The very worst part of expat life. The Dreaded Phone Call telling you of the death of a loved one back home.
And yes, this episode was prompted, and triggered, by the death of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth 2nd, as it came less than a week after the funeral of our own family member.
That Dreaded Phone Call triggers a whole heap of thoughts and emotions, that pile on quicker than your brain can process.
When you're living overseas and receive that call, the world feels huge and impassable, you feel small and out of control, and helpless. There is nothing you can do right now. It's beyond overwhelming.
Watching the news as Her Majesty’s children and grandchildren rushed to go to Balmoral to say their goodbyes will resonate with all, expat or not and parallels something many expats have to deal with.
Most of us don’t have a private plane to hail, or a helicopter standing by. And we don’t have staff to help with the kids, or get us to the airport or anything like that. Yet, even with all that help on hand for them, and being in the same country, they still weren’t able to make it to her bedside in time.
While our circumstances are wildly different, that journey is excruciating, regardless of your birth status. The journey will be burned into your memory yet blurred with pain as well.
I try to share the pain with you while, as ever, giving you some tips to help lessen the load.
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Welcome aboard the Expatability Chat podcast, helping expat parents navigate moving and living overseas with their families. With Carole Hallett Mobbs, expat life mentor and consultant and founder of Expatchild.com.
I'm Carole, your resident expat expert, and I'm here to help you live the expat life you dream about and deserve. If you're planning a move abroad, or if you're already living your expat life, or even if you're planning a move back home, you've come to the right place. In this podcast, I'll offer you experienced insight, sensible advice and practical information, along with some sugar-free no bullshit tips and tricks to help you on your way so that you and your children can live your expat experience to the full. There are so many layers to this expat life that you need to know about, but often you don't know what you need to know. And that's what I aim to help you with, because knowledge is power and I want you to have the best expat experience you possibly can.
So let's get straight into today's episode.
Welcome to a special episode of Expatability Chat. It may or may not come as a surprise to you that most podcasts are recorded in advance of the date that they go live. In some cases, i.e some of mine, a few months in advance if life goes to plan, which it usually doesn't for me. So unless you're podcasting about current events, it's rare, if not impossible, without a big team of support around you to record, edit, upload and publish on the same day. It's impossible to really keep up to speed with current events.
Or if it is, I have no clue how that is done. I record and do all of the stuff myself, so I have to grab time and space to record episodes when I have the chance, and it's actually quite rare for me to be able to grab this. You've heard cats coming in before that I've been unable to edit out, for example. What this can mean, though, is that by the time an episode goes live, the information may be out of date. For example, the snippets of detail I shared about my personal life in episode one of the second season of Expatability Chat are out of date already, but more about that in a moment, maybe.
Most of the topics I podcast about, however, are what are known as evergreen topics, meaning the subject of that episode remains relevant for months, if not years to come. I think all of the episodes in season one, for example, are relevant even now. Well, apart from the effects of the COVID pandemic on the world of expat life, I hope those never become appropriate again. But you understand what I mean. So life events happen, and this particular episode is recorded and uploaded this month instead of the episode I'd originally planned.
Why? Well, our beloved Queen's death on Thursday the 8 September, triggered this particular episode. The day after the death of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, I spent the entire day scribbling notes for this episode. Something triggered an outpouring in me, and I'll explain why in a moment as I'm talking to experts of all nationalities and living all around the world. I believe Queen Elizabeth's death has sent global shockwaves your way as well.
That particular Friday was poignant in many ways, but for me personally, it was also exactly a week after the funeral of my own mother-in-law, Jean. So emotions are pretty raw, and I have a feeling it may take me a few goals to get a publishable version of this podcast up in life, but let's just see how it goes. This is probably the very worst part of expat life. Well, it's the worst part of life losing somebody we love. But when you're an expat and you're living overseas, when things happen, it's even harder.
Being away from family and getting that dreaded phone call telling you something awful has happened to a member of your family is just beyond belief and something I hope none of you ever have to deal with. Even if your relationship with home and family isn't close, they are still an anchoring part of our psyche, of our life, of what we call home. If this is the very first episode of Expatability Chat you've listened to, please let me give you a very quick overview of my family set up. I currently live in the UK. After spending twelve years overseas as a trailing spouse, we repatriated in 2018.
My daughter is now an adult and no longer living at home. And this is one bit from episode one that has changed since I recorded it. My husband Tim has taken a job. That means he lives overseas most of the time in various places. He comes back every few weeks or so.
I stay in the UK to look after the dog and three cats, plus to be closer to my ageing mother and to tend to my growing obsession with house plants. Tim was in Afghanistan for a few months in 2021. He got literally the last plane out before Kabul fell to the Taliban. After he arrived back home that August, while he was waiting for his next posting to Delhi, we learned that his mother was undergoing lengthy tests in hospital. Eventually, after many, many weeks in hospital, she was diagnosed with lymphoma and started treatment.
His father has dementia, which took a sharp fall around that time, and he needed specialist care. Very long story short, a lovely home was found for both of them to live together safely. As I say, this is an incredibly condensed summary of it all, but Jean received chemotherapy and we were told that they got it all early this year and she was on the mend. My husband has since started working in Panama and comes back home every six weeks. Back in June, he came home for a couple of weeks as planned, and during that visit his mum went back into hospital with a lump on her leg and some shoulder pain.
She thought those pains were caused by incorrectly measured crutches and no physiotherapy support, which seems to be a fair assumption. She had also been for an MRI earlier in the week, just for a checkup. My husband went to visit her in hospital on a Friday in late June, just before he went back to Panama, and just to say, I'll see you next time I'm back. Really? The doctors weren't particularly concerned in the morning.
They just said, “oh, she needs some chemo cream for that lump, no worries.” However, by the afternoon, the scan results were back in and suddenly it was, “sorry, there is nothing more we can do. The cancer is in her brain and in her bones.” She was told she had about three months. So Tim went back to work in Panama on the Monday as planned for his six weeks over there.
Unfortunately, shortly after his arrival in Panama, he learned that the cancer was spreading aggressively and she was given only a matter of weeks. It's a two day trip to get between Panama and the UK as there are no direct flights from here and you have to go via somewhere in Europe. He left Panama to come home on the 11th August, but Jean sadly died on the 12th while he was still en route, just a few hours from home. I think he'd just reached British airspace. He was so near, yet so far, and due to the flight issues, he had several hours to wait in Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands and only finding out about her passing once he landed there.
A difficult time indeed. In a way, he is relieved that she's not suffering and that in the end, it was quick. And also that he remembers her as she was when he last saw her. And that is one of the most difficult parts of living overseas right there. Her funeral was the Friday and Tim flew back to Panama on the following Monday.
So I was sitting in front of the TV the day after our lovely Queen died, scribbling notes and thoughts and just getting everything out of my system. And then I had the idea of maybe podcasting about it. So I was feeling a massive uprising of raw emotions, as I think many other people did. So it was the day after history died, if you like, and a week after a very touching funeral of a family member. To some, this is possibly an unexpected response to grieve so heavily for someone the majority of us didn't know personally.
Perhaps others feel or felt the same sadness. Well, I'm damn sure that they did and I'm not ashamed to admit that I sobbed when I heard the news. I've always loved the Queen. She reminds me of my late grandmother and my mother now because she's only a few years younger.
Maybe those of us who have lost people close to us have the same emotions, particularly those who have lost somebody recently. I don't know. I can't really talk about it to anyone, I'm home alone right now. Here in the UK, there is an old, somewhat stereotypical, stiff upper lip attitude when it comes to any emotion or any emotion that isn’t anger.
I think these days, and especially when death and grief is involved at the funeral, we all feel that we have to keep our emotions bottled up, in check, to be strong. I have to say I failed miserably at that. I've been to too many funerals. So when a public figure dies, especially one as beloved and as familiar to us as one of the family may be, it brings up all the pent up emotions and memories. Perhaps it gives us an extra reason to grieve.
Watching the news as Her Majesty's children and grandchildren rushed to get to Balmoral to say their last goodbyes will resonate with all, expat or not, and parallels something that many expats have to deal with. Most of us don't have a private plane to hail or a helicopter standing by and we don't have staff to help with the kids or get us to the airport or anything like that at a moment's notice. And yet even with all that help on hand for them and being in the same country, they still were not able to make it to her bedside in time. While our circumstances are wildly different, that journey is excruciating. Regardless of your birth status, the journey will be burned into your memory and yet blurred with pain as well.
You'll remember the strangest of inconsequential moments and forget an equal number of important ones, which will then hurl themselves into your mind when you least expect them. Such are the vagaries of grief, the physical gut-punching pain of the dreaded bad news phone call, the anxieties, the worry, the grief all bubbling up. And then when you have to fly across continents and oceans to reach home, it's even worse because you have all that time and yet you have no control. My own dear father died before I could be by his side and I wasn't even living overseas at the time. So news like that brings all of those memories to the surface and they all just boil over.
And guilt may also be mixed in with those other emotions as an expat as well. But that's a topic for next month. That dreaded phone call triggers a whole heap of thoughts and emotions that pile on quicker than your brain can process. Thoughts start racing through your head. The scream of devastation, all of the feelings, all of the emotions, the disbelief.
Did you miss her? Was it a mistake? You start planning how to get to the airport, how to get from the airport at the other end. How could you not have been there for them? Is there a flight leaving now?
Oh, what about the kids? Should I pick the kids up from school now or later? Should I take them with me? And about a million more other thoughts just pile on almost instantaneously. Overwhelmingly, the world feels huge and very impossible and you feel very small and very out of control.
You feel helpless. There is nothing that you can do right now. I tend to walk and walk and walk and walk. I don't know, just the walking is something that I do after bad news. And yeah, it's happened too many times.
So let's talk about it. Let's have some kind of a plan. As you know, I'm a huge instigator of making sure that you have plans and everything is thought about before it happens. It gives you a feeling of some kind of control, which helps to make things a little easier. As you may be watching some of the rituals and parades that are going on with the Queen's funeral you may wonder how they all know what to do.
And it's basically practise. It turns into a muscle memory. They have practised and practised and practised. They haven't done the real thing because, let's face it, Queen Elizabeth has reigned for 70 years. So most of the people taking part in the processions are nowhere near that old.
So it's practise, it's muscle memory. It's like fire drills. Something kicks in and it helps you deal with all the disaster. So have a kind of a plan, and I say kind of a plan, because nothing about this difficult topic is set in stone and nor can it be. Perhaps open it by talking about what would happen if one of you needed to travel back home unexpectedly and urgently. Talk about it.
Too many people shy away from talking about death and illness. Don't. Death is a fact of life. I often warn my clients that I should come with a public health warning. I don't pull punches, I'm not British, and I do the whole talking round corners thing, not saying what I mean.
So the following things that I have to say may hit some of you a little hard and I'm sorry for that, but sometimes I feel that we have to be straightforward to get the message across. So talk about what you would do if your mother died suddenly. Talk about what you would do if she was diagnosed with a life-changing or terminal illness. Talk about what you would do if she had a fall or developed dementia and needed long-term care. Talk about whose funeral you would travel back for.
Some people go to funerals, some people don't. Funerals are for the living, to pay their respects and to gain a sense of closure. Would you travel back for a colleague's funeral? Would you travel back for your distant cousin's funeral? Do you feel you should travel back for these people?
I believe that there is no should when it comes to this. I don't like the word should, so there is no should. There really isn't. I'm not going to share personal anecdotes here at this time, but suffice to say, my husband and I have very different attitudes to this and that is absolutely fine for us both. We are comfortable with our differences.
So keep talking. Talk about whether you both, or one of you, or all the family would travel back. Talk about what would happen if only one of you travels back. Would the other be able to take care of the kids, perhaps taking time off work in order to do so. What type of emergency would constitute you going back permanently and which ones you would go as a temporary measure?
Does your life allow a temporary measure? It's important to be flexible on this too. Grief is a really strange thing and you may lose someone that you haven't factored into your plans yet in order to process your feelings, you may feel that you do need to travel back.
For emergency trips back home, make sure you have a fund set aside for this. Depending on where you are and where home is, last minute flights can cost a huge amount. And not only cost, but the route too. Not all places are connected with a direct flight and then you have to get to the home, not just to your home country, but to wherever you'll be staying. And this takes even more time and organisation.
So have a kind of a planned procedure in place, a bit like a fire drill. So you take one level of stress out of it all by having this brief plan if you like. It's not always an easy decision to travel back, especially if you have children to care for, or maybe you're pregnant, or perhaps your partner is travelling for work, or their workload is such that it makes it absolutely impossible. It may be that the travel time is actually too long and you're not able to make it in time for the funeral and recognise that it is unlikely that you wouldn't be able to make it back in time for that last goodbye. Life and death doesn't work out like that.
Costs could be too expensive. Remember, it is okay to not go to a funeral these days since COVID funeral services are often streamed. So you could watch it online and be there, even if you can't physically be there. And I'll add this bit in as I know what some people can be like. Remember, there is no should about attending a funeral, so don't let others make you feel guilty for not being able to go.
Go if your heart tells you to go, and go if your head agrees that you have the time, the finances and perhaps childcare to hand. You don't all need to go. Just going on your own can help the grieving process for you. It's okay to not go home and it is also okay to go home. Make peace with yourself.
Whichever choice you make, you make the right decision for you at that point in time. Find ways to support your family and friends from far away. More phone calls, for example, so that you can talk about your loved ones. And make sure to support and care for yourself too. Even if you're not able to travel back, it doesn't mean that you don't care.
The death, terminal illness or a life changing accident, of a loved one back home can be one of the most difficult things you will ever have to go through as an expert. Sometimes the world just feels too big. I think the Queen's death has triggered a mix of collective grief and personal grief for everyone, plus a sense of solace in our global connection, our global community at this moment. It truly is the end of an era, and it's also a reminder of our family's mortality and our own. And to lose a person who is a constant throughout all our lives a mother, a grandmother, makes it so much harder.
Grief is not the same for everyone. Everyone grieves in their own way, at their own pace. It's not a rational journey, nor does it have a time limit. My Dad died in 2004. Even now, a song can knock me sideways with grief.
Sadly, no Star Trek transporter has been invented yet, and neither has a time machine. So we can only do our best to be where we need and want to be, if or when that awful moment comes. Grief is complex. It's indefinable and abstract, and it has a habit of wrapping itself around us in so many ways, and it does that. And then grief becomes a part of you and is in so many aspects of your life that it's not surprising that it sometimes pops up in such a powerful way when prompted by an event as huge as losing Her Majesty the Queen.
So I've recorded and uploaded this episode before the Queen's funeral takes place. So this may not cover everything that I'd like to say, as I'm sure that particular day will throw up loads of other thoughts. My mother-in-law Jean's funeral at the beginning of this month was a celebration of her life and what was most important to her, which was her family. And I think that is how everyone wishes to be remembered. The day after Jean's funeral, we watched the Taylor Hawkins tribute concert, which was heart-breaking in itself.
And the song Dave Grohl broke down to is, I think, a good way to end this episode. And don't worry, I wouldn't dream of singing it to you. “It's times like these you learn to live again? It's times like these you give and give again? It's times like these you learn to love again?”
“It's times like these time and time again?” Times like these bring back and trigger memories of past bereavements. Death is a great leveller and distance always amplifies things. Just be kind to yourself? Oh, P. S I've met King Charles III.
So weird saying that. While he was the Prince of Wales. And I believe that the throne is in safe hands. I've also met Camilla, the Queen Consort, and feel that King Charles is also in safe and supportive hands. In my next episode, I'm going to talk about guilt and the expat, which is something that is raised time and time again. So if this is something that you are feeling, whether related to this topic or not, please make sure to look out for that.
Each new episode is published on the third Wednesday of every month. Let me just repeat. Please be kind to yourself.
As ever, thank you so much for being here with me today. I hope you found this episode useful and interesting. If you found this podcast helpful, I'd be really grateful if you could subscribe, share and give me a review. It really does help other people who may need to know about this stuff to find it, and I really, really do appreciate it. In the show notes that accompany this episode, you'll find information about my websites, about my downloads, I've got lists, I've got e-books, I've got masterclasses, all sorts. And these will help you with every step of your expat journey.
You'll also find details about how you can work with me, one to one if you wish, so that you can get personal advice tailored for your life and your move abroad, because everybody is different. And of course, you can find me on your favourite social media. I've got a presence on most of them. Tag me, message me, tell your friends about me, and I look forward to learning more about you and your move overseas. Please do get in touch.
Please check out Expatchild.com for more free information and resources. Don't forget to join me next time for another episode. Until then, goodbye.