Grieving at a distance from close family

Paul Fish

My experience with the loss of a very dear Grandmother is perhaps unusual in that I live in Canada, some 3,500 miles from her home, in London UK, where the remainder of my parent / sibling family live. Dealing with the loss at a distance is I find difficult through not only it's loneliness and familial isolation, but also in dealing with the guilt of having left the proximity of the family circle, as well as an abscence from the ritual funeral.

Briefly, my grandmother was a strong intelligent matriarchal head, and influenced the family dynamics through her practical philosophy, her determination and willpower, despite enduring many difficulties: Russian emigree, one of seven siblings, financially poor upbringing, husband's death before middle age, caring and raising two children. Her indominatable spirit is a major epitaph. Strong family ties were a key philosophy, handed down from prior generations, and were a positive influence on her life, emphasised tirelessly to grandchildren.

In early years emotional relationship with my grandmother varied from detached to warm, and sometimes closer but different to my mother. At times critical of my school performance, career path, achievements etc., which were compared with the more successful of peers within the family or "Firm". My emigration (escape?) to Canada where successful career, marriage / children etc. fostered a new relationship centred around brief but frequent holidays, even into her late 80's, coupled with some correspondence.

The past four years, a period of her physical decline, have in part prepared me for the impending loss. Three weeks prior to her death, my grandmother was admitted to hospital, and I decided that an immediate visit either for funeral or recovery felt right. She had previously expressed to me and the family her desire to die; frustrated from physical loss of function. Treatment and I believe a special family closeness aided a brief recovery, and I returned to Canada knowing that I would unlikely see her again. My visit was complete and successfull in many respects since I had bid farewell, sharing several close and warm moments not only with my grandmother but also with my family and left I thought, prepared for the loss. I had agreed with the family that I would unlikely return for a funeral.

A terse call from mother informed me that Grandma had been re-admitted to hospital, and unlikely to recover. After 48 hours news of her death was conveyed by similar means and whilst at my work. The loss resulted in a heavy pang of guilt at not being at her bedside and holding hands with family. I am disappointed at missing warm familial feelings, and find it difficult to express feelings of sadness to my Canadian family, whilst rationalising my funeral abscence by reason of a recent visit. Grieving from a distance is difficult I find, but is aided by frequent phone calls to the UK even at the expense of a greater guilt feeling. Support from local friends and family certainly helps a great deal in particular if they are patient listeners. There is no substitute however from a physical prescence at the funeral and mourning ritual, but a recovery from the initial guilt and grief will I think be replaced by a preferred warm memory of a recent visit. --

Paul Fish

You can send email to Paul at [email protected]
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Crisis, Grief, and Healing: Tom Golden LCSW