To live abroad is to relinquish most claims of control over the lives of those we love. To live abroad is to grieve each goodbye.
When the phone rings, which is almost always unexpectedly, there is that fateful pause of knowing it must be bad news, because no one pays long distance fees in this age of Skype just to say hi. My mum and I used to comfort ourselves with how quickly I could get home in an emergency. But now? From Europe or China – 24-48 hours if I’m lucky…and I have seen times where it has been unlucky and where friends have scrambled and schemed and despite their best efforts arrived home much too late.
When friends and family are grieving or in the midst of serious illness there is almost nothing that you can do. You cannot help in any tangible way. You cannot bring food or do laundry or watch children. You cannot even keep watch with them by day, because there is that pesky time difference. You can, of course, pray and send notes of encouragement and hope, but you know that no matter how much those are good things to do they do not really take away the grinding strain of trying to survive the present pain. No matter how much your heart yearns to be there, just to sit and be present, you cannot.
It is isolating to grieve alone, or mostly alone. We’ve lost aunts & uncles while living away from home and there is a strange emptiness with no real closure. You can only grieve so much with family over the phone or via email. Chances are you can’t go to the funeral. No one around you will know whom you’re grieving and as sympathetic as friends are it’s not quite the same as spending those hours with the people who shared your love.
This year as part of our liturgical exercises we started a Book of Remembrance. On nights when we can, we sit down and pick the name of someone who has died. We talk about the person, sharing stories and saying prayers, and I record the best of this in our book along with the person’s name and dates. This has been a beautiful way to keep memory alive and to bring the children into an understanding of the Communion of Saints and our belief that gone from this earth does not mean gone forever. While it has been difficult to focus so much on death this month, so long and dreary and so full of loss, it has been like a candle putting one small light into the darkness.
Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies;
Heav’n’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.