When a Spouse Dies Abroad

Compounding the grief of loss are mountains of paperwork.

My husband’s body lay in the next room. People were filing in and out to say those last few words that in the end all boil down to love.

There was weeping and, occasionally, laughter that night in my cottage at the edge of the woods outside Stockholm. All emotions were so heightened, as if we were completely disconnected from the rest of the world. It was a sensation that would continue for a long time.

Dan and I had seen the scans together—his spine, riddled with holes like a firing range—and heard his Swedish doctor inform us, in impeccable English, that Dan’s chances for recovery were virtually zero. Dan would try, though, of course he would. In the end death came fast, only two short months after his initial cancer diagnosis.

Watching him waste away during that time—from his strong, capable, 47-year-old self to some sort of emaciated ghost—was unfathomable. It was like seeing his life deteriorate in fast-forward, a process that seemed utterly without mercy. The force that had animated him, all his warmth and willpower, departed so abruptly after two months of almost incessant pain. I remember clearly the last breaths he drew, quietly and with an air of resoluteness.

And then there was the space he left behind. Dan died in the middle of our life’s most demanding phase. Together, we formed the central pillar of our family. Everything pivoted around our relationship with each other. When I found myself suddenly alone, it was overwhelming. For some time I continued a sort of one-sided conversation with Dan in my head, with a growing sense of bewilderment that he didn’t answer.

* * *

Dan and I met as college students in the United States. He was a retired Navy Seal and combat veteran who had gone back to school to study business. I’d grown up in England, in a family of academics, and I was enthralled by Dan’s adventurous spirit. He taught rock climbing classes on campus, and he was an engaging and charismatic teacher, at home in a tent or in the open air under a canopy of stars. His classes were always full. In the beginning, I was afraid of heights, but I quickly became an avid student. In 1994, we were married at the campus chapel and went on to have three sons.

The author and her husband, rock climbing in the early days
of their relationship. (Courtesy Sophia Malekin)

When our middle son, Byron, was a few years old, we learned that he was severely autistic. As he grew up, he absorbed an enormous amount of our time and energy. But we were able to find our footing, just as we had during those weekend rock-climbing trips—navigating the unexpected, always together.

When Dan was offered a job in Sweden, we were up for the challenge. My mother was Swedish and I had been born there, but neither of us spoke the language or understood the culture. We did know it was an extraordinarily supportive place to be a parent, particularly with a special-needs child. In Sweden, Byron was able to get the help he needed without our having to fight for it every step of the way. There was a profound sense of humanity there that we hadn't experienced anywhere else.

We were also delighted by the natural beauty: the lakes and forests; the summer days that are flooded in light straight through the small hours; even the long, dark winters. It was during the winter that Dan died, 18 days before what would have been our 17th anniversary.

* * *

I walked in a sort of half-light in the months that followed Dan’s death. His absence did not fit into any reasonable picture of the universe. I therefore abandoned reason for a while. It was no longer useful to me. My most deeply felt questions and fears were let loose, and they wandered through my mind like a pack of hungry dogs. The most basic why questions tormented me the most—why Dan, why now? I also felt a level of rage that surprised me. I’d had no idea I could be that angry.

The concerns of the world faded as I retreated and turned in on myself, like a wounded cat slinking off into a corner. It was all I could do to keep myself from entirely slipping over the edge into what seemed like a limitless abyss in my own mind, the great roar at the center of things.

And yet, I needed to stay sane. I could not show our boys my sadness, not the full extent of it. Nor could I show them how scared I was, just how wild I felt, how out of myself.

Presented by

​Sophia Malekin

Sophia Malekin is a writer based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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