After the body of his three-year old son was discovered on a Turkish beach (what is now an iconic image), Abdullah Kurdi’s fears were realized; his entire family, including his two sons and wife had drowned after their boat had capsized whilst on the Aegean. Abdullah then had to make an unimaginably difficult telephone call to the relatives that he was ultimately trying to reach in Vancouver, Canada. Abdullah’s sister, Teema, had tried desperately to sponsor the Kurdi family, but her efforts could not sway Chris Alexander’s Ministry of Immigration. Following these events, sources described Teema as “completely upset and heartbroken.” At once an understatement and curiously accurate; yes, perhaps imagining a heart literally tearing in half — one made of fibrous tissue, not of paper, and gushing blood — is the only way to go about imagining what Teema must have felt. 9,993 kilometers of land and sea separated her from her family — the moon seems closer at night.
Regardless of their country of origin (im)migrants face an array of challenges. Complex bureaucratic measures impede their movement across borders while precarious travel arrangements across seas and war-zones put their lives in serious danger. Other elements, like language and ethnicity, erect barriers that require time and patience to hurdle. Despite these challenges (im)migrants continue to leave, hopeful to find greener pastures. I’d like to suggest by way of vignette that we consider long distance grieving as another one of these challenges.
More common: I found out that my grandmother passed away through a Facebook message on 12 February 2014, an hour before an exam. “My condolences. I feel awful, and I’m beside you.” I answered with, “What? What happened?” A lull, but I knew. By then bunica, the woman that raised me until the age of 8, had been battling with pancreatic cancer for almost a decade. I could not make the funeral, but these things happen. What I didn’t think about then, and am most certainly thinking about now, is how difficult it must have been for my mother to deal with it all from a distance of 7,840 kilometers, rooted in place. Her support network made up of only a son and husband. How can we possibly apply theories of bereavement to these scenarios, where traditional family structures and support networks are anemic at best or non-existent, and immense distances deny the immediate closure that we so desperately seek? How do we mitigate the guilt that one might feel for missing births, baptisms, weddings, and funerals, or the beautiful minutia of everyday life?
I’ve framed this in the context of (im)migration, but ex-pats, and those otherwise estranged from their family deal with this form of grief, too. This post was inspired by a colleague’s telling of her father’s experience with long distance grieving, as well as my recent return ‘home.’ It was not until I walked into my late grandmother’s bedroom that I began to feel comfortable without her. A two year delay engendered by circumstances and decisions, largely out of my control, that will continue to ripple, always.