The Darker Side of Travel

It’s one of the harsh realities for those of us who have chosen to live far from where we were born: when a loved one dies overseas, do we drop everything and go? As I found out recently, there are good reasons to do just that – travelling for bereavement helps us come to terms with our loss and offers a chance for family and friends to get together to celebrate a life.

The Dreaded Call

It’s the call we all dread. For those of us who live far from home or have family members scattered across the globe, it’s a call that often comes at an unsocial hour from a distant time zone. Your stomach drops and you hold your breath as you await the news.

Then, decisions must be made as it may not be a foregone conclusion that you will travel to sit by a sickbed or attend a funeral. You may be too busy to drop everything and fly overseas and instead have to find some other way to address your loss.

In some cases, not going is simply not an option. There’s a ‘hierarchy of grief’, as a friend of mine calls it, which dictates that we must travel if a close family member (such as a parent) has died. This usually means that we have to quickly drop everything and make travel arrangements.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

In the past year alone, I had to make difficult choices about attending two funerals in the UK while I was living in Australia. A good friend became ill very suddenly and, heartbreakingly, passed away in the prime of her life. She was someone I‘d known since I was four years old. I wrestled with the decision, but work, children and financial concerns meant I simply couldn’t make the trip.

Six months later, my mother’s sister, who had been ill for two years, passed away. I was no more upset at the death of my close aunt than I was by the loss of my friend, but this time that ‘hierarchy of grief’ meant that I had to go. I dropped everything and found a flight that would get me home within days. It was a sudden, quick trip but I was very glad to have made it. Being there certainly helped me come to grips with the passing of someone I’d known all my life, which would have been so hard to accept from many miles away.

With these experiences in mind, I recently advised an Australia-based friend, who is originally from the UK, to fly home when his estranged father was suddenly taken gravely ill. He was unsure about what to do – he was busy at work, he had pressing social engagements and he wasn’t sure how his father would react to his sudden visit. However, he decided to book a last-minute flight and was very glad he did.

Last-minute Travel

Last-minute flights can be expensive, but it’s usually possible to travel within days of making a booking where it won’t be too costly. In some cases, it may even be less expensive. Sometimes you have to be strategic with your timing. If you know someone is sick and might not last much longer, you have to weigh up whether it’s more important for you to see them and say goodbye or be there for their funeral.

It’s particularly difficult if you can only get away for a few days and you have to return home before they pass away. Arrange with your employer for as much time off as possible and try to negotiate this as bereavement leave rather than holidays. Also, try to book a return flight with some flexibility.

Things to Remember

Before planning any last-minute travel, check your passport is valid and ensure visas are up to date. This is particularly relevant if you have elderly relatives living overseas and you know you could be called up at a moment’s notice. Otherwise, you might have to pay extra to arrange for emergency documents or, even worse, be unable to get them at the last minute.

The Upside

There’s always a silver lining isn’t there, even in death? Of course, this might be hard to see if you’re in the throes of grief. Funerals can be sad affairs but they can also be uplifting and a celebration of a fulfilling life well-lived. Also, other than weddings, this might be one of the few times your relatives and friends can all get together. For those of us who have chosen to live in another place, it’s a golden opportunity to catch up with people we know and love. Let’s make the most of it.