Written by Sarah Rymer

The expat life has many benefits, but one of the hardest challenges is being far from family. This can be felt the most when you hear of someone who is sick, receives a bad medical prognosis, or is in an accident. Living in a foreign country is hard when a loved one is dying.

What can you do if you can’t travel home as they near the end of their life? Sometimes job, school commitments, or extenuating circumstances prevents travel.  This was our situation last Spring when my mother-in-law succumbed to cancer.  Fortunately, my husband made it home the day before she died, but her health declined too quickly for all of us to travel in time.  My four children and I had to say our good-byes from afar.

Be creative in saying “I love you” and other significant emotional statements. When I heard my mother-in-law entered hospice care, I knew her time was short. I videoed each of my children telling their grandmother the things they appreciated about her and doing with her. Then I did the same, and was in tears the whole time. Over Skype, we played them for her. Whatever she heard in her deteriorating shape, it was healthy and healing for us.

Communicate honestly and openly with your children about what is happening. Sometimes we have the idea that we must “be strong” for our children, our spouse, or others around us. Actually, this is unhelpful in grief when emotions must be verbalized. I sat down with my children and we talked candidly that their grandmother would die very soon and we would not see her alive again. I cried as I said this, and all four kids followed suit. We talked about what was happening.  We said what made us sad.  We said what we wished could be different. And we hugged and we cried.

Make special time to grieve. That night I received the message that my mother-in-law passed away. In the morning, I held the kids home from school so we could remember her, cry when we wanted to, and laugh when we could. We did some favorite activities from times together, like playing with play-doh and blowing bubbles. We knew that we would be grieving for a while, but though the day was hard, it was memorable and set us on the path toward healing.

Travel to attend the funeral or memorial service. Though we made a good beginning in Egypt, I still felt like her death would not sink in until we traveled to New Jersey. We figured out missing school work and made preparations, but time and money are resources well spent on grieving together with family.  The memorial service or funeral brings even more friends together, allowing memories to be shared and sorrow expressed.

Give your kids a picture or special memento of the one who died as a physical reminder. Even though it hurts to see it at times, triggering emotions for all the things we will miss about her, it is still better to remember.  That which is tangible connects best with our senses and emotions.

To be honest, I don’t want to go through this again. I don’t want to have to say good-bye from afar. But I have many more loved ones that may die or go through serious illnesses when I am living overseas. Following these steps has helped our whole family grieve well, even at great distance. I hope they will also be helpful for you.

Originally published at in October 2017