Sharing our personal stories and learning from each other is the most powerful way to find inspiration, community and growth. Gain a fresh perspective and expand your horizon!
Silke from Germany shares with us how her husband’s sudden death abruptly ended her expat life in Mexico and what helped her and her four daughters overcome this tragedy.
Silke is a very esteemed intercultural trainer colleague of mine to whom I feel a special connection because of various amazing parallels: We both lived as expats in Puebla/Mexico although at different times, we both completed the trainer education at the same institute yet in different years, plus we now live less than 4 km apart. It was only two years ago that we met and we agreed that it’s a small world!
The other day we had a breakfast meeting, and I asked her if she would be willing to tell her story on my blog to encourage others who might be experiencing a difficult time during their expat assignment. She spontaneously said yes!
Dear Silke, describe your experiences as an expat partner and mother. What did expat life mean for you?
My husband and I first went abroad in 1994 and spent five months in Portugal. We deliberately started with a rather short stay, as wanted to see what it feels like to live abroad. At that time we had one child, our three month old daughter. The time in Portugal was so intense and enriching that we both decided to go abroad for a longer period if the opportunity presented itself.
And that was in 2001, when we already had three daughters (6 ½, 5 and 2 years) and were sent to Brazil. Our scraps of Portuguese would come in very handy, we thought. We soon realized that Brazilian Portuguese was very different, but actually easier to learn as far as the pronunciation is concerned. A challenge for me was the organization of daily life around three children with kindergarten and school. In addition to that, two of my daughters went to the International School and not only had to learn Portuguese but also English. It was very exciting to see how quickly they learned new expressions and how they mixed them up in three languages.
After three years, it was time to go back to Germany, but to a different location, namely Hanover. And here, culture shock struck us when faced with the German school/kindergarten bureaucracy. We couldn’t get a kindergarten place and the school wanted the girls to go back a year.
It cost me a lot of nerves to fight everything through and make sure that the girls continue feeling positive about their stay abroad and that they do not have any shortcomings.
In 2010, things got exciting again. Another expat assignment was on the table: Mexico. By now, we were six altogether, the youngest daughter was five, plus two dogs. I definitely wanted to move abroad again, but with two daughters going to high school and one in the middle of puberty – was that really such a good idea? There was a weekend when we all sat together and weighed pros and cons and with only one “dissenting vote” from the adolescent daughter, we decided to accept the offer. Mexico was – for me as a mother – as far as schooling was concerned, extremely challenging, even though this time they could attend a German school. Aditionally, I had two young daughters who wanted to go to parties and move around indpendently. Reconciling this with the Mexican circumstances and my need for safety was not always easy.
As you might notice, I speak a lot from the “first person perspective” when it comes to children.
My husband was so busy with his job that everything related to school, friends, hobbies, language teaching, household, contacts with Germany was completely on my shoulders.
Even when there were serious problems at school, I was always on my own to settle everything.
Your stay abroad came to an abrupt end. How did you experience and overcome this difficult time?
It was during our vacation in Cancún in 2013. My eldest daughter had just graduated four weeks earlier and was getting ready to go to Germany for her voluntary social gap year. One afternoon, my husband complained over a strong headache. He went to bed early, then got up at 10:00 pm and collapsed in the bathroom. At first I thought it was a heart attack, but then I noticed that one side of his mouth had drooped, and I knew it was a stroke.
He was taken to Cancún hospital. I will never forget that night I spent in the waiting room without any information, completely on my own (the children stayed at the hotel). The next day, my husband was responsive. The morning after, his condition worsened and he had emergency surgery. Three days later he passed away at the hospital.
These five days were like a nightmare for me. The children were at the hotel doing some activities, not realizing at all (or not wanting to realize) how bad their father’s condition wa. I drove back and forth between hospital and hotel three times a day. The fact that we were on summer vacation made things even more complicated as I lacked my social network from Puebla. Everyone was on vacation, either in Germany or somewhere in Mexico or the US. One family came over to the Riviera Maya for three days and stayed with my children at the hotel, which was a huge help for me. I called family and friends in Germany, kept them informed about the situation via Facebook. I talked to my husband’s employer in Mexico and we made plans for different scenarios.
When it became clear that my husband would not survive, HR sent down a person to support us. She helped me with the arrangements with the undertaker, checked the death certificate for accuracy, and coordinated everything with the German embassy. I couldn’t have done this with my limited Spanish. Incorrect Mexican documents would have made everything even more complicated.
My husband passed away on Thursday, on Monday we held a Mexican funeral in Puebla, next Thursday we sat on the plane to Germany (with his urn in our hand luggage!), and the following Monday we held another funeral in Germany. I organized all this, without tears, I acted in “emergency mode”, completely disconnected from my emotions.
What was especially important and helpful for your four daughters?
During the uncertain situation in Cancún, I have always been completely open with them, including the youngest (almost 7 years old). I talked to them about the different scenarios and the consequences, and I also let them feel my own perplexity and helplessness. And I told them over and over again that the five of us would get through this together.
And that’s exactly how things turned out.
Three of my daughters are studying at university, the youngest is now in 9th grade and we are very close. We still discuss many things together over a cup of tea, but everyone is very independent and makes their own decisions.
After our return to Germany, I tried to get back to some sort of daily routine as quickly as possible. All girls (except for the eldest) went back to school. They were allowed to miss a day or two, if grief was too much, but that was the exception. A new ritual was the afternoon tea time with our Mexican tea service during which everything was discussed, both practical and emotional matters.
What helped you get through this experience?
I think it was a mixture of pragmatism and mother instinct. The most important thing for me was to make sure the children were ok during the time at the hospital, the funerals and the sudden move. The childern always came first, I put my own needs last. This even went as far as quarelling with my in-laws, because I insisted on having a small funeral in Germany for the sake of the children and this was contrary to their wishes.
Pragmatism helped me in the sense of acknowledging that I could not change what happened and I was required to make the best of the situation, support my children in the best possible way so that they could cope with this loss and have a positive outlook on their future.
The previously described “emergency mode” lasted almost a year. After that, I fell into a hole, despite the fact that I had already passed my exam for the intercultural trainer. I sought professional help with a coach. The coaching was less about grief processing, but more about gaining clarity on where I was going. The image in my head was that I was swimming to stay afloat, I wasn’t drowning. eBut I wanted to know where the land is and in which direction I have to swim. I worked with the coach for almost two years – a very intense experience during which I learned a lot about myself and grew as a person.
What could other expat women learn from you?
What I would like to pass on to all expat women: During this time, when I was on my own with this situation in Cancún, I was grateful for every Spanish lesson that I had taken and glad that I could halfway understand what the nurses said to each other off the official record. All the things I needed to organize would have been impossible without a decent knowledge of the local language and how to say it.
The experience of living abroad was very enriching. Not only have I gained many skills and knowledge regarding languages and culture. I have gained a lot confidence in myself.
I dare to master difficult situations, face the unknown and stay curious about what lies beyond the obvious. I have gained the confidence that I am able to solve any problem. There are usually a variety of paths that lead to a solution and there is no such thing as the one right way.
How did you re-enter professional life after all those years?
When my husband started working, we moved to Emden and I gave up my job in order to be a stay-at-home mum. We had agreed on this together and there were only few days where I regretted this decision.
After the passing of my husband, I had been out of the job market for 20 years and I realized that my technical education was not up to date anymore.
But I had experienced so much abroad and had many intercultural experiences so I had the idea to become an “intercultural trainer”. First, I took a two-day trial “Train-the-Trainer” workshop, because I didn’t know if I could stand in front of participants and talk and have fun at the same time.
As this experiment turned out very positive, I signed up for the intercultural trainer course, and dove into this new topic with a lot of enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge. A year later, I signed up for a 9-month business trainer course and since then, I have continuously invested in my professional development.
Currently I am self-employed, I work for administrative departments, the German Skilled Craft Organisation (“Handwerkskammer”), public institutions and hospitals on the topic intercultural competence. Another area I provide trainings for is time and self-management, predomintantly in a corporate context.