Bereavement Abroad: When the unthinkable happens and you're not there.

 by Ellen Barone

I awakened on a Tuesday morning in Medellin, Colombia, to an email from my brother in Utah: Dad, who lived in a nearby retirement home with my mother, had fallen and broken his left hip and hand.

He provided a few additional details, the hospital name, floor and room number. The cardiologist cleared my dad for immediate hip surgery, and from there things escalated—and deteriorated—quickly.

Thirty-nine hours and 46 minutes after reading my brother’s email, the text of dad's passing pinged on my phone in Medellin at 1:41 a.m..

In that moment, I understood what it means to have a heavy heart, as my chest constricted in grief and loss and a bone-deep sadness for my mother, for the days and weeks and months ahead of her that no one is ever prepared for. But there was also something more complicated going on, something about absence and choices.

It’s the traveler’s great dilemma: to go or stay. The what-ifs loom large. What if the unthinkable happens while we are away? What if we can't get home in time? What if we're not there?

Yet, we go.

We go because we know that staying does not stave off the unthinkable.

We go because we know that proximity doesn't guarantee anything.

We go knowing we might not be there.

And, if we're fortunate, we go with the blessings of those who love us.

Though my husband and I had chosen to alter or postpone our travel plans several times over the past few years to be with my elderly parents when it was helpful or necessary, it was our wanderings that had become a source of unexpected connection for me and my dad.

He was curious and interested about our adventures in a manner that hadn't previously been a part of our relationship. He asked detailed questions and really listened to the answers, often replying with more questions.

“Tell me more about the underground network of roads and tunnels in Guanajuato. How does it work?” he’d asked when I mentioned how pleasant it was to live in a city where much of its traffic was diverted beneath it.

He wanted to know if the tunnels had once been part of the silver mines that the region was famous for. What about ventilation and stability? Access to homes and businesses? His engineer’s mind latched onto practical details that made me stop and think about our everyday existence abroad in ways that no one else did.

It surprised me, this curiosity about my life. As the youngest of three daughters, there were times growing up when it seemed like he didn't even know my name. I recall him absentmindedly rattling off our names, as if covering all possibilities, before issuing some mundane missive: “Kathy, Cheryl, Ellen, empty the dishwasher for your mother.”

Looking back now, from an age when there are days that I barely remember my own name, I can only imagine how he managed under the numerous and persistent demands of work and marriage and family.

And the truth, if I admit it, is that I was the one lacking in curiosity and interest. Did I ask my dad about his work? His life? His past? His dreams? His fears? No. Those weren't conversations we shared for much of my life.

Maybe I’m slow, or a late bloomer, as I prefer to think of it, but it wasn’t until these past few precious years that I finally felt compelled to know my dad. Not only as a father, but as an individual. A desire I am fortunate to have had the time and opportunity to pursue.

The night my father died, I tried to make sense of it all, how the distance of a traveler’s life had enabled us to become closer, how through the shared experiences of crisis we’d finally been able to see one another beyond the roles of father and daughter, and how when death came, continents separated us.

And though I wasn't there in the end, my grief is softened not only by the fact that he didn't have to endure a long and painful passing, but also by the intimacy and connection we’d shared in his final years.

Perhaps the traveler’s great dilemma isn't whether to go or stay, but rather in going or staying, whether or not we make time to nurture and cultivate relationships that matter.

Travelers know well the risks and rewards of pushing beyond comfort zones, stepping outside routines and roles and responsibilities long enough to connect with what is real. We can do this in places foreign and familiar, with strangers and our families, and within ourselves.

My dad left me with many memories, but the one that sticks with me, and that will guide me moving forward, is to be curious about the people we love and who love us. To ask and listen and then ask some more.


Ellen Barone is co-founder and publisher of and is currently at work on her first book "I Could Live Here", a travel memoir of home and belonging.


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