My stomach knots with anxiety when I receive a phone call from home in Kenya. Don’t get me wrong; I receive many happy calls from family and friends. But the possibility of that one damned call about the death or sickness of a loved one never eludes my thoughts. I have dreaded that phone call for so long.
A Heartbreaking Revelation
Finally, on a Wednesday, that dreaded phone call came. When my phone rang, I had just left work and was on the bus heading for language school.
It was my mother calling. The day had been beautiful; it was my second day at a new job in a Danish college as a teacher, and I was excited to share the details with my mother. However, something in her voice sent dark trepidation crossing through my mind. I answered the call with trembling hands, but I couldn’t have prepared myself for what she was about to say.
“I have bad news for you, Judy. Your dear cousin Ngima (Susan) is dead. She died this morning in a grisly road accident…”
The rest of her words became a blur. My mind was numbed by shock.
“Hello, are you there?” she asked, pulling me back to reality.
I was there, but I couldn’t speak.
The shock gripped my core. My mother disconnected the call. I tried to control the flood of emotions. I was on a public bus, surrounded by strangers. We don’t break down in public here. Seeing a person bawl out in an open space is an unusual sight. I desperately wanted to hold back the tears until I was in a more private place, but they burned my eyes. I remembered speaking to my cousin the night before. She was missing my son and me and wanted to know when we would be coming to revisit our family in Kenya. I told her soon, as soon as in 3 weeks. She was excited, and so was I. We had spent most of our lives together, not just as 1st cousins but as blood sisters.
Unleashing Grief in a Stoic Land
My heart broke. There was no holding back the tears. I let it all out in public, choked by the emotions of standing alone in a crowd. Death at a distance had found me and struck me. The art of crying in Denmark is very different from what I am used to in Kenya. Here, I live in a society that is accustomed to demure crying. Some may perceive this as the coldness of Danes, but to them, crying is a core aspect of privacy, a primary value in Danish etiquette. Danes have a way of taming their emotions in public spaces. Showing such an outburst of emotions in public is a rarity. My crying was neither silent, from the corner of my eyes (angelic), nor dignified. It was disarming, raw, and loud.
Here I was, hyperventilating and choking from my grief, bearing all my vulnerability on a public bus. I didn’t know where to go or how to stop the tears. I felt half grateful that the news hit me when I left the staff room. Blubbering my emotions at work, in my first week, in front of predominantly Danish colleagues, would have been outright awkward. But there was no moment to summon my inner strength and suppress the burning emotions. There was no in-between. The painful lump in my throat burst out, and a flood of gushing hot tears followed. Later, I walked down the streets, confused, in
a hysterical crying fit, until my husband came to my rescue. I collapsed into his arms, the weight of my grief too strong to tame. He felt helpless.
Embracing the Reality of living abroad
Dealing with the death of a loved one while living abroad carries a whirlwind of emotions. For the last two weeks, I’ve been scavenging the internet and calling relatives to share details about her final moments. It has been my way of dealing with pain, shock, and anger.
Being an immigrant necessitates numerous sacrifices, many of which involve being absent during important family events, such as births, parents growing old, weddings, circumcisions, death, and funerals. I know one too many people who have lost parents and siblings but have not had the chance to travel back to Kenya for the funeral. Sometimes, they have had to be ‘present’ for the burial through Skype. I never thought this would happen to me, but it has. The first reaction to my mind when I received news of my cousin’s death was to drop everything and run home to my family.
However, the reality of my life in Denmark forces me to be practical and think soberly through my grief. I must be honest and accept that I cannot buy a ticket home in the blink of an eye. I have a toddler, a new job, and a plane ticket purchased for travelling to Kenya at a later date. Being with my family in Kenya would be ideal, but it is not practical. I would love to be there, to accept the reality of my cousin’s death, but I have to make a sacrifice.
Being absent from my Kenyan family is probably a sacrifice I must make many more times during my life abroad. Such is not only my reality but also that of almost every other immigrant. Every moment I am away from my family or friends in Kenya, that dreaded phone call may come. Meanwhile, I have been bargaining with mortality in the face of my cousin’s sudden death, yet I have to find healthy means of coping with grief and finding closure when death catches up with me at a distance.