Boston Attack: An ex-pat’s grief from afar

April 16, 2013

So much is the same: the live CNN feeds, the helpless feeling of being an American so far away when something horrible happens at home.

Twelve years ago, we were living in Brussels when 9-11 happened. I had a phone call from the U.S., and turned on the TV. My son, who was home sick from high school that day, turned on the news and we watched, shocked, as the Twin Towers fell. We had no idea if loved ones or friends were hurt, and we could only make calls and assure everyone that we, Americans abroad, were okay. My then-13-year-old daughter sobbed in the car when I picked her up from school. We spent the next few days numbly watching TV, unable to do more than cry and stare as the story unfolded. I hadn’t been homesick before that moment, but suddenly all I wanted to do was be surrounded by Americans, to be home, to be with my people.

And then, in the midst of the darkness, my doorbell rang. There stood one of my Belgian neighbors, a rather reserved and proper lady. She was speaking French, a language I barely knew at the time. I could make out a few words in French, “famille,” “desole,” “horreur.” It didn’t matter; I knew what she was trying to say and I was profoundly touched. I kept repeating “merci beaucoup,” and shaking her hand.

Suddenly, I felt this sense that I was more than a lonely and homesick American abroad. I was an American receiving condolence calls from the rest of the world.

Today, instead of Brussels, we now live in Beijing. And instead of a phone call, it was a breaking news alert on my iPad, a device I check before I even get out of bed. My heart sank: bombs at the Boston Marathon. People dead, people injured.

Instead of phone calls, I sent emails and checked Facebook. Two friends I knew to be passionate marathon runners had already checked in to let their community of friends know they were okay. One of them had hundreds of “likes” on his post.

Even so, I felt that same feeling of being far from home when tragedy strikes, lonely, sad, homesick, and completely impotent in the face of horror. This time I used a combination of TV, Facebook, Twitter, and email to monitor it all.

My daughter, now a mature 25-year-old, sent me an email: “I’m really shaken up right now. I can’t believe this. What a scary world.”

And then another email appeared. Instead of a knock on the door from a Belgian housewife, I received an email from a young Chinese woman I had interviewed for a story:

“Dear Debbie,

 How have you been? Long time since we met last time. I just saw the terrible news which is Terror attack at Bostan Marathon. I remembered that you mentioned to me you come from Boston last time.

I hope everything is fine in your side. Send all my love and wishes to Boston ppl. We ll go through it together.”

There it was again: a condolence call of sorts, both touching and profoundly comforting. We’ll go through it together, all of us.

Debra Bruno is a freelance writer in Beijing.


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