Being away from family is a familiar challenge for any expat but never more so than when you reach the age of having elderly parents, as I have.
Then the challenges become more difficult, as you provide support to parents who need help with health issues, or – as in my case – dealing from a distance with the death of parents.
When the option of relocating from the United States to the Netherlands came up, I jumped at the chance as it meant that I was so much closer to my aging parents in the United Kingdom.
The move was fortuitous as a year later my mum passed away. I was lucky as I have three wonderful sisters who also carried my share of the caring.
Between us, we were able to support my dad both with his grief and his mounting health issues.
Not everyone is so close geographically or has family they can rely on. And then the pressure of being overseas adds another dimension of guilt, something we all have at times.
Coping from afar is never easy whether it’s from different states or from different countries.
But here are my tips drawn from experience:
• One of the most important things is contact with the parent, calling regularly, whether it is on Skype or by phone, email or a proper letter.
That 30-minute chat may seem minor to us but to a parent who is alone it is a connection to their child and confirmation that they are not forgotten. Personally, my daily phone call was never a chore but a chance to chat with an interesting person, who was always so pleased to be chatting with someone who loved them and they loved back.
• Giving support to aging parents from afar is not ideal but you can do things that help and make you feel involved. Calling doctors, making hospital appointments, arranging caregivers or finding out information about support groups – all of these are useful.
• Giving support to the siblings who are on the “front line” is vital, whether it is providing someone to talk to or someone to brainstorm with. Our sister group on WhatApp was a godsend and was used constantly, sometimes to arrange care and sometimes just to laugh at a humorous situation.
Remember, expat children invariably settle into that lifestyle as adults.
So it’s easy to put our future selves in our parents’ situation, which helps us become aware as to how we would want our own situation to be organized.
My dad, Michael Woodman, passed away this month, and I have been dealing with all the issues that come along with that. The loss of a parent is never easy and being away from those who knew them adds a different perspective to your grief.
As I handle this journey, I have become aware of the quiet strength of my father, his acceptance of my global living and the discreet support I received from him all my life.
THE PRODUCT OF A VERY DIFFERENT EUROPE
Dad grew up in a very different Europe, one of war and budding peace.
As a child, he lived through World War II in the UK. He witnessed the bombing of his local city, Bath, both visually as he watched German bombers fly overhead, and practically as his parents shared their home with evacuees who had lost everything in the subsequent attacks.
His viewpoint must have been skewed after growing up in that turbulent world, but never once did he express to me a negative opinion of countries involved in the war.
He was a fascinating travel companion, always asking questions about things I had just accepted as unremarkable.
One of the most poignant images I have of him is as he stood paying his respects in one of the many Commonwealth War cemeteries in Europe.
He was too young to fight but knew men from his village that had never returned.
“Just think of each of those gravestones as a person standing in uniform,” he told me. He was right; suddenly those cemeteries became more meaningful.
AN EXPLORER AT HEART
Dad was a village person, through and through, but that never stopped him from embracing the wider world and all it could offer.
He was not a traveler – visiting us in the USA was the farthest he and Mum ever went – but he was an explorer at heart.
His fascination with books and genealogy afforded him exploration in abundance, his “virtual” travels connecting him with long-distant relatives and new friends, providing him with insight into countries around the world.
His belief in people and their inherent goodness has shaped me as a person and I often think that Dad would have made an amazing expat. He would have been interested in everyone’s story and despite being a shy man would, and did, make friends easily.
As I begin to reinsert myself back into expat life I will channel Dad’s ability to connect with people and learn their stories, always wishing I could pick up the phone and share them with him.
About the author: Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a longtime expat, she’s lived in Boston for 12 years, and in the Netherlands for the past six years.
Trained as a nurse in UK, she worked for nine years in the United States for as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and runs the Hub newsletter and writes for the Eindhoven News.
She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.