Coping with bereavement and grief in a foreign land

For most of us, losing someone will be the most devastating and distressing experience we will ever have to face. It can release a tidal wave of emotions that we have never felt before which can be overwhelming and frightening. In A Grief Observed, a reflection of his bereavement following the loss of his wife, C. S. Lewis (1961) wrote:

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times, it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me.”

This can be even more difficult if we experience a loss when we are living in a foreign country and, rather than an invisible blanket separating us from the world, we are often physically separated from family and friends and a culture and system with which we are fully familiar. The Bereavement Support Network (BSN) exists to support and promote the well-being of English speaking bereaved people throughout France to enable anyone suffering bereavement to understand their grief and to come to terms with their loss. We also support the terminally ill and their carers in coping with the approaching end of life.
As volunteers, we have all experienced the loss of someone very close to us and can empathise, to some extent, what others are going through. Since we are expats as well, we also understand the difficulties of dealing with unfamiliar bureaucracy and officialdom in another language which, when having to do so when we are grieving, can seem even more daunting if not impossible.

Grief is very difficult and complex. Most importantly, it is an individual experience which is why the point was made earlier that our volunteers empathise “to some extent”, since how individuals experience and react to losing a loved one is unique to them. Losing a loved one is devastating but can be further complicated or heightened by a number of things including for example: the nature of the death; the relationship with the deceased; family dynamics; financial insecurity and physical health. Add to that being in another country with all that that means, it can be overwhelming.

In today’s world, we are all guilty of “googling” whatever we need or want to know about at any moment and this very much includes our health and well-bring. If you put “grief” into any search engine, the results will generally include the words “stages” and “process” since this has long been a general perspective. One of the often-quoted models is that of Elizabeth Kübler-Ross (1969) which identified 5 stages: denial; anger; bargaining; depression; acceptance. However, in reality, people who are grieving do not follow or fit into a neat model or process and more recent studies acknowledge this, placing greater emphasis on people’s individual experience. Kübler-Ross herself (2005) noted that “our grief is as individual as our lives” and clarified that these stages are potential rather than typical responses to loss and had been misunderstood.

As volunteers, our experience from the people who come to us for help and support confirms absolutely that grief is a very personal, individual response to loss and one of the key messages of support we are able to give very quickly is to provide reassurance that whatever a person is feeling is normal. Another common concern is that people feel that they do not want to burden their friends and family or that they need to “hold it together” in front of them. They can feel that they have exhausted this source of support and are at risk of “trying their patience” or, quite simply, they do not feel able to express exactly how they feel to those closest to them for a variety of reasons. People contact us for help at various times after their loss and sometimes before. It can be in the days, weeks or months after their loss or much later, sometimes years when perhaps another event has triggered or reignited deep feelings of grief. The length of time people need us also varies, for some it can be 2 or 3 conversations, for others several weeks or months but, most importantly, there is no time limit. Similarly, the means by which people prefer to communicate with us varies and includes telephone, email and sometimes texts as well as face to face. Our only restriction is the availability of our volunteers to meet clients face to face given that we are primarily based in the Var.

We find that a common source of added worry and concern are very often practical issues which may be in terms of coping with France’s detailed requirements following a death and in more general day to day tasks, made all the more difficult due to their state of mind, the language and perhaps it was something the person who has died usually dealt with. This can often cause feelings of anger as well as a sense of panic. A common trait for some of our clients is to “cope by doing” or they may normally have been the organised one who coped with whatever life threw at them. They now find that they are struggling or, equally, that they have coped by “parking” their grief, focussing instead on all the things that need to be done but once done, find they have reached a cliff edge and are unable to keep their grief at bay any longer.
At the BSN, we understand and are here to provide emotional support as well as advice on how and from where to seek practical help. We will support anyone, no matter for whom he or she is grieving – a spouse, a partner, a parent, a child, a friend, a pet. The only limitation is that they are English speakers. We are secular and non-judgemental and the service we provide is both free and confidential. We believe that the single most important thing we do is listen.

We listen – because we know that you may need to talk about your loss, yourself, your fears and concerns. Sometimes, family and friends are not enough. We help you to gain a deeper understanding of your feelings, thoughts and behaviour.
We listen – because we know it is normal that sometimes you need to express feelings of anger or guilt, helplessness and anxiety.
We listen - and we offer support for as long as needed. We offer our time and a safe environment for you to deal with the issues surrounding your bereavement.

Please – if you feel we can help, take the time to contact us. We can arrange straight away for you to either meet or speak on the telephone to someone who will support you through these difficult times. You can call Sandra on 04 94 84 64 89 or 06 32 35 31 24 or, you can email us at

For more information, visit our website which also provides details of other sources of help and support including an English speaking helpline in France which is similar to the Samaritans called SOS Helpline: 01 46 21 46 46 and operates from 3pm to 11pm.

You may think that you don’t need to remember our contact details, but please take a moment to jot them down – it may not be you who needs our help in the future, but someone you know. Please pass our details on – we are here to help.

Perhaps, you may feel that you would like to become a volunteer? If so, then please use the same contact numbers or email so that a meeting can be arranged. Volunteers are given training and need to be able to attend the Association’s monthly meetings at our head office in Flayosc on a regular basis.
BSN is a registered Association for the Support of the Bereaved, Association Number W831001805

Kübler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan
Kübler-Ross, E. and Kessler, D. (2005) On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss. New York: Scribner
Lewis, C.S. (1961) A Grief Observed. London: Faber and Faber

Phone: 04 94 84 64 89