Goodbye From 2,000 Miles Away

Grief. It’s a rather all-consuming emotion. It comes in many shapes and sizes, in many feelings and emotions. It’s an animal that ravages the weak and brings even the strongest to their knees. Over this past year, I’ve learned what it means to be an expat and grieving from over 2000 miles away. It’s nothing I could’ve prepared for. But it’s reality for me this year and for so many other expats around the world. Saying goodbye to someone you love from so far away is difficult, but unfortunately, is a part of life abroad. But how do you really say goodbye from 2000+ miles away?

This past week, I found out that a friend from college passed away this past weekend. It rocked my world a bit in a lot of different ways. He was 19 years old and an “adopted” brother of sorts. He and my brother were good friends, which immediately turned me into a big sister for him.

As I processed yesterday, something inside me screamed against the fact that people aren’t supposed to die before they’ve begun to live. It seems like just yesterday my brother and I were hanging out with our friend in the school cafeteria and I was watching in amusement as the boys built a tower with the random plates and dishes from lunch. It seems like just yesterday, I was sitting with him, studying for a test. He was a TCK and I remember having numerous conversations about my desire to teach abroad and his experiences in international schools growing up. I can hardly believe he’s really gone.

I’ve begun to process this new grief as I continue to process the grief from the loss of my youth pastor (who was a second father and mentor to me), who entered into Eternity in October. Grief is a funny thing, and it’s even more difficult when there’s not the closure that perhaps a funeral or a memorial service brings, grieving with others who knew them. I’ve learned to grieve, thousands of miles away, away from friends and family who knew those people who have passed on.

I was blessed in one regard because I was able to have a bit of closure as I said goodbye to my youth pastor Brian. He had pastored at several churches and now a large number of his former youth students are living abroad as expats, serving and working. As a result and because a large number of people couldn’t come to his funeral, they did a livestream of his funeral. I went to bed early and woke up at 2 AM to get online and watch his funeral in real time.

It was incredible seeing how many others, like me, were up late or in the middle of the night where they lived to be a part of a service that commemorated the life of someone so important and instrumental in our lives. There were people watching in Europe, Asia, and in other places around the world. It was incredible seeing just what kind of impact he had.

Learning to say goodbye to people from a distance is not something I wish I ever had to learn. It’s an ugly, messy, confusing whirlwind of grief. While I got a bit of closure by watching the service, I never really got to grieve or process with friends. I never really got to work through the ups and downs of the loss, because in some ways, it hasn’t really hit me yet. Grief abroad is a longer process. It’s a process that involves working through what you can from 2000 miles away and then working through the ton of bricks that hit you the first time you’re back in America.

The comfort I find as I grieve from far away is the reality that the goodbyes I have said to Brian and to Daniel are not forever goodbyes. They are merely an “I’ll see you later.” While it doesn’t make the pain any less raw, it’s a comfort to know that I will see them again… not on this side of Eternity, but on the other.

What’s your experience with grief at a distance?

Head shot photo credit: Kelly Lemon Photography

10 Comments

  1. Rachel June 22, 2014

    Grief has been the story of this year for me as I have lost two grandparents unexpectedly while living abroad. Miraculously, I was able to go back for both of their funerals, but both times that was up in the air until the moment I got on the plane. Even so, grieving with Visa stress and jetlag added on made both of those experiences harder than I would have imagined. Looking back, God was so good and faithful to me during those times, providing cheap plane tickets, lawyers willing to move mountains to sort out immigration needs, and family who were more than gracious as I tried to adjust to culture shock, time zones, international travel, and the loss of a loved one. I honestly never want to live through that again, but perhaps there were lessons to be learned in the grief, too.

  2. Jennifer June 22, 2014

    Grief, while abroad, seems to have in many ways been the story of my life, the last few years. Travelling back was never an option. There is no way in which it is easy, especially when as happened to me, I was also simply not able to find someone I could really simply even talk much of it through with at the time. I do know that God has been working through it, and is continuing to, and it has probably forever changed my attitude towards people who are walking through challenging times, who sometimes simply want to be with someone. I recognize the gift that can be.

  3. Anonymous June 23, 2014

    Knowing that my father might not have much time left, I made plans to return to my home country. My husband traveled with me to the capital city to put my one-and-half-year-old son and me on a plane the next day. I woke up in our hotel near the airport the following morning to find an email awaiting me with the news that my father had passed away during the night. Thankfully my husband changed plans and jumped on the plane with me too (barely, by God’s grace – not sure how I would have survived the journey home which included a 12 hour layover in London with a change of airports). At first I was upset that I was not given one last chance to see my dad and be with him before he was gone forever. But my mum and brother both said that they wish they did not have those final images of dad’s final moments impressed in their memories. So I came to accept that as God’s grace. I am also thankful that there were no regrets in my relationship with my father; although I was not physically there when he passed to give final goodbyes in person, we had communicated all that needed to be communicated prior to that day. Thankful for God’s evident graces during the most difficult of days.

    1. Patty Stallings June 26, 2014

      Dear friend, I’m so sorry for the loss of your dad.  May your heart be continually comforted by “God’s evident graces”.

  4. Elizabeth June 23, 2014

    Hi! I grew up in South Dakota too, Brookings to be exact, about an hour from Sioux Falls (with 1980’s speed limits of 55 mph). I love meeting other people from South Dakota 🙂

    Velvet Ashes continues to hit on topics that are just a little too close to home. Every time I think, oh, I’ll try to actually link up this week and not just comment at the Grove (I have my own blog), a really touchy subject comes up that I don’t think I can do that with. Grief is one of those subjects.

    Not all grief is from death. There’s a change going on back home that is like a death for me, but not a true death. And because it involved people dear to me, I don’t feel I can talk about it publicly. But last time I was in the counselor’s office I was talking about it, and she wanted me to find a way to somehow say goodbye. She suggested writing something, some sort of memorial, to honor my experiences and relationships, even if I never publish it. I loved the idea. I haven’t done it yet, but just knowing I can put words down to honor the good and express the pain, that was very comforting to me.

    Just because something in my life has an ending doesn’t mean it wasn’t an important part of my life for a very long time, and quite formative, and to acknowledge that was very healing. Things change (I HATE that about life), and you have to say goodbye to an era — or many eras — but that doesn’t mean the era itself wasn’t important and life changing. But as you say, watching it happen from a distance can add to the difficulty of normal grief.

    Ok, thanks for letting me talk about this even though it’s not an out-and-out death.  🙂

    1. Jennifer June 23, 2014

      Grief  is very much a multi-faceted thing… and definitely not limited to losses through death, though that is real and significant. This sits very much a little too close for comfort for me right now… and yet I hope that this week will give us all an opportunity not to be afraid to share in this place how grief impacts and has impacted us personally, just how we are feeling, just what we grieve, and what has both helped and not helped us. Grief is very much an individual thing, without any “magic” formula, wonderful as that would be. It is most definitely not limited to loss through death, though that can be especially tough from a few thousand miles away. My prayer right now, is that this week will provide us with a safe place to share our hearts on this, so often do not talk about topic, and find support, encouragement and learning from each other.. and above all find God drawing near to us, and bringing what only he can bring.

  5. Cecily Willard June 24, 2014

    Thank you for the sobering topic this week.  I am preparing for a trip back to the States after 18 months here on “the field”.  I know that I am exhausted and need the refreshment that comes from being home with family and friends, but as I prepare to go, I think about those here that I am leaving for a while.  So, reading these posts today sober me and reinforce what I already know:  before I leave next week, I must say the things that need to be said, letting people know how dear they are to me, and seeking to heal a  bruised relationship.  I trust that those I care about will be here when I return after a couple of months, but now is the time to say and do what needs to be said and done.

    1. Patty Stallings June 26, 2014

      Cecily, may you be filled with courage and hope as you have those conversations!  And may your time away refresh and renew you!

  6. Patty Stallings June 26, 2014

    Kayla and Elizabeth, I’m a Dakota girl, too!  Born in South Dakota, raised in North Dakota, college in ND, grad school in SD.  Glad both of you are a part of Velvet Ashes!
    Kayla, thank you for giving us a place to identify with one another around the topic of long distance goodbyes through your writing.  I believe with all my heart our Father makes note of this sacrifice and the love we have shown Him by accepting His invitation to live far from family.

  7. Kayla Lemon July 9, 2014

    Thank you all for your words and reminder that I do not grieve alone. I was able to go back to the United States for a couple weeks (which is why I am just getting to these posts now) and lost track of the fact I hadn’t checked on this post. I’m actually going back to the posts on grief in terms of being away from home… it’s been a difficult transition back into China.

    Elizabeth and Patty, I actually grew up in Mitchell! 🙂 I’ve spent many a weekend in Brookings playing soccer and hanging out with friends.

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