Dealing with Tragedy Back Home

It’s every travelers worst nightmare – what do you do if tragedy strikes back home while you are on the road? You can never predict when illness or death may occur, nor should you let the anticipation of those events prevent you from traveling. It’s a situation you can never quite prepare for, but a conversation definitely worth having before you leave.

Amy Sutter shares with us how she and her husband Keith determined in advance what plan of action they might take if someone in their family fell ill, and how they inevitably had to put it into action.

Dealing with Tragedy

Nine thousand five hundred twenty-four miles. That is approximately the distance we were from home when we got the news that turned our world upside-down. We were about to go to sleep, only our second night in our campervan, mere meters from the ocean in Kurrimine Beach, Queensland, Australia. We had no internet and no international cell phone service, and it had been a few days since we last got in touch with anyone back home.

Should we check the iPhone for any text messages? This, we told our families before we left, was the best way to reach us in an emergency, and I had a strange feeling in my gut that we should check.

Please call home. – Dad

There it was, the message that makes your stomach jump into your throat. We booted up the laptop to search for a wifi signal, finding a paid service nearby. Hands trembling, I dialed through on Skype.

Lewis has pancreatic cancer. We would love for you to come home, but you should do whatever you think is best.

Lewis is my dad’s husband, my step-father of over 30 years. With three grandparents between us in their eighties and one in her nineties, we knew there would be a good chance that someone would get sick or pass away while we were traveling. So we discussed this possibility with our families before we left home. Did we want to know if one of our grandparents got sick? Died? What about a parent? Step-parent? Sibling? Would we come home?

But knowing that we had a plan and that we had prepared for the worst-case scenario made an incredibly difficult situation much more bearable.

Nothing can prepare you for the shock of a parent’s illness or predict the crushing feeling of being so far from home when in that moment the only place in the world you can possibly think to be is home. But having had the difficult conversations with family before we left, we at least had a plan. We had decided, without the swirl of confusion and emotion that surrounds you in the moment of such news, that we would want to go home, at least temporarily, if something happened. We knew whether the emergency was a death or an illness that we would want to be there to support our families and would need their support as well. We had set aside an emergency reserve fund to pay for last minute flights. We had health insurance in place in the United States in the event we had to come home early, since travel insurance doesn’t cover you domestically. We had even left our aerobed at the front of our storage unit, just in case we faced more time than we anticipated staying with friends and family.

I’m not going to gloss over the panic and intensity of trying to decide just how quickly we needed to get home, of waiting for word of a prognosis from the oncologist, of second-guessing our decision to come home but to fly out of Sydney and give ourselves two more weeks to get there. There is nothing good to say about clicking on “purchase” for $3,000 worth of airplane tickets and wondering whether you made the right decision. But I cannot imagine going through what we did without having had the conversations and safety nets in place.

It can be morbid to sit at dinner with your family and let them grill you with questions about what you would do in the event of an illness, a terminal illness, a death, or an injury to each and every member of your family. Here you are, about to begin an adventure of a lifetime, and it is no fun to think about everything that can go wrong back home. But unfortunately, it’s not that uncommon, especially if you are a career-breaker and a little bit older. (While traveling, we met three other Americans who faced the illness or death of a loved-one back at home.) But knowing that we had a plan and that we had prepared for the worst-case scenario made an incredibly difficult situation much more bearable.

So far, Lewis is beating the odds and we’ve been blessed with many great visits since we came home. We are looking forward to celebrating Thanksgiving with him – thankful for the time we have to spend with family.

Other comments

11 Comments on "Dealing with Tragedy Back Home"

  1. Tweets that mention Dealing with Tragedy Back Home | Briefcase to Backpack - Travel Advice for Career Breaks or Sabbaticals -- on Wed, 17th Nov 2010 12:18 pm 

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Alexis Grant, BriefcasetoBackpack. BriefcasetoBackpack said: It’s every travelers worst nightmare – what do you do if tragedy strikes back home while you are on the road? #travel #lp […]

  2. Dealing with Tragedy Back Home | Green Around the Globe on Wed, 17th Nov 2010 6:56 pm 

    […] the news that my step-father, Lewis, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  In today’s guest post on Briefcase to Backpack, I write in more detail about the process we went through before we even left on our adventure to […]

  3. Kieron on Thu, 18th Nov 2010 6:16 am 

    That’s great to hear that Lewis is beating the odds, thanks for sharing this story.

    This is one of the things we’ve been grilled about by family as we prepare for our RTW – what if this happened, what if that happened, etc. It’s not nice to think about, but it’s something that you need to be prepared for which is why we’ve got a $5,000 emergency fund for any emergency, whether it be at home or on the road.

    I still don’t think that puts our parents minds at ease any more, but all we can do is know that we’ll be able to get home within a few days if this worst case scenario happens.

  4. Andrea on Fri, 26th Nov 2010 5:36 pm 

    Great post! And happy to hear that Lewis is going ok. This topic came up the other day for us and, of course, we would fly back temporarily if something happened to one of our parents. I’ve been dealing with this issue for awhile as I have a set of grandparents in the US who are in their late 80s/early 90s. But I’m married to my Australian husband and we live over here. It’s hard and I’m lucky that they live close to family, however, it is tough to not be there and very stressful. I hope that we will not have to deal with this issue when we are away all next year, but, as you mentioned, being in our thirties, it is something we have to keep in the back of our minds.

  5. Sarah on Thu, 2nd Dec 2010 8:02 am 

    This is such a tough topic to discuss, but so helpful to have heard from travelers who have been through such an experience. It’s hard to imagine staying away from family in the event of some sort of tragedy and I think I too would choose to fly home. Hopefully a good travel insurance will cover you for a trip home if needed but I’m going to take your advice and discuss it with my family before we leave.

    Glad you hear that Lewis is ok and I wish him the best.

  6. Zablon Mukuba on Fri, 3rd Dec 2010 6:09 am 

    No one ever wants to talk about this issues but we all have to think of what we would do in emergency situations. i honestly dont know what i would do if my family got sick while am a way

  7. joshywashington on Fri, 3rd Dec 2010 4:29 pm 

    What a poignant post.
    2 days after I returned from a 8 1/2 month journey around Southeast Asia my grandfather died and I flew to see family I hadn’t seen in years. Coming from a fresh experience of travel left me in a position of being centered and much more calm and joyful in what could have been a very sad situation.

    good reads!

  8. Nelly on Sun, 5th Dec 2010 2:12 am 

    I am glad that Lewis is beating the odds. I never have made any plans about a worst case scenario at home while i am away. I know you are right. We got to have some way to deal with tragedy before it actually happen and that way it could ease things a little bit.

  9. Akila on Wed, 15th Dec 2010 11:05 am 

    Great, great post, Amy. I absolutely agree: take the time to have the conversation, if not with your family, at least between yourselves. Just like y’all, we had a very tough decision to make when we were in SE Asia and the best thing that we did was having many means of communication – an emergency world phone (like you both had) and both of our laptops – so we could stay in touch and get home quickly when we needed to. I am so glad to hear that Lewis is beating the odds.

  10. passport covers on Thu, 30th Dec 2010 9:20 pm 

    this blog post reminded me of the time when I was travelling in asia doing a tour and I heard my grandma died via email ..lucky I went into a internet cafe that day…
    I agree one has to prepare for such things especially when you get older and are more responsible for people in your life..and if you travelling you so need a worse case scenerio you I had a emergency fund just incase I needed to get back home quick for any majoe reasons, this helped to ease the burden as I knew I had the money to pay for flights and focus on the family especially grandma…so whats the advice prepare, prepare has a funny way of dealing us surprises and the most inconvenient of times!

  11. Michaela Potter on Thu, 6th Jan 2011 6:57 pm 

    Sorry to hear of your loss, but it was good that you had a plan in place. Without one it could have made the situation much worse for you. And life does have a way of throwing surprises at us, inconvenient or not, so it’s also good to be flexible in any situation. Especially when traveling!

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