Death at a distance: the worst phone call an emigrant can get
Philip O'Connor pictured in his strip for the Stockholm Gaels GAA team
Generation Emigration:As Joe Buggy prepared to move out of his parents’ house in Kilkenny and begin a new life with his American fiancee in New York in 2010, the possibility that his father or mother might fall ill in his absence was a thought he chose not to dwell on.But just 10 months after arriving in Manhattan, Buggy (29) got the call every emigrant dreads. His father had suffered a heart attack and his mother was calling him home. The flight back to Shannon went by in a blur, but he made it to the hospital in time to say goodbye before his father Michael died two days later.
“Being an emigrant when a parent dies leads to the explosion of a million thoughts in your head,” he says. “How will my mother and younger sisters cope? Should my wife and I move to Ireland and leave a good life we have begun to build in the US? Did my leaving somehow contribute to his death?”
Buggy returned to New York a month later, and since then has kept in contact with his family by email and Skype. “We have been able to talk about my dad’s death and share the pain and sadness we felt, but not in the usual manner as if we were living close to each other,” he says.
Trish Murphy, a psychotherapist and spokeswoman for the Family Therapy Association of Ireland, says a call about the illness or death of a loved one while far from home is “all our worst fears realised”.
“For many young emigrants, the worry that something like this might happen is a huge concern,” she says. The first reaction most of us have is to drop everything and run, but Murphy believes it is important to determine how serious the situation is before making any decisions.
“We act to alleviate anxiety, but it might not be best for you, your work or your family to go home immediately. If someone close is gravely ill, of course it is important to try to come back before they die, but if it is not life-threatening they might need your support more at another time.”
But being far away from a family member or friend who is suffering is always going to be hard, and it is important to be honest and not to pretend otherwise, she says.
“On both sides, the instinct is to protect the other person, tell them they are fine and not to worry. But when you are far away you can feel very helpless and afraid. Sharing those feelings will help to alleviate them.”
If someone close dies, attending the funeral is an important part of accepting the reality of their passing and saying goodbye, Murphy says. “Going through the process of the funeral helps you to accept what happened, and realise the community support around you.
“Not being there can leave you in a state of unreality or denial, by making it easier to imagine everything is continuing at home as normal,” she says.
The biggest sacrifice
But for many emigrants, flying home may not be possible because of cost, work or visa reasons, even for the funeral of someone close. For the undocumented Irish in the US, not being able to travel to be by a sick parent’s bedside is the single-biggest sacrifice of making a life there.