Sunday, April 1, 2018

Has Your Friend Suffered A Sudden Loss? Practical Tips For Effective Helping When Expats Die Overseas


When someone dies overseas, red tape is a nightmare. Here are some thoughts on how to manage effectively.

We lost a friend in a traffic accident just over a month ago, and so our community has been in mourning. Now we’re climbing out of the initial shock, I thought I’d get this down in case others find it useful.

#1 Know You’re Not Thinking Straight
When someone young dies in an accident, devastating loss comes with an extra whammy of shock. That combination does some very strange things to your thinking.

For me, the last month has been like thinking through cotton wool. I’ve been slow to make connections and I’ve been forgetting things. My temper has been very much up and down as well.

This combination makes it difficult to attend to all the practical things that have to happen: arranging the funeral, and starting on the paperwork process to get the estate wound up.

When you’re an expat, red tape is a nightmare. So, if you are overseas and find yourself helping out in tragic circumstances, here are some practical tips.

#2 Hire An All Round Fixer For The Funeral Arrangements
Before you can bury someone, you need a death certificate. You also need to have that endorsed by the embassy of the person who died. If there is no living spouse, and no other direct family present, you will need extra paperwork that gives you the right to deal with funeral arrangements. 

You know what it’s like to do even normal things, like renewing a work permit: it takes multiple visits to find out what paperwork you need, and then you’ve got to queue, get everything in triplicate and even then there’s going to be something forgotten or missing.

My advice is that it’s not worth doing this paperwork yourself. You’re already stressed to the max, and to have to run around for days on end talking to officials, will likely bring you close to collapse.

Top Tip: there are funeral service companies that do it all for you. They have all the contacts so they know what paperwork needs to be done, and they have the clout to make sure it’s done swiftly and properly. Also, they don’t queue.

Important: Don’t go for a local company that only deals with local deaths! The paperwork involving a local death is different than that involving an expat. Pick a company that deals with expats.

The question you need to ask to check if the company is sound is:
How do I know the death certificate will be accepted back in my home country?
And the answer you want to hear is one that involves the local certificate being stamped by your embassy.

Recommendation: we are in Selangor, Malaysia and we used Dominick from Trinity Funeral Services.

#3 Grieving Spouses Are Blank With Grief
That cotton wool thinking that hit me is nothing compared to what hits the bereaved family. In my experience, it doesn’t matter if people cry or are calm, if they have lots of family around or none, if they are local or not - over the first few weeks, every one acts in the same way.

What you are dealing with is someone who will say, “Yes. No. Okay.” And a day later, they won’t even remember seeing you. They’re not being difficult. They’re just blank with grief.  This blankness lasts at least a month.

This leads to...

#4 Decide How You Need To Help
There are two extremes. Some people fight grief with action. They need to be doing stuff so they can put off the hurt that comes with loss. Other people are paralysed by emotion. They can’t think at all. 

Others still fall in the middle. They may keep busy by pursuing one particular task. Again, some go for a known comfort activity, such as cooking while others obsess over one aspect of the situation, perhaps intent on getting together the perfect funeral.

My advice: let people do their grieving in their own way, and match your support by complimenting the places where they’re not going.

So for the man who is focusing on funeral flowers and music but who just can’t deal with condolence calls, step in and offer to answer the phone and reply to the email and Facebook posts. 

#5 Keep Meticulous Notes
At the very least, you’re going to have to: inform family and friends over several countries, talk to the deceased’s landlord, deal with the deceased’s company (clearing out desks, handing over laptops etc), and then you may have to also look at canceling work visas, talking to accountants over taxes, etc etc. If there are kids left behind, add in dealing with schools.

My advice: Rope in friends. I have to say, the people who stepped up for us were absolutely totally amazing.  I won’t name them here, but oh boy, talk about respect.

Anyway, rope in friends, and share out tasks so you don’t overlap. Most of all, make sure you don’t drop a loop by keeping itemised to do lists.

My list was divided into headings: accommodation, school, family and friends updated, and so on.... I wrote down what had to be done, who was in charge of doing it, and I marked tasks to be done, in progress, and complete.

Now, to get back to your bereaved friend....

#6 Act Like A Secretary
Support during bad times is an art, and there are no fixed rules. I think it’s important to balance respect with relieving the burden.

I’d say, if you are roped in to help, act as a secretary.  You’re your friend’s PA, which means you take them over what needs to be done, and ask them what they want you to do.

Deal with urgent matters but don’t be shy about putting off less important decisions until later.

Warning: don’t sign anything and don’t let the bereaved person sign anything. Grief messes up your brain so it is at this point that crooks and con artists come out of the woodwork. If you’re not careful, you will sign up for paying endless fees for services that you don’t want or that are actually free.

Tip: the more they push and yell and threaten, the more likely it is they are crooks trying to intimidate you. Push back by saying, “Write a letter and the family will refer it to their lawyer.”  Even if there is no money to hire a lawyer, that legal bit will quiet the legit ones.

At some point the bereaved family will come out of the fog and take over. As long as you have it all down on paper, you won’t drop a loop.

#7 Breathe
It’s horrible, it sucks but when you feel overwhelmed, take a step back and remind yourself that it’s always difficult to adjust to violent sudden change.

Go do something nice for yourself. Surround yourself with friends, and have a laugh. My personal view is that mourning is made a little easier if you celebrate life.

I hope this helps.


Note: I am a private counselling psychologist helping my clients manage stress and depression. I work online via Skype and Facebook Messenger. Email me via happy@lepak.com. My current charges are RM100 or US$30 over Paypal per session. The first 20 minutes are free.

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