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.

So it became my habit to disappear into the woods each day. The areas around our cottage were remote enough that it was very unusual to meet anyone. Sometimes, when I came to an open space between two sections of forest, I would sit down in the snow and just stare up at the sky, weeping until all my tears were gone. Then I would be left, briefly, with an almost blissful emptiness. That moment when my heart felt close to hollow became so pleasant. It was a feeling of lightness, as if I had given away all my possessions and relinquished ownership of them. This was a process I was to repeat over and over, like washing myself, like ritual cleansing, intense and unrelenting.

All the while, I had a house to sell and bills to pay. I also had an almost unending pile of forms to fill out. That seemed like such a peculiar punishment at a time of deep sorrow. The forms just never seemed to stop coming. Sometimes the completing and sending in of one form spawned a whole new batch, as if they were secretly breeding.

Along with all the forms from the United States, Dan’s native country, there were also the Swedish ones. People expect you to know how to handle the whole process. I began to wonder if I was the only one who had slept through the “how to manage your life after the sudden death of your spouse” class at school. Likewise, I must have missed the class on how to file applications for widow’s benefits or register a death abroad.

Dan’s ashes become the property of the state in Sweden, an idea that left me with a sense of indignant rage. If you want to collect them, you must be clear what you intend to do with them, and keeping them is not an option. I wondered how it could possibly matter to the government what I did with a pot full of ashes.

The first year often felt unbearable, but many people helped me. The kindness came from totally unexpected quarters. My neighbors, Mark and Alexandra, bought my house for me so I could get back on my feet without having to sell up and move on top of everything else. They were not even my closest friends, which made their act all the more remarkable. It’s true that they were rich, but how many rich people buy houses for widows with young children? Their extraordinary kindness is not something I will ever forget.

Then there were all my friends who called on me regularly, even when all I did was cry. I must have been terrible company during that time. But they came, or they let me visit, or they called me. They didn’t mind my sobs and they waited patiently for me to come out from the gloom.

And I did eventually.

In the end, along with the simple passage of time, I was pulled out by a profound decision, a pit-of-my-stomach resolution: I could not remain in that dark place of grief any longer. I would force myself out.

I remember consciously turning my thoughts to something positive. This was not always possible, but whenever there was the slightest option—a thin chink of light glinting in through the door—I would go to it. Gradually, one gleaming inch at a time, I creaked that door open and walked through it.

When I finally reemerged, something about me was different. I was less afraid of how I appeared to others and more certain of how I wanted to live. Perhaps I was a little more reckless too. I became more creative. I painted a lot, something I’d let slide with the arrival of my children. You could say that I became more selfish, but as a consequence I also became stronger, and that made me more useful to others.

There is something about the lack of choice in the whole process of grief, the sheer overwhelming power of it—it rushes in like a huge wave, and in the end it forces surrender. From that surrendered state, answers did eventually arrive, but through a very different door than the questions. They came in stealthily. I am not sure precisely when, but I started to find that the questions mattered less. My anger subsided. Gradually I became aware of the everyday happiness of being alive again.

That simple, everyday happiness is not a mundane idea. It is really life’s essence. While I felt, and still feel, that life, like the ocean, can be treacherous, it is also vast and beautiful. It fills me with wonder.