Post-migration stressors and their association with symptom reduction and non-completion during treatment for traumatic grief in refugees. Frontiers in psychiatry, 11, 407.

Garcia, E. (2022). Latinx Immigrants Coping with Transnational Death and Symptoms of Prolonged Grief Disorder (Doctoral dissertation, CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, NORTHRIDGE).

Nesteruk, O. (2018). Immigrants coping with transnational deaths and bereavement: The influence of migratory loss and anticipatory grief. Family Process, 57(4), 1012-1028.



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