How to Grieve From a Distance

I can still remember receiving the call from my mother. I was 20 years old, studying at the university. My mother had just returned from the vet to put down our treasured family pet, a gray and white peppered Schnauzer named Kaiser. He had been my best friend since the age of six. He had been by my side for all those years, and I wasn’t by his side for his final breath. How would I grieve?

My dad called me to tell me that my grandmother had just passed away unexpectedly. Our family didn’t have the financial margin to buy a last-minute airline ticket from North Africa to the U.S. So, I didn’t. I didn’t buy a ticket. I didn’t go back. I didn’t jump on an airplane. I didn’t attend the memorial service of a woman who had been an instrumental part of my life. How would I grieve? 

Our family had to be evacuated from North Africa. We didn’t have enough time to say goodbye to the people, places, and possessions that we had grown to love. How would we grieve?

Grieving from a distance seems to be quite common in our expat life. Whether it be people, pets, places, or possessions, how do we heal and “let go” when we aren’t on the ground, when we are living on the other side of the world? 

Although this has been a common question among expatriates living abroad, it has become a new reality for people around the world due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Many have had to say goodbye to loved ones and grieve without having any contact with them in their final hours. Others have been unexpectedly evacuated from their homes and and have had to quickly leave places, people, and possessions they love.


Ways to Grieve From a Distance

1. Virtual Goodbyes 

I have a friend who recently couldn’t return to her home to go through her personal belongings and pack up her house in-country. Thankfully, she was able to join her friends through video calls in order to help them sort through her things. Being present—even if only through a screen—helped to bring some closure and healing in a difficult situation. She was also able to have video calls with local and expat friends in-country in order to formally say goodbye.

Likewise, when we lose our loved ones on the other side of the globe, sometimes we cannot attend the memorial service for various reasons (scheduling, travel complications, finances, family responsibilities, etc.). Not being present to grieve with others can be difficult.

“Funerals and other rituals that bring people together to remember someone are far more than a formality, they’re an important part of the grief process and fulfill a deeply human need.”

Although not the same as face-to-face gatherings, the need to grieve communally can still be met through virtual memorials. Thankfully, modern technology has opened the doors for people to gather globally at these critical times of need.

When one woman received the news that her mother-in-law was going into hospice care, she knew that her time was short. She videoed each of her children telling their grandmother what they loved and appreciated about her, and she did the same. During a video call, they played the messages for her. This creative expression of love—although virtual—brought healing for all of them. 

2. Find Community Support

Whether it be the loss of a loved one or the loss of our home and belongings, knowing that others can relate to our feelings and experience brings much-needed encouragement and support.

I recently had a conversation with two other expats living in the same country as me. We talked about the different types of losses associated with our choice to live and work on the other side of the world. As we shared our experiences, we could relate so well to each other. Sometimes, just finding someone else who understands brings great comfort. This community support can be found online with individuals who are going through a similar experience, or with your own friends and family—both near and far.

One woman describes her experience:

“I used technology to my advantage before, during, and after the service. Skype and Facebook Messenger were lifelines for my mom and me. While it’s not the same as actually being there, I believe having that real-time connection to my family helped me avoid an even deeper grief.”

Another person who wasn’t able to attend his father’s funeral describes his experience in finding online community support:

“I was 450 miles away, but I found a large community of people online having a similar experience. After the funeral, I joined an online grief support group and invited Mom to log in, just to see that she also wasn’t alone. For us, it was helpful to have a safe environment to open up.”

TAPS, Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, helps those who are “left behind” after the tragic death of a loved one in the military. They have a number of resources (chat sessions, message boards for questions and comments, peer-based sharing groups, etc.) to help people grieve from a distance and to find places of mutual support, community, and comfort from the privacy of your own home during a time of painful loss.

3. Set Aside Special Time to Grieve

Whether we are grieving in-person or from a distance, it’s important to be intentional about allowing ourselves time to grieve.

One woman describes the moment when she learned that her mother had died and she couldn’t travel to be with her family.

“I held the kids home from school so we could remember her, cry when we wanted to, and laugh when we could. We did some favorite activities from our time together, like playing with play-doh and blowing bubbles. We knew that we would be grieving for a while, but though the day was hard, it was memorable and set us on the path toward healing.”

Another family went to a nearby forest where they each placed a stone in a pile, while sharing what they loved and remembered about their grandfather who had just died on the other side of the ocean. This intentional act “marked” the death of their loved one and helped each of them to grieve. 

4. Create a Memorial 

Whether it be people, places, pets, or possessions that we have lost, it’s important to remember and to talk openly about them. 

“Most of us find it therapeutic to remember fondly the person who has gone. Every departed person leaves a hole in many lives . . . good memories fill the gaps.”

Remembering a person, a place, or a thing can take many forms. Some may find it helpful to write a poem or a story to process their pain and loss. Others may choose to paint a piece of pottery or a rock that they can look at often and “remember.” Some, like the family who went to the forest, may create a physical memorial for their loved one.

Recently, as our family made yet another geographical move, I unpacked remnants from a land that we had to leave in North Africa. The tangible and visual objects in our new house are reminders to me and my family of that country we love. Later that same day, I wrote a story called “Remnants of Morocco” in order to process some of my feelings of sadness and loss that had stirred during my grieving process.

For children, giving them a photo album, a scrapbook, or a special memento of a loved one who has died or a place that they have had to leave can be helpful and healing. 

Our friends have a special place in their dining room that is a permanent memorial to their grandfather and cousin who were killed in a car accident. Cherished photos, favorite objects, special quotes, and memorial candles set apart this space in their family’s home.

“Even though it hurts to see it at times, triggering emotions for all the things we will miss, it is still better to remember. That which is tangible connects best with our senses and emotions.” 

Someone once told me, “If you don’t hurt, you didn’t love the person very much.” 

Pain during the grieving process reveals how much we loved and valued someone or something that we have lost. It’s a natural part of having something removed from our life that we valued and was important to us.

5. Reach Out to Others Who Need Help

Whether it be losing people we love, places we call “home,” or belongings that we cherish, grieving from a distance stirs up all types of emotions—sadness, loneliness, guilt, anger, depression, isolation. 

Look for these indications in friends, colleagues, and family members who are struggling with loss and grief from a distance. Use good, other-centered listening and be a safe place for others to share their story. Just being present and listening to someone during their time of need can bring much healing and release.

To help others express their emotions as their share story of loss and grieve, you can use the “Emotions Chart” tool as well as suggestions in our article on “Two Kinds of Listening.”



Article title: How to Grieve From a Distance