Ways to cope with bereavement when living in France, away from family

Columnist Cynthia Spillman draws on personal experience to give five suggestions on handling the loss of a loved one abroad

Whether it is a parent, child, animal or partner – loss is loss and should be treated with the utmost respect

Coping with loss is always hard, but living abroad (where, culturally, death might be slightly different) can sometimes make grief even more difficult to navigate.

Having lost my own son in a car fire, I am only too familiar with the painful gamut of feelings that must be endured before healing can begin.

1. Do what feels right

On our last trip to Nice, our dog suddenly became ill and had to be put down. I found that this triggered many of the feelings I had experienced around the loss of my son decades before.

My mother was French, so I have encountered death in this country before, when my grandfather died.

I soon realised that the French have a different way of dealing with the death of an animal.

Perhaps we were unlucky, but I am certain that had Lola met her end in the UK, it would have been handled in a more compassionate manner.

Whether it is a parent, child, animal, partner or whatever – loss is loss and should be treated with the utmost respect.

You must do what feels right for you and not listen to other people’s opinions.

Read more: Moving to France: six ways to deal with guilt over family back home

2. Try to plan ahead

Before looking at ways of navigating the death of a loved one, spare a thought for how those same people will cope in the event of your death.

There are things you can do in advance to make life easier for those you leave behind – the most important being to ensure your affairs are in good order.

Wills should be reviewed every few years to bring them up to date.

If you are living abroad, it is vital you take local expert advice on how to do this because of potential differences in French inheritance law from that of your native country.

Clear communication is also essential. Talk to your partner and/or your family before it is too late.

Take out a funeral plan. The last thing you want is to leave your loved ones with a burden when they are already struggling with grief.

Nobody wants to contemplate their own mortality but, having run a wills and estate administration company in London with more than 6,000 clients, I can tell you that, without fail, our customers felt a huge sense of relief after they had made their wills.

Other matters to consider:

  • Do you want to be buried or cremated abroad?

  • Would you prefer a religious or humanist funeral?

  • Do you want to be repatriated?

Read more: Six pieces of advice if you plan to grow old in France

3. What to do when an expatriate dies in France

  • Avail yourself of any charities and organisations that offer support, such as the Bereavement Support Network France (bsnvar.org), which helps English-speaking residents manage their bereavement or anticipatory grief, free of charge

  • Register the death and obtain a death certificate – the funeral director can do this on your behalf

  • Arrange the funeral and let people know the details

  • Deal with a local post-mortem

  • Bring the body or ashes home

  • Contact the insurance company

  • Find out what benefits you are entitled to at home and in France

4. Take care of yourself and support others in similar situations

If ever there is a time to put yourself first, then it is when you have been bereaved.

Grief is like a journey – sometimes you go forward smoothly and at other times you feel like you are sliding back into the abyss.

The only way out of it is through it. Do not rely on quick fixes such as alcohol as a crutch.

There is no timescale for healing. Take it one day at a time and, if necessary, five minutes at a time.

I found it helpful to find somebody who had also lost a child and rebuilt her life after. She gave me courage.

In turn, I used my suffering to empower others and give them hope that they could also survive their loss and eventually build a new and happy life after.

People often struggle with what to say to a bereaved person. There is nothing worse than crossing the road, acting as if nothing has happened.

If you do not know what to say, then it is far better to own up to that. You can offer to listen and witness their grief without comment.

Read more: How to fight off expat isolation in France

5. Know that life will go on

We are programmed to survive but there will always be times when painful emotions are re-triggered. Anniversaries, birthdays, family events and holidays are just a few.

It is important to deal with these the way that feels best for you. If that means staying in bed for the day with the duvet over your head, so be it.

In time, you learn to live with loss.

If you get ‘stuck’ in your grief and have feelings of self-harm, then you must reach out for professional help.

When you are at the bottom of the pit that is grief, the only way is up.

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