3 Tips to Handle an Expat's Worst Nightmare

Pic credit:  "Sad Eyes" by rawlands

Pic credit:  "Sad Eyes" by rawlands

You've relocated abroad, have just about settled in, and a phone call shatters your world:

Your best friend / brother / mother has fallen seriously ill.

What are you supposed to do from the other side of the world?

The first rule of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy shall now take effect:

Don’t panic.

This is going to be an emotional situation where you’ll want to keep your head, so before you reach for your credit card to book flights, let’s think this through:

Is it safe for you to leave?

Depending on the stage of your immigration process, it might not be as easy to leave the country as you might think. Every visa, residency and work permit comes with rules and stipulations that you should be aware of, and leaving the country during the application process might delay or harm your chances of receiving your permanent documents. If you’re not yet permanent, check with your relocation lawyer first, or visit your and your new home’s embassy websites for more information.


When you have kids and a job, “up and leave” turns into “plan and negotiate.”

Your new job might not include as many holidays or sick days as you had in the old country.

  • Is there the option of unpaid leave or taking days in advance that you’ll make up for later?
  • What are your options if you don’t know anyone you can leave your kids with yet or can’t take them out of school?
  • Does the whole family need to go?
  • Can your partner manage for a few days on their own?

Depending on the gravity of the situation, does it make more sense to leave now vs. two weeks from now? Are there test results that need to come back first, or do you want to be there throughout the whole process?

Also not to be underestimated is the financial aspect – living abroad means you’re not around the corner. Is an unplanned trip back home including flights, possibly a rental car and hotel in the budget?

Managing Your Thoughts and Emotions

But the nightmare are not the logistics or the budget, it’s the feelings of helplessness and disconnection. Because you’re not part of the day-to-day anymore, people have to go out of their way to even keep you in the loop. In times of crises, this might mean that you’re the last to find out the news. Your family and friends don’t know how to tell you, and don’t want you to feel obligated so they might try and convince you not to come “because there’s nothing you can do, anyway.”

Personally, I disagree with that statement. While you might not have a cure for cancer, there’s a lot you can do, like keeping them company, doing grocery runs, or manning the phone lines. It’s exactly these “little” things that you can only do when you’re there that can try and begin to appease that pesky feeling of helplessness.

If you can’t leave without jeopardizing your residency, job, children’s education, or budget, staying in touch virtually and managing your thoughts should come to the top of your priority list. Expats use iChat for Macs, Skype and Vonage or other Voice over IP devices to great effect.

What I mean by managing your thoughts is to be aware of your feelings of helplessness and guilt. Life back home doesn’t stop while you’re on relocation, and neither does it on your side of the pond when someone gets sick. As much as you think you should be by that special someone’s side, circumstances beyond your control might get in the way. Give yourself permission to look at the big picture and take a long-term view: there is never only one right answer.

As with all my blog posts, this one also comes out of personal experience. When my beloved Grandfather fell ill in 2007, I let my folks convince me that flying home wouldn’t do any good as he wouldn’t recognize me anyway. When he passed in 2008, I couldn’t fly home for the funeral because we were in the middle of our Green Card application. In a very self-centered way, part of me still feels bad about choosing in favor of my residency here in the US, because I didn’t get to participate in that ceremony of closure and it still feels weird walking in their house and not see him sitting on the couch.

In November 2010, flexibly self-employed and childless permanent resident that I was, I was able fly back to Germany to be at my Dad’s bedside while he’s finding out more about how to fight cancer. Talk about feelings of helplessness above, it’s another very strange sentiment to try and find the line between being happy to see everyone again after a long time, but under these dire awful circumstances.

If you are or have gone through this nightmare, please leave a comment below. Your tips might just help alleviate someone else’s pain or help their decision-making process. Thank you, and all the best wishes to you and yours.

 (From the archives, first published in August 2011. Unfortunately, the comments that had been posted didn't make the transition to the new website platform, so please - add yours. :-))