A mother’s love. One woman’s story of grief, living away from ‘home’.
Carrie Frais is the founder of MumAbroad, and also of FiG Communications a creative and copywriting agency. She spent 15 years working in her home city of London as a TV and Radio journalist for the BBC, Sky and ITV before relocating to Barcelona in 2006. In the same year, she got married and went on to have two children in 2007 and 2009. But in 2014 her world changed forever when she was called by her father with the news that her mother had died suddenly from a heart attack. Here she explains the shock of being told the news by her father and the resulting challenges of expat grief – the process of coming to terms with losing a parent whilst living away from ‘home’.
I’m writing this blog as I travel back from London to Barcelona, a year and a day after my world changed.
At about 10:30am on the 22nd January 2014, I was working at my home-office as usual, when my mobile rang. It was my dad. He never calls me during the day. I knew something had happened.
“Carrie” he said as soon as I picked up ”I have some very very sad news” His voice was controlled but I sensed he was about to crack. I knew what was coming. Slowly he said the three words which have been replayed in my mind a million times since: “Mum has died”.
“I am so sorry”.
I did not know what else to say.
“I am so so sorry”.
More silence. My heart was beating so loudly in my chest I could hardly hear myself think. Was this actually happening? Surely this was not really happening.
My dad’s voice got weaker as he explained he had received a call from his local hospital saying that my mum had been found by a passer by, collapsed in her car, just a few hundred metres from their house – the house they had shared for nearly 45 years and the house my brother and I grew up in. Unable to open the car door, the ambulance crew had to smash the car window when they arrived but were not able to revive her. Cleaning the fragments of glass from her car was one of many painful experiences in the days that followed.
I remember the moments that followed as if part of a film. In between sobs I recall calling my husband, some friends and tried desperately to get hold of my brother, who was thousands of miles away in Singapore. No answer. And still no answer. Where are you?? He took what seemed an eternity to return my call. He knew already. We did not know what to say to each other. I told him I loved him. I’d never said that before.
And then the practicalities. Someone packed me a bag (what does one wear to one’s mother’s funeral?) and booked me a flight to London. Someone picked up the kids from school. I remember Tom (my husband) taking me to the airport and saying how well I was doing. But I did not know really what he meant. I could not take anything in.
That first hug from my dad at Heathrow airport. I will never forget it.
A few days following my mum’s death, I read her emails. She told her sister she was feeling ‘shivery’ and could not shake it. She described the feeling as simply ‘annoying’ – a typical comment from my mother – stoic and uncomplaining about anything health-related. The coroners later confirmed that she had suffered a heart attack. She had pulled over in the car, evidently feeling unwell. We have no idea how long it took. I don’t want to know.
My parents would have been married 50 years that summer. My mother would have been 75. She told me that her own father used to say that making it to 70 (his words were actually ‘3 score years and 10′) was a good life. A former smoker and a whisky drinker, I guess my mum saw anything after that as bonus years. Four years previously she had contracted a rare virus and was hospitalised for 2 months. She lost her memory during this time (she did not recognise me or my children for a short time) and with it, a fair amount of confidence. I don’t think she was ever the same person since but in many ways it had made her more mellow and less ambitious (she had been a former Head of Science at one of London’s top public schools and a UK Bridge champion).
The weeks that followed my mother’s death are a blur. I remember feeling unable to talk to anyone properly and feeling very, very cold. I was evidently suffering from shock. Despite this, I knew that I had to somehow be a support to my dad, organise a funeral and also keep a vague track on work. I also missed my own family terribly. My husband coped calmly with my (often very erratic) emotions and having to tell my two children (7 and 5 at the time) that ‘GrandFi’ had died. They did seem to comprehend what had happened but were unable to properly express their feelings.
I just wish my kids had had more time to know my mum better. And I wish that my mum had more time to enjoy them growing up and take pride in all their small achievements.
Somehow my brother and I managed to organise a beautiful funeral with a hundred or so of the people who had shared my mum’s full and admirable life – friends and family who I had not seen for years and with whom I was at a loss what to say on that day. I remember thinking in the months afterwards what a cool person she would have been to know when she was younger – independent, knowledgeable and laid back – but probably far too intelligent to have been a friend of mine! At the funeral. all those anecdotes about her from her friends did not really have an impact. And now I often search frantically in my mind to try to remember some of the conversations for my own memory bank .
Over the next few months, I often re-lived the morning of my mum’s death. What was she thinking as she left the house? What did she have for breakfast? Did she kiss my dad goodbye? Did she think of me? Or my brother? Did she suffer? (I try not to think of that too much – I am an insomniac at the best of times).
Losing a parent when living abroad is something we all think about, but for which we are never really prepared when it happens. During the 12 months that followed, my mind was bombarded with a plethora of emotions:
(Overriding) Guilt. I should have told my mother that I loved her more. Yes yes I know she knew, but why did I not tell her more often? Why did I not go to see her more often, shared a bottle of wine with her, played cards and listened to her in-depth knowledge of just about everything and anything.
(Overwhelming) Sadness: She was gone forever. I no longer had a mum. Sadness that she did not make her Golden wedding anniversary and the holiday that we had all been so excited to share to celebrate it. Indescribable sadness that she would not see the kids grown up, teach them some history (she had an encyclopaedic knowledge of every King & Queen of England), teach them every card game under the sun, help them through their exams. Watch them grow up.
(Inexplicable) Fear: Fear of my own and my family’s own fragile existence. Fear that every any strange pain or ache is a sign of something more significant. Fear that you will never be the same again.
(Inevitable) Worry: My dad. How will he cope with his own loss and the practicalities of managing his life alone? Should I be with him? Am I putting too much pressure on my brother to be the one always there for him if he needs one of us? Am I selfish for staying away from ‘home’?
But, out of all this, there is always hope. This was something my mother pressed home to both my brother and I. Hope that your dreams will one day come true. Hope that in one’s own small way, you can help make the world be a better place. Mum told me once that she believes that we are here to pass on everything that you have learned during your own life, onto the next generation, and to ensure that we don’t repeat the mistakes of the past.
So, Mum: Thank you for giving me an understanding of how to live a full life, a true life, full of empathy, laughter and affection. Thank you for your never-ending unconditional support, your integrity, your wisdom. A mother’s love.
Carrie is the editor and co-author of the anthology #LivingTheDream: expat life stripped bare, an honest account of the challenges of living and working abroad. Available on all Amazon Marketplaces
Check out Therapy in Barcelona for specialist counselling on expat grief and all aspects of expat life