Throughout many years of travel and adventure, my biggest fear was not me dying in some unfortunate tuk-tuk incident, but losing a close friend who lived overseas and whose death slipped by without me knowing.
Last month, my worst fear came true.
Jen and I first met in Japan where we both taught English. We travelled together; she spent Christmas’s with my family, and at one point, she was planning on moving from her hometown of Chicago, to New Zealand to be with me.
However, our friendship remained a staple in my life and whilst we had periods without contact, we would always get in touch.
Our last proper conversation was in June last year, and I’d asked her to appear on my podcast. We’d planned to chat about her travel experiences from Australia, South America and Japan. It was a matter of her getting back to me, when she could schedule it in.
July went by, I was away, then I got sick, no response. Only a few weeks, had passed, it was no big deal. Then August, September and October went by in silence. I had sent her a few messages and emails, but no response. It happens, life gets busy. It wasn’t unusual, I know sometimes she was working multiple jobs. I was worried but not yet panicked.
A short email arrived on a Friday morning in November and said, ‘I’m not doing so well, but getting better slowly. Let’s keep in touch. Jen’
It didn’t sound like her as it lacked the usual warmth and emotion. I responded saying I’d call her that weekend, but every correspondence after that, went unanswered. That email was to be the last correspondence I’d ever receive from her.
On the 13th February I received an email (from her email address), but numbness soon tarnished my excitement. It was one sentence.
‘Jade, Jen has passed away, take care.’
My first thoughts were maybe it was some kind of sick joke, or maybe her account was hacked, but the email also included a link to her obituary.
I read it at least thirty times; it didn’t seem real, (it still doesn’t) but there it was, written on a legacy website; straightforward and formal. She had died three weeks earlier on the 21st January 2019, with her funeral arrangement a week after that.
Sixteen years I had known her; loved her and just like that, she was gone.
Via her obituary I could send a message to her mother and so I told her how greatful I was, for the opportunity to have met her incredible daughter, and how proud she should be of her. She responded with some kind words, knowing how much I meant to Jennifer.
It was her partner who thought to contact me, knowing Jen and I were in regular contact. I was thankful to know but felt helpless about the whole situation. Too late for goodbyes, and no closure from a funeral.
I hope someday, to visit her grave or memorial (I still don’t know if she was buried or cremated) to say goodbye. Though I dread the idea of flying into Chicago, knowing I can’t visit her, see her smile or hold her once more.
Death is weird, grief is stranger still; like the tiny memories we try to hold on to. I found a three second audio message she had sent me in WhatsApp. It says nothing in particular but it’s her voice and for a moment, it’s as though she’s still here and it’s magical.
I missed her before I found out she was gone, and now she’s just a memory, the emptiness is palpable.
As much of our correspondence over the years was emails, I find writing cathartic, to express my thoughts and to feel like I can still speak to her. I’m building an online memorial to Jen, a place for people the world over, to share memories, read stories and see photos.
I’ve been in touch with friends of hers I’ve never met via Facebook (gathering stories and photos) and even though we knew her at different periods of her life, our memories are similar which brings comfort knowing we knew the real Jen.
So if you’re a traveller, with close friends overseas, please, talk to your family and friends about them, and come up with a plan, such as making a public Facebook post on your profile (you can allocate a friend to look after your facebook page after you die), or create a list of email addresses to be notified; just in-case something happens to you, and you’re unable to let your overseas friends know.
If you’d like to view the memorial website for Jennifer Olsen you can find it here. It was officially launched on what would have been her 43rd birthday, the 15th March 2019.
To listen to our story, and the tribute I’d have spoken at her funeral, click ‘play’, below:
Have you ever lost a friend who lived overseas? How did you cope? Share your thoughts below or contact me.