What to do when tragedy strikes at home when you’re abroad

There are so many fears that arise when you decide to move abroad, and one very real fear that no one talks about is the fear that something tragic will happen at home while you are away.  Although all of my family and friends were in good health before I left the Washington, D.C. area, this was still a very real fear of mine and at some points it was almost paralyzing.  Since I have moved abroad, that fear was realized in the sudden passing of a very close family member.  I took time away from blogging and from Spain to grieve with my family, but while I was away, I realized that I could be of service during this hard time by sharing my experience to fellow expats, travelers and those seeking to be auxiliares.  While I believe that absolutely nothing can prepare you for an experience like this, I did learn some tools and resources that can help manage the intense emotions and logistical mess that comes along with trying to get home in a hurry.

The 24 hour rule

Upon hearing the news that someone has fallen ill or passed away at home, sheer panic will make you want to buy a flight ticket home immediately.  I felt this way when I received the call from home, but I am so grateful that I was not in the state of mind to actually book a flight because I realized later that I needed to wait to receive more information from family back home about when were the best dates to be at home and where to go. Again, these suggestions will not apply to everyone, but if you can, I suggest employing the 24 hour rule. Try to wait 24 hours before making any flight reservations and during those 24 hours, talk to your family to get more information so you can make a reservation that works for everyone’s schedule. In my case, my uncle’s passing was so sudden that my family had to get through their own shock and grief before being able to start making any type of funeral arrangements. I feel like it would have caused extra stress on them had they had to try to figure out when to pick me up, where I should stay, etc. on top of dealing with everything else. So, I waited. I talked to my family every day and after about four days, I had a much clearer idea of when I should arrive to the U.S. and when to return to Spain. This also gave me time to organize time away from my job in a respectful manner.

Call in the troops

I’m not going to sugar coat it, that first 24 hours is ROUGH.  I felt so alone because I wanted to be with my family so badly and couldn’t in that moment, so I didn’t hesitate at all to call on the people closest to me here in Spain.  My roommates and close friends showed up for me in ways that were unimaginable. Everything from hugging me while I cried, to one friend asking me meet him for lunch and practically force feeding me because he knows that eating is not my favorite activity when I’m highly stressed. When other friends and acquaintances heard about what happened, they reached out and expressed their condolences and asked me to please let them know if I needed anything, followed by the sentence “I mean it.” I even had a mini breakdown at school and a teacher that I’m close to talked to me and shared her own experience about losing a loved one and made me feel so much better. My point is, although it might be hard to reunite with your family as quickly as you’d like to, you’ll find that there are people who will show up if you are willing to ask for help.

Airline resources

Now for the nitty gritty. The bottom line is, getting to America from Spain in a hurry is going to cost you a pretty penny, but there are ways to save a bit of money and ways to not lose MORE money if you have to change your flight. Some airlines offer bereavement fares, special fares or discounts in the case that a passenger has to buy an emergency flight due to ailing health or death of a loved one. In my personal experience, bereavement fares are most useful in the case of ailing health because the most typical policy is that a passenger won’t get charged if they decide to make changes to their ticket while they are on the trip. I also learned that it is harder to find a special bereavement fare or discount on an international flight and easier to find one on a domestic flight. Lame! I called Delta and spoke with a very helpful representative about their bereavement policy and they only offered the ability to make changes to the ticket without any fees, although the passenger would still have to pay the difference in ticket price. So basically you’d be saving 50 bucks. I chose not to even buy a bereavement ticket with them because I’d have to give a lot of information like the name of the funeral home we used, a copy of the death certificate and other headache-inducing items. Additionally, because my uncle had already passed, I pretty much just needed to wait for funeral arrangements to be made before I made a reservation with a confirmed going and return date. That said, just because it didn’t work for me, doesn’t mean it won’t be helpful for you. Check out these interesting reads: American Airlines, US Airways and United Airlines just ended their bereavement fare policies, but Conde Nast Traveler shows why you shouldn’t care (why the policies aren’t really worth it). My vote is to stick with Skyscanner or Kayak and go with the lowest fare you can find.

Waiting is so hardddd!

No major decisions

Death makes you question life, especially when it’s sudden. I found myself questioning whether I was ready to throw in the towel on this whole “living in Spain” thing as I was packing up to go home for a week. Prior to that, I almost didn’t even buy a return trip flight! As I was getting ready to go home, I really had to sit with myself and acknowledge the fact that I was in a highly emotional state, and now was not the time for me to make any major life decisions.  Even now, weeks later, I still don’t feel ready to make any sort of life decisions about my fate here in Spain because I’m still grieving along with the rest of my family.  During a situation like this, if your back isn’t against the wall in terms of making a major decision that could greatly affect your life, my suggestion is to just chill. I’m the type of person that likes to see things in black and white but I know that the world doesn’t work that way, so I really had to practice living in the gray zone. I’ve been taking this whole thing one day at a time and not making any big decisions past what I’m doing this weekend and what will I discuss in my classes each week. There’s no reason to put the added stress on myself of making a huge decision when it’s unnecessary and I know that I’m not thinking clearly.

There’s no shame in going home for good

There’s really not much else that needs to be said for this one but there’s no reason to feel like a failure if you decide that you’ve had enough with living abroad.  My entire experience living in Spain has definitely taught me that I won’t be a forever expat like I thought I’d be, my family and friends back at home simply mean too much to me. I’m not saying that I’ll give up this experience at the end of the school year, but I have come to peace with the fact that if I do make the decision to go home, I’m not going to beat myself up about it. Spain is going anywhere, Europe isn’t going anywhere, the WORLD isn’t going anywhere, and I can create a life for myself back in the states that allows me to visit other countries for weeks at a time instead of months or years, and you can too! Here’s one of my favorite quotes to take with you this week:

“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors. And the people there see you differently, too. Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.” – Terry Pratchett

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9 Responses

  1. KC White says:

    Thank you for posting this. I’m really sorry for your loss.
    This is a huge fear of mine, honestly. My grannies back home are both in their 80s, and my mom is almost 60. I’m constantly asking them if they are alright, and trying to see what I can do for them, but when my mom’s boyfriend was hospitalized… I’ve never felt so helpless. Realizing that you are so far away and there is absolutely nothing to be done is an awful feeling.
    Thank you again for writing this. I hope I may never need it, but I’m glad that someone addressed it if I ever do! Peace be with you.

    • Shayla says:

      Hi KC! Thank you for your note! It is rough to know that there really isn’t anything we can do, but at least you know that when you go back home for a visit you can make sure to be fully present when you are spending time with your family! Thanks for reading.

  2. Danielle says:

    Sorry to hear about your uncle, Shayla. This is definitely a fear of mine when I move abroad and this post was very helpful.

  3. I’m very sorry to hear about your uncle, Shayla. You and your family will be in my thoughts. As a future auxiliar and expat, this is a fear of mine that has definitely crossed my mind from time to time. Thank you for sharing this as it eases my mind about it.

  4. Danielle says:

    Yep! I’m doing the same teaching program as you. Just patiently waiting for my placement!

  5. Jessica Wray says:

    Wow, I’m so sorry for your loss Shayla. I have gone through periods of time when I have really worried about something like this happening but luckily I am yet to go through it. My boyfriend just had to fly home for his Grandpa’s funeral and that was hard for him. Luckily it was only a flight to England! Still, the last minute tickets were pricey….but nothing compared to a last minute flight to the U.S.! I hope you are recovering and it is great that you had some great support in Madrid.

    Take care!

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