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What happens if there's a death in the family while you're abroad?

What happens if there’s a death in the family while you’re abroad?

It was one of those messages every traveller dreads receiving.

When my Dad told me that my Grandma had passed away, I was shocked. Although she was over 80, nobody in my family had expected her to go so suddenly. Memories of last year filled my mind, when I’d spent a month in Hobart visiting her while my parents were away. A few times a week we’d sit down for coffee and cake (a German tradition) and she’d tell me all the details of what our distant family members were up to.

Of course this news had me feeling pretty miserable, but it also posed a serious dilemma:

Do I fly back for the funeral?

I would have liked to think that it would be an easy decision to make, and that of course I would immediately jump online and book a ticket back to Hobart to be with my family, but in practice, it wasn’t that simple.

First of all, I had just moved to New York City, and my hometown of Hobart was practically on opposite sides of the globe. It would take 3 flights and a total of 35 hours travel time to get back to my hometown.

Now I’m no stranger to lengthy flights, but the journey wasn’t the only thing that had me questioning whether a trip back was practical.

I’d also planned on attending a conference in Florida the following week, so going to the funeral would mean skipping the conference and forfeiting hundreds of dollars in non-refundable flights, accommodation, and conference tickets. It was something I’d been looking forward to for a while, and if I didn’t go, who knows when I’d get another chance.

What happens if there's a death in the family while you’re abroad?

My Grandma and I at my wedding

I spent a few days brooding and considering my options, and in the process I discovered that this dilemma is actually a rather common one. When I told friends of my internal struggle, I was met with their stories of being in a similar position.

One friend told me of how she heard the news of her own Grandmother passing while she was touring southeast Asia. Another told me of how she cancelled her birthday plans through Europe so that she could fly home to the US when her Grandmother died. Even Robert’s manager at work told us that he’d had to go through the same thing when a family member passed away in his home state of California.

The harder I thought about it, the more I realised that as a frequent traveller, this is likely to happen to all of us at some time or another. It’s not something we can plan for and it will probably happen when we least expect it.

So when a situation such as this comes about, do we drop everything to go back? Or do we continue our travels as planned?

Hobart, Tasmania

Back in my hometown earlier this year

I set up a video call with my parents to ask their opinion, and they told me that they completely understood if I decided to stay in New York. Strangely, this didn’t make me feel much better about it. There were still feelings of guilt that I wasn’t there with the family.

I also spoke to my cousin who had moved to London around the same time that Rob and I moved to New York. He told me that he’d considered flying back for the funeral, but that he’d hardly built up any leave days at his new job, which he’d only started a month ago.

My brother told us that he would attempt to set up his laptop with a video feed of the funeral so that those of us who couldn’t make it would be able to “attend”.

This, I eventually decided, would have to do.

On Friday morning at 2:30 AM, the alarm on my phone sounded and I got out of bed to watch my Grandmother’s funeral, which was happening at 5:30 PM back in Australia. It was not a pleasant hour to rise, but I told myself that the 35 hours of travel would have been more painful.

Surprisingly, it did feel somewhat like we were there, and afterwards I finally felt like I hadn’t made the wrong decision. Everyone appreciated that we’d done as much as we could considering our distance.

I eventually realised that I wasn’t a terrible person for not going home. Technology allowed me to be there to a certain extent, and that was enough. I don’t think there’s any right or wrong answer to whether we should drop our travel plans to go back home for a funeral. Whatever we choose will be an ok choice, as long as we can accept ourselves for making it.

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