Death at a distance: the worst phone call an emigrant can get

Death at a distance: the worst phone call an emigrant can get
Friday, February 8th, 2013 at 9:09 am

No one wants to hear a loved one is gravely ill, or worse, but being abroad makes it even harder to bear, writes Ciara Kenny

As Joe Buggy prepared to move out of his parents’ house in Kilkenny and begin a new life with his American fiancee in New York in 2010, the possibility that his father or mother might fall ill in his absence was a thought he chose not to dwell on.

But just 10 months after arriving in Manhattan, Buggy (29) got the call every emigrant dreads. His father had suffered a heart attack and his mother was calling him home. The flight back to Shannon went by in a blur, but he made it to the hospital in time to say goodbye before his father Michael died two days later.

“Being an emigrant when a parent dies leads to the explosion of a million thoughts in your head,” he says. “How will my mother and younger sisters cope? Should my wife and I move to Ireland and leave a good life we have begun to build in the US? Did my leaving somehow contribute to his death?”

Buggy returned to New York a month later, and since then has kept in contact with his family by email and Skype. “We have been able to talk about my dad’s death and share the pain and sadness we felt, but not in the usual manner as if we were living close to each other,” he says.

Trish Murphy, a psychotherapist and spokeswoman for the Family Therapy Association of Ireland, says a call about the illness or death of a loved one while far from home is “all our worst fears realised”.

“For many young emigrants, the worry that something like this might happen is a huge concern,” she says. The first reaction most of us have is to drop everything and run, but Murphy believes it is important to determine how serious the situation is before making any decisions.

“We act to alleviate anxiety, but it might not be best for you, your work or your family to go home immediately. If someone close is gravely ill, of course it is important to try to come back before they die, but if it is not life-threatening they might need your support more at another time.”

But being far away from a family member or friend who is suffering is always going to be hard, and it is important to be honest and not to pretend otherwise, she says.

“On both sides, the instinct is to protect the other person, tell them they are fine and not to worry. But when you are far away you can feel very helpless and afraid. Sharing those feelings will help to alleviate them.”

If someone close dies, attending the funeral is an important part of accepting the reality of their passing and saying goodbye, Murphy says. “Going through the process of the funeral helps you to accept what happened, and realise the community support around you.

“Not being there can leave you in a state of unreality or denial, by making it easier to imagine everything is continuing at home as normal,” she says.

The biggest sacrifice

But for many emigrants, flying home may not be possible because of cost, work or visa reasons, even for the funeral of someone close. For the undocumented Irish in the US, not being able to travel to be by a sick parent’s bedside is the single-biggest sacrifice of making a life there.

“It is a different type of mourning that people go through when they can’t be there in person to grieve,” says Orla Kelleher, executive director of the Aisling Irish Community Center in New York. “If you have settled, have a family of your own and see your future here, it is too risky to travel back. Most families understand what the person would be jeopardising.”

Bereavement counselling is one of the most in-demand services offered by the centre, and Kelleher says the Irish community is very supportive when someone loses a loved one at home because most would have experienced a similar loss at some stage themselves.

“There is usually a memorial Mass organised, which is hugely helpful for the person in coming to terms with their loss,” she says. “People experience a lot of guilt when they can’t go back, but encouragement from family and friends here in the US is very comforting.”

Kelleher is hearing more often about funerals being live-streamed on the web or on Skype from Ireland too, as funeral homes respond to the demand from emigrants who can’t be there in person.

Murphy has also noticed a rise in the number of emigrants requesting Skype counselling sessions, and says the internet can be extremely helpful for sharing emotions across geographical distance.

“Being physically able to see someone, even if it is through a screen, makes a huge difference,” she says. “We can tell so much by looking at the people we love. You can’t physically touch them but you are in the same physical space.”

After attending the funeral of a loved one in Ireland, returning abroad where there may be less recognition or awareness of the loss you are mourning can be particularly difficult. Murphy recommends keeping in regular contact with family and friends at home.

“We need to talk to people who knew the person we lost. It is great to have friends abroad, and they can be very supportive, but they probably didn’t know the person and might not have the same understanding of what you are going through.”

It is important for the people who are still in Ireland to remember the person abroad may need extra support, she says. “Even a text message or a short email saying ‘thinking of you’ will let them know they are loved. Send a card or letter. Those things mean so much.”

It shows how powerful social media can be at a time like that


English teacher Luke Kenny (30) was at home in Hanoi in Vietnam, one Monday evening last April when a friend popped up on Gmail chat to say he had bad news.

Another close friend had fallen suddenly ill and was fighting for her life. “Word of her illness spread that day by text, email and Skype among friends in places as far apart as the UK, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Australia and Dubai,” he says. “The intensity built as more people found out about it, and I imagined us like a constellation of stars around the world, sitting staring at computer screens and thinking of her.

“She died on a Friday, and when I heard the news I was online with another friend, looking at the same pictures of her on Facebook. We cried and laughed as we remembered her, just like you would at a wake. It was my way of grieving for her.”

Kenny wrote a piece about his experience for the Generation Emigration blog last June, which was shared among friends and family. “Being away from everyone, it was difficult to talk to them without being there in person, but writing that piece and sharing it online was my way of having that conversation.

“I was home a few months later and a lot of people told me how the piece had moved them, put into words how they were feeling. It shows how powerful social media can be at a time like that.”


“It’s the call that comes to all of us who live abroad. A family member was close to death, and I was a thousand miles away. My race against the clock had begun.

“My brother, at 42 years old, had been admitted to hospital with a serious complaint. I was called home in that offhand yet thoughtful way doctors have when they’re breaking bad news.

“Researching flights from Stockholm to Dublin at short notice, the loneliness struck. This was not a time to be with a plane-load of strangers or sour-faced customs officials, but to shrink the distance between us as fast as possible.

“For the want of something better to do, my wife tearfully ironed a white shirt for a funeral we hoped wouldn’t happen.

“At the airport I turned off my phone for the 150-minute flight to London. When I landed, I didn’t know whether my brother was still alive or not. Running through Gatwick to make the Dublin connection, the messages pinged in one after the other. I ignored them all. I called my younger brother to find out the latest – stable, but still critical and on a ventilator.

“Into the darkness I plunged again for the flight to Dublin.

“Having left Stockholm in snowdrifts, I clumped into Beaumont hospital in my heavy jacket and winter boots, dizzied by the blast of warm air as I entered intensive care. I had made it in time. He lay sedated and serene but fighting a raging battle for his life inside.

“I went home, exhausted, to my parents’ house, and slept in the bedroom he and I shared as kids. I hoped he would get better, and if he didn’t that we would be strong enough to give him the send-off he deserved.

“But it didn’t come to that. His strength picked up, the infections capitulated, and he began to recover. A few days later, I returned to Stockholm, relieved and a little elated.

“For any emigrant, every time we leave Ireland with the same number of family members as when we got there is a bonus. That call will come again, but for now I’m just glad he’s still alive, even if we are once more a thousand miles apart.”