An emotional rollercoaster you didn’t see coming

An emotional rollercoaster you didn’t see coming

One of the biggest lessons in life we all face, sooner or later, is a wakeup call caused by a serious illness of a loved one.

The shock of having your loved one changing overnight from a healthy person to a patient with a serious disease is a true slap in the face that you weren’t prepared for and didn’t see coming.

It’s just not in our system to expect something like this to happen!

As an international abroad, you might have built up a steady network, consisting of a wonderful circle of friends. These are the people in your new home country you share the good things in life with, as well as some of your worries and doubts. But all in all, you share a positive vibe.

When it comes to this kind of ‘slap in the face’, people tend to immediately tap into what psychologists call ‘the reptile brain’.

In this part of the brain, you’re directly led back to your foundation and to core skills of survival. All your actions and thoughts are laser-focused on survival and for your tribe to be safe.

It’s the moment where your brain divides life into important and not important; things that matter right now and things that are totally irrelevant.

Important: things that matter right now


  • Making sure that you can drop everything to be available for the direct care of your loved one.


  • Doing anything that is needed to organise healthcare, from finding the right hospital and treatment to inform the inner circle such as family, friends and work.


Truly, only those of you who have experienced it know how huge planning around an illness can be. In addition to being an emotional shock, you’re occupied having medical conversations, making life-changing decisions, writing emails and making phone calls.


Until recently in Portugal, the healthcare system was set up in a way that the doctor had a certain status, they might even be unapproachable.

When a patient saw the doctor for their complaints, instead of getting a full explanation and a proper dialogue about their condition, the doctor simply prescribed a treatment and sent the patient away.

This is how the Portuguese culture worked and some of this ancient culture is still present in the current healthcare system.

C’est le ton qui fait la musique 

As you’re still in ‘things-that-are-important’ mode, before you know it you are asking the nurses, doctors and floor manager to listen to your needs and to cooperate when it comes to, for example, treatments or visiting hours.

In this stage, you will also find that even though the rules are strict in hospitals, the people who work there are empathic and willing to bend rules to cater for some of your needs. Essential to your dialogue with the medical staff is the capacity to express your vision with sensitivity. Thus, it’s the tone that makes the music.

The art of asking for support

Living abroad means that your parents, children, sisters, brothers and friends are far away, not available to share your burden. They might be on their way to you, but during those first essential hours and days you are on your own.

Whilst you are in survival mode, communicating with everyone involved and making important decisions left, right and centre, it’s hard to take care of yourself.

You might not be aware of it yet, but you do need physical presence of support. Deep down, you are craving real people, you need a hug, not a pixelated screen!

Yes, you’ve chosen to be in this exciting new place, but all you can think about is your family or longest and oldest friends to be here to support you, the ones that know you and understand you, without you having to say a word.

You need them to hold you or to do chores for you, like cooking a meal or walking the dog.

Asking for support is difficult for many reasons, one of them being that you’re exhausted and can’t even properly think about whom to ask for what kind of support. You simply don’t have the energy to make small talk or to tell the story of the emergency again…

Let people in

In the first days and weeks, you will find that what you need is to be surrounded by no-nonsense people that show up to your house and say: “I’m here, what do you need me to do for you?”

This is the moment in which life is inviting you to be open to the people who are actually surrounding you – reach out and allow your “new family” to support you.

This can be a challenging thing to do, but it’s very realistic as you are vulnerable right now and you do need help. Nobody can ever be strong enough to carry this alone.

Not important: things that are totally irrelevant

Then, there are the things in life that you thought were important but, in fact, mean nothing compared to what you’re going through.

It’s funny to discover how many things in your life go in this category … it might include putting on makeup or having a tidy house.

People who have experience dealing with a seriously ill partner will say that the category of ‘not important’ is big in the beginning but will become smaller over time, as one does need a healthy life balance that includes beauty, enjoyment as well as nourishing foods.

Hidden gift

Something I think we can all agree on is that experiencing this kind of shock changes your life.

Being a life coach for internationals, who has recently experienced all of the above, I’d like to add that there is a hidden gift to be discovered.

  • Accepting that sickness and death are real, and an undeniable part of life is empowering and makes you strong.


  • Allowing yourself to be vulnerable and receive help might be a skill to learn.


From experience, I know that help can come in many ways and forms, especially if you ask without any expectations and don’t take it personally how people respond to you reaching out.

The illusion of control

Can we learn to relax in the fact that no one knows what tomorrow brings, that life is too short to live from a place of ego, control, fear and judgement?

We don’t have the power to stop death or illness, we only have the power to respond to it and deal with it in the best way possible.

Life is a journey for us to enjoy, no matter what our life circumstances currently are.

Today is what matters most. Our journey in life is to go with the flow of what is, while making the best of it.

 Coincidentally or not

I have started a series of webinars on healthcare in Portugal with the aim to equip my clients for this kind of situations.

The first webinar was in March, followed by another in June, but there will be more after the summer. Register for our newsletter for more information.

Ria van Doorn

Ria van Doorn is a life coach for internationals living abroad and founder of the Expat Centre Portugal.