Death, Illness And Injury Overseas

You may have recently heard about the 3 Boston University students that were killed while in New Zealand. They were part of a caravan on their way to the Tongariro Crossing, an absolutely beautiful walk in the North Island of New Zealand, when their van swerved onto the shoulder, overcorrected, and crashed. In addition to the deaths, there were many students injured, one quite severely. Thankfully, she has just woken up from her coma within the last week and seems to be on the mend.

It was a terrible thing to happen, and it was made worse – in my opinion – by the fact that it occurred on Mother’s Day weekend. I couldn’t bear to think much about what those poor mothers must have felt and thought, getting a call about their child dying so far away and so near the end of the semester, at which point they would have been returning home. One of the students had even gone so far as to send her mother flowers for Mother’s Day in advance, making sure that she got them in time.The flight to New Zealand must have been awful and from here on out, Mother’s Day will be tinged and tainted with sadness for those families.

Death and illness don’t go away when you move countries. Another recent heart-breaking story surrounds 2 year old Kiwi triplets who died in a shopping-mall nursery fire in Qatar. Their parents – both New Zealanders – were working overseas and had lived there quite successfully by all accounts for the past several years. Pulling at my mother’s heartstrings was the little snippet I read where the mother, Jane, was named “Mother of the Year 2011”. I cried when I read the accounts from Jane’s parents, telling of that awful overseas phone call. Her mother asked the reporter, “What do you say?”

What do you say when a loved one dies so far away? When you can’t be there with their family in the first few hours or even days of their grief? I sometimes worry about what would happen if either Chris or I or both of us were injured or killed while so far away from our extended families. I don’t worry for our sakes, but for Joe’s. It’s morbid, but worth considering, especially when a child enters into the picture. The last thing I want is for either of us to be incapacitated and Joe to be on his own, waiting in government care until a family member from the US can get here.

That’s why we made sure to create a will with very specific instructions, instructions that a non-expat might not have to consider. We outlined our wishes for things like funerals and the “usual stuff” concerning guardianship of Joe, but also what we would want done in regards to shipping our bodies back to the US, taking care of our belongings here in New Zealand, etc.. We also stated our desires in the case that we were seriously injured and unable to make decisions or care for our son. With Joe, we made sure that we nominated friends within the country to act as a temporary guardian and to take care of him till our family arrived. We spoke with our friends in advance and made sure that they were OK with caring for Joe in the unlikely event that Chris and I were both killed/injured, and then we named them in our wills.

You can never prepare for everything, but you can try to prepare for some things. I’ve seen death and I’ve seen the families in those first few agonizing moments when they realize that their loved one is gone. Life suddenly smashes into a blurry haze and making decisions like shipping bodies or selling belongings or nominating temporary guardians can be overwhelming. I don’t want our families to have to bear that burden on top of sorting through all of their emotions and sadness.

It might be depressing to think about final wishes, but it shouldn’t be. It’s a way of saying to your family and your friends that you love them and that you care about them and don’t want them to worry when you’re gone. If you’re living overseas and haven’t spoken with your family or your partner about what you would want in the event of your death or serious illness/injury, then do it. Then go the next step and make it official and legal so that there’s very little – if any – confusion about what your wishes are. Your family will appreciate it!

Jenny is an American from Indiana living abroad in Auckland, New Zealand. An ER nurse, she spends her spare time with her husband and infant son and enjoys photography, travel, and writing about her experiences as an expat. You can read more of her thoughts and opinions at www.practicallyperfectblog.com