Grieving as an Expat: A Story About Loss, Life and Last-Minute Bookings

Death is about as taboo a subject as they come. As my cousin Christyn and I tried to mask our fear the last time we talked to Pa, seated on the futon, it was as if the proverbial White Elephant had come and wedged itself in between us.

As my days living in Spain have stretched on to nearly seven years, there has always been a little voice in the back of my head that has reminded me that there are things I’ve given up. While some are trivial, my heart sometimes hurts when I miss weddings, babies and other defining life events.

And believe me, it weighs on my expat mind nearly every day.

Back in November, by dad delivered the news I had been dreading since boarding a Spain-bound plane: my grandparents needed assisted living. My grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and could no longer look after herself or the man she’d cared for during 63 years of marriage. She’d forget to give him his medicine for a weak heart, or not feed him.

I decided to turn down my summer camp position to spend time with my family back in Chicago during my summer holidays. It wasn’t a hard decision in the end – not for money, and not for experience. 

I lost my maternal grandmother to cancer at age 9, my maternal grandfather to a hit-and-run at age 19 and was facing losing my remaining grandparents – one in body and one in mind – at 29.

 —

My grandfather, Don Gaa, Sr., was a man of few words. He loved working with his hands, sitting with his feet up and playing jokes on us. As my dad, who took the same name as his father, summed up a simple man who grew up in Nebraska during the Dust Bowl as he gave the eulogy: “You could tell how much Don loved you by how much he teased you.” His winks and sly smile were words enough.

When I said goodbye to him over the phone about 48 hours before he passed, I could feel his smile through the phone. It’s hard to be serious and tell someone you love them and will always remember them when you burst out laughing every time you think of him and his sly little smile.

Christyn slung her bag on her back and gave me a hug. I reminded her to call her dad that afternoon. Christyn is a nurse in Germany and had explained Pa’s condition, his decision to withdraw care and get hospice care. He was as stubborn as they come, and he wanted to go in peace.

As I unlocked the door to work that day, I got a frantic whatsapp in capital letters from my mother: CALL ME IMMEDIATELY FOR PA. I fumbled with the keys, tears flooding my eyes, as I struggled to tap out a response. “Is it really that bad?”

“Yes. <3 <3 <3″

I paced the corridor of the academy, trying to compose myself before the other teachers arrived. I decided to stay mum, not wanting to cause an avalanche of tears and blubbering and ugly cry onto people with whom I had a professional relationship. But this is life, and life sometimes sucks, and crying makes me feel better.

As soon as my secretary came in, I crawled into her lap and sobbed.

My boss allowed me to take a walk between my classes to clear my head. I had to work up the courage to call my Uncle Bill, who was at the hospital with my grandfather as he waited to be moved. My grandfather has been deaf for as long as I can remember, so I probably looked like a psycho walking around Barrio de la Calzada with sunglasses on and shouting into my cell phone in English. Pa was on a feeding tube and the muscles in his esophagus had all but stopped trying, so I talked at him as I always did as the bubbly granddaughter.

After moving to Spain, he always pretended I was speaking to him in Spanish before I’d give him a nudge and he’d envelop me in a hug. I knew I probably wouldn’t speak to him again, so I told him two important things: that I was fortunate to have him in my life for nearly 29 years and that goodbye is a word that is often replaced with “hasta luego.” It felt final but not final to send him off that way.

“He’s smiling, Catherine. I think he wants to tell you that,” Uncle Bill said before we hung up.

I continued to walk around the neighborhood for 10 minutes before happening upon a donut shop. I forked out a euro to drown my sadness in chocolate and sugar. It made me feel better.

That night, I hardly slept, checking my phone every few hours for an update on Pa. Nothing came. I awoke groggy and grief-stricken, and decided going home would be too much emotional strain on me. I didn’t send any messages to family, inquiring about how the move to the retirement village had gone or how the old man was holding up.

I collapsed into bed that night, right after work, and slept soundly.

The next day was a whole different story. I woke up and checked prices for a Madrid-Chicago trip. I texted my mom to tell her I wanted to come home, if only to see Pa once more and tell him I love him. I asked my boss to ask about a week-long leave of absence. Being a spiritual person, she immediately agreed and offered to take over my classes and speak with lawyers about the legal ramifications of missing four days of work.

Pay deducation or not, I had promised my grandmother I’d be at her funeral, and now that she was on the verge of being a widow, I felt it was my duty. And I wanted to.

My dad called just after midnight. I had already chosen flights and just wanted to run my travel plans by him so I wouldn’t be stuck at Midway with a non-functioning phone and no one to take me for an all-beef hotdog.

“Yeah, Pa just passed away about 45 minutes ago,” were his first words to me. My grandfather had slipped into a coma on Tuesday night, received last rites twice and my grandmother and my father’s two youngest boys were with him when his heart decided that enough was enough.

I was sorry, but at the same time, relieved. When someone whose health is poor suffers and who had lived to nearly 86 dies, there’s always a moment of grief and of loss, but it dissipates quicker than I had imagined it would. My dad had lost his first parent at 62, whereas my mother was an orphan by 47. I cried quietly, but nothing compared to Monday’s bawlfest with MariJo.

Somehow, I pulled it together to book a Delta flight, a train ticket to Madrid and a hotel in Barajas, then planned my classes for the following week. I slept like a zombie, relieved that I wouldn’t be racing against the clock to see Pa before he passed. In fact, I was relieved.

The following morning, the Novio took the day off of work to help me prepare for my trip. Rather than being sad, he told me all of the memories he had of meeting Don, Sr. in Chicago and Arizona. I laughed as we had a morning beer while the other abuelitos around us drank their coffee. 

“Your ‘grampy’ was the funniest man,” he said, recalling a time where he had teased my mother and her sweet tooth with a little wink.

He really was the funniest man.

My sister greeted me at my gate with a beer in hand. She and Pa had always been close, as I was the proclaimed favorite of his wife, and Pa gave everyone else all the love that Grammie gave me. “I wish we were seeing each other under different circumstances, but it’s really freaking good to see you,” she said. There was no culture shock whatsoever (my guess is from frayed nerves, a three-hour delay out of Atlanta and the fact that my trip was so last-minute).

I was beyond tired – both mentally and physically – but happy with the decision to come home.

As I plopped down I my bed, something poked my upper back: a wooden bull that my grandpa had carved for me the summer before. It went straight into suitcase to be carried back to Spain.

On Saturday afternoon, we set off to my grandparents’s house near the Illinois-Wisconsin border. The Gaas had moved in to that house on David street just after they married, and before my father was born. To me, it’s the house where many of my childhood memories were formed.

My dad’s brothers and their wives were there, as well as my grandmother, who looked frail but stoically did not cry. My arrival from Spain took center stage (I had not been home in nearly two years), and I suddenly felt elated to be with my family. We pulled out the photo albums my grandmother had kept since her marriage in 1950. There were no tears, just laughter and memories and trying to find the fake poop he’d hid amongst our Christmas presents.

“Do you think you could get married in October? That would be a nice month.” My grandmother held on to me as we passed a picture of her wedding day. I’d told her that we wanted to do a ceremony in the US, and her face changed. She was so happy that the funeral home had done a great job of making Pa look like Pa, and I even said I think he had a slight smirk on his face.

She was as stoic as a widow can be during the wake, and was so delighted to see so many friends come out. My Pa loved little kids, and when all of my second cousins came with their babies at once, Grammie’s mood changed. Keri’s daughter ran up to the casket and poked Pa, then ran away, giggling as if Pa were actually chasing his only great-granddaughter.

For four hours, I played catch up with all of my extended family. The last time I had seen them was for Thomas’s wedding in Boston two years ago, and despite the circumstances, we all laughed and hugged and ate and rejoiced at being together again. “You definitely win the award for furthest traveled!” Uncle Mark quipped.

When we went home that night, I fell asleep, wrecked by a non-stop week of travel and emotional distress and jet lag. The following day, we would bury Pa in Antioch, just a stone’s throw from the house he had lived in with his family.

 —

The funeral was sad, as funerals tend to be. I cried alongside my sister, but was able to read a passage I’d selected from the Book of Wisdom about eternal life without cracking into ugly cry or even a sniffle. My voice echoed in my ears, and the tears came as soon as I’d finished.

At the funeral, we said goodbye to Pa one by one as we touched the casket. I repeated my words: hasta luego.

I walked to lunch with my dad. I’ve only seen him cry twice to date – when my mom’s parents died – and is mind is already switched to ‘Irish Funeral’ setting. Even though my grandfather was German, he played up my grandmother’s love of the motherland, often donning green and marching with us in Irish parades on March 17th. 

Beers in hand, we took turns telling stories about my Pa: his best friend Joe was with him when they picked up two Chicago broads hitchhiking to Wisconsin and ended up married to them, moving next door to one another on David Street. The elation when my cousin Brian, the only male cousin, was finally given the honor of carrying on the family name. The hat collection he kept when he semiretired from owning a grocery store to work as a mechanic at Great America.

My favorite? Pa told my great aunt Anne that he’d wink at her when he was lying in a coffin. But of course he would.

When it was my turn, I kneeled on a barstool and recounted the words the Novio had told me after meeting Pa for the first time. “Your dad is a great man, Puppy, but I want to be just like your grampy.”

“When I die, please have fun remembering me.” Don Gaa, Jr. and I were leaning against the car hood at the Dairy Queen in Mundelein. We were somber, yet I felt better knowing that we’d laughed just as much as we’d cried at the funeral. Even my grandmother seemed determined to start making friends at the retirement home.

I’ve often felt guilt at being so far away from home, and it had never burned so much as in that span of days at home. There was talk about long-term healthcare, of cashing bonds and of who would get what. Most fell to my sister, including being the executor of the will, “only because she lives here.”

I left the US the following morning after a third hot dog lunch with my dad. I suddenly felt this weird urge to get married and start a family so I wouldn’t be depriving anyone of anything. It was a topic that came up countless times in those days, and it really lit the fire under my culo

I don’t think my grandma will take too long to go. After more than six decades with my grandpa, she’s left with ever-fading memories. My heart hurts thinking about the grief she must feel, about how lonely she likely is. But how much would I give up here to be there? Is there any way to still straddle the Charca? To be present in two places?

The truth is, I wouldn’t if I could. I’m too independent, and maybe that makes me selfish. The best I can do is promise to be there when it counts. 

Have you ever dealt with death or loss on your travels?

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About Cat Gaa

As a beef-loving Chicago girl living among pigs, bullfighters, and a whole lotta canis, Cat Gaa writes about expat life in Seville, Spain. When not cavorting with adorable Spanish grandpas or struggling with Spanish prepositions, she wrangles babies at an English Language Academy and freelances with other publications, like Rough Guides and The Spain Scoop.

Comments

  1. Ana Brittian says:

    First off, my heart goes out to you, Cat! I hope, despite losing your Pa, you’re doing better. Reading this post is a solemn reminder that while expat life in a different country can be great, rewarding, and a brilliant experience, we often times do have to remember that reality (family, friends, and other living factors) in our home countries is often waiting to strike and we have to make decisions based on “here” or “there.” While it’s possible to maintain ties in both places, it really comes down to planting your roots in one place.
    Back in December, ironically when I was in Seville, there were a lot of saqueos going on in Argentina and a lot of street violence because the police were on strike all across the country. I lost a close loved one to a murder that was blamed on street violence and I remember being absolutely furious that I couldn’t make it to Argentina to say goodbye. It was a situation that most of us saw coming: Poor province, no police force, people getting desperate for money (te matan por 5 pesos!). There was that growing cloud of “Why am I in Spain now of all times” and a further “rencor” oriented towards the lack of security which leads to playing the “what if…” game. ”
    In the end, sometimes (as much as we don’t want to) you may not be able to say goodbye or you may have to miss weddings and babies. I agree with one of your last thoughts, “How much would I give up here to be there?” The answer isn’t clean cut for everyone but it remains certain that major sacrifices are required to live the life that we chose.

    Ánimo guapa! Força.
    Ana Brittian recently posted..The Plunge: Cross Cultural RelationshipsMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Thanks, Ana. I had no idea you had a friend murdered – fuerte doesn’t even begin to cover it. My parents have been here and understand why I love it here, and we make a big effort to be together when we can (my sister comes in three weeks!). My family is important, and I’m willing to make a financial sacrifice to be with them when we most need each other.

      Hope you’re finding solace.

  2. Season says:

    Ohhh Cat….I just cried reading this. I completely identify with the mixed feelings of wanting to be there when something like this happens and the pull you have inside to be independent and live the life you want. Both of my grandparents passed away during my time in Spain and most recently one of my best friends. I wasn’t able to make it home for the funerals and, for me anyways, it almost felt as if it hadn’t really happened. But recently coming back to the States makes it feel much more real. You’re a strong chica. Just like everything else, this too will make you even stronger.
    Season recently posted..My favorite photos from ParisMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Sorry to hear about all of that, Season. It has to be strange being home and not having the people you’ve always associated with a place not be there when you arrive. I’ve always kept a bit of money stashed for when it did happen, and I think it was money well spent.

  3. Nicole says:

    I’m sorry for your loss.
    Nicole recently posted..Friday Round-Up (29) – POPSUGAR Must HaveMy Profile

  4. Puja says:

    Hi Cat,

    I really could relate to reading this – thanks for sharing. I always find it so hard to know what to do when someone from back home gets sick, gets injured, has an operation, etc. No one tells me to come home and I don’t always want to just jump on a plane because I never know if it’s because I would be more of a burden (i.e. the feeling they’d have to take time out of whatever hardship is happening in order to pay attention to me since I’m ¨coming all the way from Spain¨) or if they don’t want to pressure me even though they’d actually want me there. I just wish people could sometimes forget about the distance and forget about the money and tell me what I can do to help as if I were just an hour car ride away. In these situations (it’s happened to me twice now) I just want to do what would make the other person feel better – but I never seem to really know what that is. I think that feeling of separation during those ¨momentos claves¨ is what really gets to me. I’m really glad you were able to make it home and get some closure and family time.

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Puja, love, I wish I had someone tell me, too. My parents both said I didn’t need to go, but when I saw how upset my grandma was that all of her grandchildren couldn’t make it, I knew I’d made the right choice. I went for her and for my dad, not so much for me.

  5. Kim says:

    This is beautifully written and I too have felt emotional reading it. Although I am a lot closer to home, I always dread *that* phone call. I often feel that I am being selfish staying here too. My grandad always says to me, “We may not speak very often, but we think about you every day” and I always feel really sad when I have to hug him and say goodbye.
    Kim recently posted..Homecoming for TrianaMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Kim, it’s definitely a push-pull, too. There’s really only been one summer where my family begged me to stay home for good, and it was mostly my grandma and a family friend who is beginning to age, as well. I think your family probably knows that you’re happy here and that, when the moment comes, you’ll make the decision.

  6. Anna says:

    There have been so many moments over the past several years where I have struggled with “expat remorse” in situations like these. Last year, I flew he unexpectedly three times due to family illness. It is a horrible feeling to not be connected physically with family during those times and I always dreaded a phone call with bad news, especially since I was usually the last to know. Even though in my heart of hearts I knew that I was not at fault, I had “chosen” to live abroad and be so far away. I also struggled with trying to be professional when very personal things were going on in my life. I ultimately ended up breaking my contract at my school to be able to go home when my sister was very sick. Some people were understanding, others not so much. I ultimately learned to own my choices (moving abroad, leaving, deciding to come home) with all the consequences that they imply. It certainly makes my heart ache for those who relocate to other countries because political or economic situations have forced them. Many don’t have the “luxury” of returning if something happens back home, or even knowing that anything has happened. Anyways, so sorry for you loss. Wishing you peace in your decisions and in knowing he knew you were with him in spirit.

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Hi Anna, I had heard from someone that your sister had become very ill, and I hope she’s better. You’re right, not everyone has the ability, be it financial or otherwise, of being able to go home. If I were at my old job, there’s no way I could take time off (they even gave me flack about missing an afternoon class to apply for my residency card). What surprises me is that people at your school would be angry or upset about you leaving – this from a country where family comes first!!

  7. amelie88 says:

    I just read this in one sitting and it got me all emotional, bringing me straight back to when my grandmother died just days after I returned to Madrid for my second year. I’ve been through what you been through and there is no way around it. Death sucks, it’s painful, but it’s also part of life. I actually dreamed that she died the night before my mom called me to tell me she had passed away. I immediately broke down into hysterical tears and crawled into my roommate’s lap, who had dealt with the same thing the year before when her grandpa passed (and unfortunately was not able to make it home during the funeral since it occurred right during exams of our MA program). I was able to fly home for the funeral for 3 days and not miss any work since it happened the week before classes started. She was under hospice care too and I will never forget the last time I saw her in the nursing home. She had dementia so she probably wasn’t even aware I was there, splayed out on her bed, moaning because of the pain and just semi-conscious. It was right before I returned to Madrid and I felt guilty for going back because we knew the end was near, we just didn’t know how near. I don’t think I’ve cried so hard in my life. But her passing was a blessing too, like you said. She was back with my grandfather (who had died five years before her) and no longer in pain.

    Death is hard to deal with, especially when you live so far away. It’s something I occasionally think about with my French grandparents and my dad. It’s hard to balance wanting to live the life you want and family obligations. I think most people have that instinct they need to go home and be with their families. I’m sorry for your loss, your grandpa seemed like he was a great guy. I hope you do get to enjoy the time remaining with your grandmother this summer.
    amelie88 recently posted..Spring Snapshots on the High Line Part 2My Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Thanks, A. My grandfather’s condition worsened since I last went home, so I don’t have any memories of him in the hospital or really suffering. It’s selfish to say, but I’m glad of that. My last time seeing my grandmother, she was having a bad reaction to chemo. I’m sorry that you saw her in that state.

      My step-grandmother wrote me an email after she read this post and asked me not to feel guilty about living so far away (she’s in California and even further from Spain and Chicago is!), noting that each person has the right to live their life as they see fit. I don’t know what may happen in the future regarding my living grandparents and my parents, but I would drop everything if I had to. We may have chosen to be far at different times in our lives, but even my grandma says talking on the phone nowadays from across the ocean sounds like I’m calling next door. Physically, I’m far, but it doesn’t always feel like that.

  8. Cat, I’m so sorry about your Pa. This made me cry just reading it. It’s such a beautiful piece about his life. It is hard being so far away from family when these things happen, and it definitely sounds like you made the right decision to go back home this summer. Hope you’re doing OK.
    Jessica (Barcelona Blonde) recently posted..A Springtime Stroll Through the Parc de CervantesMy Profile

  9. I’m so sorry for your loss. This is a fear that I may lose my grandmother whom I am crazy close with while I am away in Spain. My prayers go out to you and your family during this tough time.
    Danielle Pignatelli recently posted..Road Trip to Canada: MontrealMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Thank you, Danielle. I’m sure your family is excited for this new stage in your life, and hopefully you’ll be able to tell your grandma all about it!

  10. Rena says:

    Your memories of your Pa are so beautifully penned Cat that you had me crying while I read. 2 very close friends of mine have passed from cancer during my time here in Spain. For Patsy I made it home to say goodbye and go to her funeral. It helped so much to have all my friends around me and I was so glad that I made it. Unfortunately, Deirdre’s passing was very quick and she was gone before I could arrange anything. I decided that I wouldn’t go to her funeral and have regretted that since as I really needed to be with people who knew and loved her as I did. Grieving alone is very difficult, it is so hard to get the closure that you obviously found in the bosum of your family. I’m so very sorry for your loss and send good vibes to your grandmother. Muchos besos.

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Thank you, Rena (great to hear from you!). In retrospect, the fact that I even considered not going horrifies me! My Pa was a special man, and I was able to be with people who adored him as I do.

  11. Sorry for your loss, Cat. :(

  12. Again, I’m really sorry to hear about your Pa passing away a few weeks ago. This was a really touching homage to him and a raw, realistic account of your grief and travels. Thanks for sharing what is, indeed, a “taboo” subject for us expats :/

    My Mama (paternal grandmother) died back in January so I had to drop everything and dash back home on the next flight to Indianapolis that weekend. I’m so grateful I was able to be back home with my family for the viewing and the funeral, but also very fortunate my dad offered to pay to fly me home as I wouldn’t have been able to afford the last-minute ticket otherwise. It was a tough weekend but I was glad to be there for my Papa.

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Sorry to hear about your Mama, T. I have always kept a small stash on reserve for a ticket for an emergency, and this was it (it was also loads cheaper than my flight home this summer, ha!). Being home helped me get some closure, rather than trying to grieve alone in Spain. I wouldn’t have been able to forgive myself for that.

  13. Rob says:

    Hello Cat,
    I am very sorry for your loss. Bravo! for being willing to share your open heart with all of us on here. Everyone can relate to the sadness and loss. It helps us to share in these kinds of experiences and remember that in truth, we are all one! My heart goes out to you and if you can stop for 1 minute, you will feel the warmth and caring that I feel for you, even though we have not met. Your grandfather was indeed a beautiful human being, who loved children and the ability to make others laugh and feel joy. Believe it or not, I’m inspired by your story of his life and character. Like your fiance, I want to be like him. Thank you for sharing this story. he lives on in all of us!
    Since you asked, I lost my mother while travelling. She was in an identical state to that of your grandmother’s, but much worse. Those moments where we can see them, talk to them, and share the time together are so precious. I was getting off a plane when my sister called me to tell me it was bad. Literally, within 2 minutes, my phone was wiped clean of all the data. Call it what you like, but I’m sure that was my mom swooping through and eliminating everything I’d stored. When I called my sister back in O’hare (i’ll never forget where I was), she told me my mom was dead. I was both shocked and relieved. She had gotten so much worse by then and had been for years.

    I lived in LA for 15 years, away from my home and family in Kansas City. EVERY time the phone rang unexpectedly, I was sure it was someone calling me to tell me a family member had died. That never happened. I came back home ultimately, had a son and at least got a few years of my mom seeing him, before she got too bad. Its so funny how smart little kids are. He was BARELY 5 and told me we should go see her. I was tired and said no. That would have been the last time the 3 of us spent together.

    You are a beautiful person, I can tell from your writing. Be well. You are blessed.

    Love and light,
    Rob

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Thank you, Rob. I’m floored with all of the virtual hugs I’ve gotten, and writing helped me move past the sadness in the whole thing. In fact, I never grieved over my maternal grandfather, with whom I was very close, until I wrote about it for a reporting class. I cried all the way through the pitch to my professor and realized I had to get it down on paper.

      Thank you for sharing your story, as well! Seems many people have been through something similar when life and death passes through.

  14. Tears. I don’t know if you know this, but I lost two grandparents in the last year, so I really, really feel for you. I was home when they passed, and it was still so horrible. I can’t imagine what it must be like for you, being so far away. I’m so glad that you were able to come home and were with your family during this difficult time. This was a really lovely post and a great homage to your grandfather. I am POSITIVE that he is looking down on you and smiling!
    Shannon Navroth recently posted..Oops, I’m in SpainMy Profile

  15. Ugh, my heart hurts reading this. These are the moments it’s so hard to be away – but whether you’re 300 miles or 5000 at some points, there’s times you can’t be there and times you’ll do anything to make the distance. My grandmother is 88 and I know the day will come, but as you said, just gotta be there when it counts.
    Alex, Speaking Denglish recently posted..THREE YEARS IN GERMANYMy Profile

    • Cat Gaa says:

      Exactly – you have to be there when it’s important, and I’m really glad I was able to be.

  16. Sorry for your loss Cat.

    I’ll say a small prayer for your PA.

    C.A. Peschiera

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  1. [...] the day with Joanna, the founders of Insiders Madrid. I was jet lagged, emotionally fraught from my grandfather’s death and not really sure what day it actually [...]

  2. [...] accompany him to Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, I jumped at the chance. Things had been stressful since my grandpa’s passing, and I needed a few days’ break from a new house, issues with my Spanish bank and technology. [...]

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