‘I really wanted to be with my mom’: The challenges of grieving from a distance
Over her lunch break on one of the only Fridays she had to work, Maha Daoud watched the burial of her grandmother in Tunisia from her cell phone in her office at McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
Daoud had wanted to attend her grandmother’s funeral. She had been a matriarch and a role model for Daoud since she was a young girl growing up in Tunisia. However, Daoud said it would have been logistically impossible to go at the time, and the price of airfare was prohibitive.
“I really wanted to be with my mom to support her,” Daoud said. “I never felt that my mom blamed me [for not going to the funeral] because she knows how my kids need me … but I wanted, really, to support my mom during this difficult time— but I couldn’t.”
There are many logistical hurdles and mental health challenges that are posed by distance after a death in an immigrant’s home country.
Many immigrants find themselves in situations where they cannot make it home to attend a funeral. It can affect the entire grieving process: research shows that immigrants who do not get to participate in funeral rites may experience feelings of guilt and a longer period of denial.
Immigrants are often already processing many losses that come along with moving to a new country. It takes a great deal of energy to adapt to a new environment, new cultural framework, new socio-professional status, and so on.
Grieving from a new country compounds the process, especially when immigrants must do it so far away from family.
The topic was the focus of a recent discussion panel for grieving immigrants at McGill University called Dying at a Distance. The talk was led by Carola Weil, who spoke of the “push and pull” factors that affect immigrants experiencing loss from abroad.
The “push,” she said, comes from within — when immigrants know that someone in their family is suffering, they may feel compelled to act.
“You think they might need you— they may in fact need you, but often it’s also what our own perception is of what we think our family or our friends need that pushes us out of our current life and back into the life that we have left behind,” Weil said. “Balancing that and saying that we still have to be here in the here and now … is sometimes very difficult.”
Weil said the pull factor comes from the life that immigrants leave behind. Family members back home, and even people they know in Canada, may be pressuring them to return home even when it may be logistically impossible.
“Most of us are constantly striving to balance … ‘Do I give myself to my new life or my other life?’ and ‘How much do I want to devote to my other life?’”
Originally from Germany, Weil moved to the U.S. at age 16. Since then she has experienced many losses in her family.
The first was her father back in her early 20s. It was her last year of college and they had just had their first big fight.
“I was planning to visit him the following week. I already had the ticket in my hand. The assumption had been: ‘We’ll work it out. We’ll talk. We’ll finish the conversation that we started,’” Weil said.
“We never had a chance to finish the conversation.”
Her father was a German diplomat working in Brazil when he suddenly fell ill and died.
Brazil was undergoing a general strike at the time and no government bodies were in operation. There was no coordinating with officials on how to get his body back to Germany.
In the end, her stepmother ended up having him cremated in Brazil and brought his ashes back to Europe in a plastic bag.
Once in Germany, they had a proper funeral for him. Weil was able to go, and she ended up postponing work and graduation plans to help settle some affairs.
Weil channelled her grief in creative ways: listening to music, dancing, and making art. She also found taking care of her younger siblings to be an effective distraction.
For Daoud, who calls herself a spiritual person, she was consoled by her faith, her friends and networks, as well as remembering the impact her grandmother had in her life.
“You are the creator of your reality, you are the changing tool of your life,” Daoud said. “This is what I truly believe after losing many, many things.”
Daoud’s grandmother was not her only loss since she moved to Canada in 2004. She also lost an aunt, an uncle, and her paternal grandparents.
She was not been able to attend any of the funerals.
Telling friends, colleagues, consulates
Kamal Salmasi received the call at four o’clock in the morning.
In what he called “our way of giving bad news,” his brother didn’t say it right away. They talked for about half an hour on the phone before his brother told him that their father had died.
Salmasi was shocked. He had spoken to his father just a week before, and just that summer he had seen him while visiting Iran before returning to McGill University for the second year of his PhD program.
“My father was a bit sick but no one would expect that in two months or so …” said Salmasi, who is now a faculty lecturer at McGill.
His father died in November 1993, a hectic time for Salmasi who was preparing his thesis proposal.
The first person he told was one of his close friends. The second person was his thesis supervisor.
“I told him, ‘While I understand the time for my schedule, for my proposal, and everything else, I wouldn’t be in a good mindset if I didn’t go to his funeral,’” Salmasi recalled.
Most Canadian post-secondary institutions will allow students to reschedule exams or extend deadlines in the case of a family emergency.
Salmasi called a travel agent who helped him book a flight for that evening. The only problem was he would have to get a transit visa for a layover in Germany, as he was in Canada on a student visa and did not yet have his permanent residency.
While Salmasi was buying the tickets, the friend he first told of his father’s death spread the news to their other friends.
“Even one friend came to me, brought his car and said ‘OK, I will take you wherever you want to go. Don’t worry — I am with you until you go to the airport,’” Salmasi said.
His friend meant it. He was with him the whole day.
When they got to the German embassy in Montreal, they were told it would take 24 hours to issue the visa—but Salmasi needed it right away.
He told officials there what was happening, that it was an emergency and he had to get his ticket today.
Salmalsi then remembered that in Iran, he was a member of an advisory group for the ministry of mines and that they did a lot of deals within Europe, including Germany. He told him that he had been in Germany for work many times.
The consulate agreed to talk to his supervisor and eventually agreed to issue the visa that day because of the situation. He got it in about an hour’s time.
“It was very, very appreciated,” Salmasi said. “Otherwise, I couldn’t even take my flight.”
Salmalsi went home to pack his bags and get ready for the flight was leaving in a few hours.
He found it filled with friends who had come to offer support.
“They [were there] to offer their condolences and stuff like this,” Salmasi recalled, “and this support was very, very, very valuable for me in this moment.”
In the end, he made it back in time for his father’s funeral.
Salmasi’s story doesn’t end there; in fact, it’s still going — his father did not have a will, so he and his family are still trying to sort out his estate.
“[It is important to] plan for your death,” he said. “It might not look very nice but a will is extremely, extremely important.”
Going to the funeral
If going home is an option, the flight out of Canada can be costly. And the time needed can take away from work and family obligations.
Fortunately, there are resources available.
Certain consulates offer immigrants legal and financial assistance in case of death. Each one is different so immigrants should contact their consulate to learn about possible options.
In all cases, immigrants may be asked to provide proof that the death of an immediate family member is their reason for leaving.
Some airlines, such as Air Canada and WestJet, offer bereavement deals to passengers who are leaving to attend a funeral. Those who qualify may receive a significant discount if they can prove they are flying to attend the funeral of a close relative.
Taking time off work
Taking time off work will vary by employer. Depending on the business or industry, employers are bound to either federal or provincial labour regulations.
Federally regulated workplaces, such as banks, must comply with the Canada Labour Code. Employees regulated under the federal jurisdiction are entitled to five days of bereavement leave. If the employee has been with the establishment for more than three months they get paid for three of those days at their regular wage. Otherwise, they are still entitled to five days off, but without pay.
The rules will vary from province to province when dealing with a company that complies with provincial labour codes. Employees are entitled to bereavement or compassionate leave in every province and territory. Details can be found on provincial or territorial government websites.
Work and study permits
Most Canadian work and study permits allow immigrants to leave the country for short periods or family emergencies, as long as their stay outside the country complies with the terms listed on the permit.
It is important to be aware of when the permit expires. If it expires while the holder is outside Canada they will have to reapply from their home country.
Those who must reapply should be prepared to explain to Immigration, Refugee, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) why it was necessary to leave the country at that time.
Certain countries may require travellers to have transit visas for a flight layover. Contact the consulate of the country, or check the government’s webpage to see if a transit visa is required.
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