Dealing with Death Back Home when you are Abroad

The decision to move far from home is not an easy one for most expats. In general, many people stay close to home for fear of being disconnected from their circle of friends and family and missing out on life with them. That concern is still inside those of us who finally choose to leave which is what makes it such a heavy decision. The difference is that those who go usually realize that their dreams won’t stop calling them and just because their goals carry them farther away geographically than most, doesn’t mean they are any less worthy of being achieved.

Coming back to Korea took me eight years. In part, I was trying to give my other goals a fair shot and also I decided to go back to school and do it part-time so I could still live on my own. School happened four years after returning home and took just under three years to complete. My goal then was to finish school and head back to Korea as soon as I could. Then came time to leave and I stayed. For one more year I remained, to enjoy my family and friends without the burden of academics on my shoulders. Two of my closest friends had had children and I wanted to be there for that. I also struggled to leave my Father since he is one of my best friends and imagining life without him being an hour away (again) was hard to do.

At Namhan mountain fortress in Gwangju, Gyeonggi province.

At Namhan mountain fortress in Gwangju, Gyeonggi province.

I spent my last year in Canada enjoying everyone’s company and soaking it up. By the end of that year I realized that everyone around me was moving forward with their dreams and accomplishing their goals while I was standing still. It was my turn to achieve some goals and if those goals happened to take me really far away, then I had to accept that. This is the general conflict that most people mull over in their minds before heading off to follow their hearts, wherever in this world it may take them.

The part that expats don’t seem to talk about is that once you get to your faraway place, things back home will continue to happen without your consent or attendance and sadly, that includes loved ones passing away while we are gone.

First, there is the finding out part, which may take longer for you since you are not in the same area code or time-zone. You may get word of a friend or someone you know passing away through e-mail instead, in a facebook message or some other form of social media that is often faster and cheaper than calling on the phone these days.

Then there is the moment when you try to figure in your head if you can afford to get home for the funeral, if you will even make it on time and if your current job will even allow it. For most expats teaching in Korea, if you are working at a public school they do offer a leave of absence for a death in the family. However, the flight home is at your expense and usually it’s only five days, two of which will be lost in traveling there and back, if you’re coming from Asia to North America.

Namhan mountain fortress.

Namhan mountain fortress.

Often times the family members or friends will insist that you stay where you are, save your money and don’t worry, as you will probably miss the funeral date, given your lapse in notice, distance, travel time and so on. This can leave the expat in a strange situation.

When I lost a loved one while overseas, I didn’t find out until three days later. It wasn’t a family member, so I would not have been given leave even if I wanted to. I couldn’t afford the flight home anyway and didn’t even know if the funeral had already happened so I was left to process everything on my own, here in Korea. Luckily I had a close friend who knew him well and had the time to skype with me over the next few days. Aside from her though, I was left to my own devices and found myself turning to the internet community for guidance.

There is a website that many foreigners use here in Korea for teaching resources and also for discussion forums on life in Korea in general. I posted a discussion question asking those in the foreign community if they had ever lost anyone while overseas and how they dealt with it.

The response was immediate and I found it overwhelming, heartbreaking and comforting all at the same time. Some had lost multiple family members around the same time and were unable to make it home for either of the funerals. Others lost parents soon after arriving overseas and said it was the darkest time of their lives. Their stories humbled me and gave me strength.

The king's pond at the mountain fortress. Many Buddhist temples are located in secluded areas like this, giving patrons a quiet space to reflect and meditate.

The king’s pond at the mountain fortress. Many Buddhist temples are located in secluded areas like this, giving patrons a quiet space to reflect and meditate.

One person told me to get it all out, to find peace and closure in my own way in Korea as I would never really have it if I thought that closure only came from physically being in the place where they died. He suggested I go to a temple or church here in Korea and make my offering, spend some time reflecting.

I received many thanks for posting that question on the discussion board, as many people told me that they too were dealing with a death or a pending death and they were terrified of what to do once it happened. They thanked me for bringing up a topic that people don’t want to discuss and told me that the other people’s messages were a great help to them. This is why I am writing this now.

I think it’s true that you need to find peace and closure in your own way when you lose someone while abroad. In my situation, I wrote my friend a long e-mail and sent it off, knowing that he would never read it.

For those who lose someone when they are far away, it can be hard to grasp that the idea is even real. You feel like you are floating in space, looking down at everyone who is mourning together back home. At times it can seem easier since you are out of the loop but at the same time, worse to have to go it alone and find your own way through the thoughts, doubts and possible regrets.

In my situation, I told no one here in Korea what had happened and pretended I was fine at school then went home and let it out. In a way, it was easier to compartmentalize things, but I found it also took me longer to process since most of it was internalized. I was low for a while but those messages on the discussion board helped me lift my spirits and be grateful for those who are still here instead of mourning only on those who have gone.

I’m not sure what I can say to make it better because at the end of the day, dealing with death is never easy. My hope is that another expat may one day stumble upon this entry and find comfort in knowing they’re not alone. I know that feeling meant a lot to me when I needed it so I intend to pay it forward.

Below are some counseling options for those in Korea who would like someone professional to speak to.

Adaptable Human Solutions (AHS) is a counseling and therapy office in Seoul. They offer help in English and Korean and offer services in person or over the phone for those located outside of the Seoul area. Many expats have recommended these people when looking for help. was also recommended to me by some foreigners. They have an extensive index of English speaking psychologists with varying fields of expertise and some offer skype sessions in addition to face to face appointments.

Last but not least, I highly recommend a temple stay if you’re looking for some quiet time to think and reflect. Templestays are mostly Buddhist temples, either traditional Buddhist or Korean Buddhist and specialize in hosting guests for a weekend, a week or whatever you’re looking for. Travelers get to experience a few days in the life of a Buddhist monk while eating some of the best food on this planet.

I did a temple stay last time I was here and it was wonderful. Very peaceful with beautiful surroundings. The next time I need to clear my head, I will definitely be hitting up this website and finding a weekend retreat from the city.

More of the beautiful mountain fortress. Many temples are tucked away into mountain sides like this.

More of the beautiful mountain fortress. Many temples are tucked away into mountain sides like this.

Be well Dear Readers, and remember that no matter where you are in the world, somebody loves you :)

Bukchon Traditional Korean Village

Bukchon Traditional Village, also known as Bukchon Hanok Village, is a remarkable walk through days gone by. “Bukchon” means “northern village” and is located between several other national landmarks. Surrounding the village is Gyeongbokgung Palace, Changdeokgung Palace and the Jongmyo Shrine so you could easily spend a whole day lost in time.


102_0725These old Korean houses are relics from the past, neslted on a mountain side above today’s Seoul city. Strolling through this town will give you an idea of how things looked in Korea over 600 years ago during the Joseon Dynasty.


Beautiful stonework and intricate clay designs make this place beautiful even in modern times. Koreans still live in these houses now, as you will notice by the odd security lock or “ADT” sign.

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The village is located in Seoul, on subway line 3, exit 3 at Anguk station.

102_0728102_0724For more information, see










Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs

Giants on guard as we enter the park.

Giants on guard as we enter the park.

The Garden of the Gods is a registered National Landmark in the state of Colorado and is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen. In the beginning, the area was home to wild life such as wolves, buffalo, deer, sheep, foxes, rabbits and others. The Ute Indians, among others, were said to have lived there off and on over the years as well. Then came the modern man.
The "Three Graces" formation.

The “Three Graces” formation.

In 1859, gold was found in the South Park area of Colorado which created a population boom in the region. Within one year more than 100,000 people settled in the area. Around that time, two surveyors headed out from Denver to begin a new town, which would later be Colorado City.During their explorations they came upon the vast landscape of enormous rock formations. One of the surveyors, M.S. Beach, claimed it would be a perfect place for a beer garden, once the city developed. His travel mate, Rufus Cable, scoffed at the idea of a beer garden stating,“Beer garden? Why, it is a fit place for the Gods to assemble. We will call it the Garden of the Gods.” And so it was.

The "Balanced Rock" and "Steamboat" formation

The “Balanced Rock” and “Steamboat” formation

The features of the park are made up of ancient sedimentary rocks of red, pink and white sandstones,conglomerates and limestone. Sedimentary rocks are a type of rock that takes its shape over time through deposits of minerals and other organic particles that are carried to the rock by water, ice or wind. It takes thousands of years for these types of rocks to take form.

The "Cathedral Valley."

The “Cathedral Valley.”

It’s basically little pieces of our earth’s surface eroded and crumbling over time, being swept downstream into riverbeds, oceans and other bodies of water. As each layer is added, the layers below become more compact until they eventually turn into a solid formation. Over thousands of years, waterbeds drained leaving behind the magnificent stone giants you see today in Colorado Springs.

The "Giant Footprints" formation.

The “Giant Footprints” formation.

It is quite humbling to think that you are walking a path that was once the bottom of a river or lake that dinosaurs may have drank out of or even lived in. Looking up to the tops of the rock ledges, imagining the water’s surface and what may have been there millions of years ago is truly amazing. If you’re ever in Colorado, I recommend you make your way to the Springs to see these limestone giants and enjoy the feeling of awe.

Another formation next to "Giant Footprints."

Another formation next to “Giant Footprints.”

Rock climbing is also permitted in certain sections of the park, but climbers need to get a permit from the visitors office beforehand. For more information see: Admission is free to the park, visitors center and the nature center, although donations are welcome to help maintain the upkeep of the 3,300 acres.

A view from the top.

A view from the top.

With resources from:

Rock Hounds

My Korea: Past & Present

Greetings Dear Readers,

Many of you know that this is my second time in Korea. For those who don’t know, I was here nine years ago and a lot has changed since then. Considering almost a decade has gone by since my last habitation, I find it noteworthy to document three of the biggest changes between then and now.


Currently I’m living in Namyangju city in Gyeonggi province, a province that surrounds the capital city of Seoul. When I was here last, I lived in Seoul city, in the south-western district of Guro-gu. As cool as it may seem to live in the capital, my area wasn’t very metropolitan. My little pocket of town was blue-collar, working class, with very few foreigners. In one year, I met another foreigner in my town only once and had to travel at least 40 minutes further into Seoul for anything foreign.

I was told my area was part of a big factory industry which explained the constant smog. Summer in Seoul can get quite stifling. Pollution in the capital is pretty dense in the summer months and you can feel it in your chest when you breathe. Also, no matter where you are in the capital, there are just so many people! Seoul city was home to over 10 million people as of the 2011 statistics, so you can imagine that it’s hard to walk down a street by yourself at any given time.


(photo: In Insadong, Seoul 2013)

Namyangju’s population was just under 600,000 as of 2011 which is about half of Seoul’s head count. Being outside of the big city and leaning more towards the countryside is refreshing and spacious. My town is not fully in the country, but is pretty darn near. Some towns in Namyangju are pure country, with chickens and cows, the whole shebang. I’m only a few minutes from the subway station and my town is central enough to have a multitude of buses and still be on the Seoul subway line. I’ve got the best of both worlds as I get the fresh mountain air and lower population density while still enjoying city life and being connected to the heart of Seoul.


(photo: At Namhansanseong [South Han Mountain Fortress]

in Gwangju, Gyeonggi provence – so many trees!)


Even though I was technically in the capital city, my neighborhood of Gaebong-dong was very homogenous. Most people in my little town stared and gawked at me for the first four months I was there. Many had never seen a foreigner, let alone talk to one at the grocery store. I became a bit of a celebrity in my neighborhood. Although they were shy and nervous around me, no one was ever rude or unwelcoming. It was just painfully obvious that many were seeing a foreigner for the first time.

Nine years later, I’m in a slightly bigger neighborhood, although still blue-collar with very few foreigners. Even so, I found this time around people barely batted an eye at my presence. It could also be that my Korean is much better than last time, but I found that I mosey about the streets of my neighborhood practically unnoticed and stare-free. In the last decade I think a lot more foreigners have come and gone throughout Korea and now it’s not so shocking to see a waygook (foreigner) show up in your grocery store.

I feel less isolated and not so far from home when I’m treated this way. Sometimes I go get my groceries at the local market and wander home lost in thought, forgetting that I’m not on the streets of Toronto. It feels good to be accepted as part of the community without the usual shock and awe reception I got nine years ago in my old town.


(photo: At Bukchon traditional village 2013)


When I was in Seoul my contract was with a private institute, also known as an academy or in Korean, a hagwon (although I am learning to read and write in Hangul, I will keep my Korean words romanized as most of my Dear Readers are not fluent in Hangul ^_^).

There are many hagwons in Korea and most are run by private business owners. For example; there are piano, math, Korean, taekwondo and hapkido academies all over Korea so English academies are not the only kind of hagwons out there. These academies are not paid for by the government so parents pay a monthly fee for their children to attend after regular school hours.

Hagwons pay more in monthly salaries, have later hours and smaller class sizes. These are the pluses. On the downside of hagwons, there is a risk involved when being employed by a private business owner instead of being employed by the government at a public school. Downsides may include but are not limited to: not being paid on time, your hagwon owner/boss being not-so-nice to foreigners and the possibility of the academy going out of business all of a sudden, leaving you stuck in Korea with a useless E-2 visa. Also there is less vacation time. More on these differences are for another blog entry.

In my experience, my hagwon was decent although I was a little mistreated by my original hagwon owner. Fortunately for me, she left Korea halfway through my contract to move to the USA and the co-owner took over, who was very kind. Overall, what happened there did not spoil my experience as I still had a great year but chose to work for the public school system this time around.

public school

(photo: my classroom in Namyangju 2013)

  With public schools, you are much more protected. You are a lot less likely to loose your job (unless you do something to violate your contract), your paperwork and pay schedule are all organized and up-front and your vacation time is doubled. Although you will be teaching much larger classes, you will also have a co-teacher with you, who is a native Korean speaker, in comparison to teaching on your own at a private academy.

Some teachers may prefer to teach alone and that’s cool, but for me, I find that I can reach the students much more when I have a native speaker with me to translate when they don’t understand a concept or idea. Overall I enjoyed my experience at the private academy but am really happy being in a public school this time.

These are the top three things that have changed, but the list goes on. Neither experience was better or worse, just different. With living comes experience and as long as you’re learning, you’re doing alright :) Happy travels Dear Readers, see you in Colorado!