A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Coping With Loss Overseas

Coping with a personal loss overseas in an alien culture without your normal support network can be one of the most challenging things about life in the Foreign Service or indeed any peripatetic international career. I’ve been blessed to reach age 40 without ever losing a close friend or relative.

But six years ago this spring, while living in Budapest, my wife and I lost a beloved pet, Homer, a Labrador retriever who died unexpectedly when he was just a year old (see photo). Those who have never had a dog they really loved won’t be able to grasp what a deep loss this was for us but it was by far the hardest thing I ever had to deal with in my six years in the Foreign Service.

We got Homer while I was going through a difficult time coping with an illness and we quickly became inseparable. We didn’t have kids at the time, so Homer was our baby. We traveled with him, let him sleep at the foot of our bed, and spoiled him rotten with presents and treats. Every time I came home from work, he would be so deliriously happy that I often couldn’t wait to walk in the door.He was popular in our neighborhood in Washington, D.C., but when we moved to Budapest, he was like a rock star in our neighborhood, where everyone knew him by name and would linger at our gate for the chance to pet and hug him. We were the accredited diplomats, but he was the real cultural envoy.

We took him everywhere and one weekend while we were sitting in an outdoor restaurant at Lake Balaton, a few hours from our home, he started to have some sort of seizure at the table and within a minute or two, before we could get help, he was dead. He was just 14 months old and he died on the one-year anniversary of when we got him.

In the days to come, we consulted local vets to try to find out what happened. They concluded that his thymus ruptured, he went into shock and died. Just before he died, he was running around in the back yard of the restaurant, and we had thought that he swallowed something poisonous. If we had been in the U.S., we would have felt more confident that a restaurant wouldn’t have something toxic in the yard but in Hungary, we really had no clue.

I’m sure the vets in Hungary are just as good as the ones in the U.S., but at the time, we couldn’t help but wonder if their diagnosis was correct. We were at a loss to understand why our dog had died and having to try to make sense of it in an alien place was bewildering to say the least.

On my first day back at work, I was still grieving, and having to tell my co-workers what happened brought back all the emotions. I struggled to relay the news, which everyone had already heard through the grapevine, without crying. People were sympathetic but I couldn’t help but feel like no one had a clue what I was going through. I had been at post for only a few months and felt like no one knew me well enough to understand what a deep loss this was for me.

The worst part of going back to work was talking to my boss, who wasn’t an animal lover and clearly had no idea that I was grieving.

“Other than the canine misadventure,” he said, with a smile and a chuckle, “How was your weekend?”

Canine misadventure? I just looked at him puzzled, shocked really, at how he could consider our dog dying unexpectedly at a restaurant a “misadventure.” For us, it was a tragedy. Others have faced much bigger tragedies, but for us, it was a big loss nonetheless. I was speechless and had a sick feeling in my stomach. I had no idea if I wanted to cry or punch him and, to be honest, I was so shocked by his insensitivity, I don’t remember how or even if I responded.

My wife and I had each other to lean on and that’s more than single people have when they face a loss overseas. But my boss’s reaction drove home a point for me. I was in a place where no one, save my wife, really knew me or gave a damn about me. I needed a support network – my parents, my good friends and people who knew how much I loved Homer.

Many in the Foreign Service have suffered much more devastating losses than we did. And many are forced to decide if they can afford to fly home for funerals of friends or more distant relatives if they are in out of the way posts. Karen O’Neill DeThomas, for example, wrote a very moving story about the loss of her teenage daughter to meningitis, and after reading it, I felt like the pain we experienced was nothing compared to her loss. She said that her Foreign Service experience helped her cope with the tragedy and I think there’s something to that.

When you live overseas, whether in the Foreign Service or not, I think you are forced to become self sufficient in many ways and, if you spend time in developing countries, where there is poverty and suffering everywhere you look (Budapest certainly doesn’t qualify on that score), it can put your loss in perspective.

No matter where you live, the only thing that eases the pain of losing a loved one is time. When I think about Homer these days, I feel sad that my sons never got to meet him and that his life was cut so short. But I don’t focus on the tragic ending. I remember the joy he brought to us and others during his brief, but memorable life.

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[Photo credit: Dave Seminara]