As you can tell from the title, this post will be on a slightly heavier subject. However, I by no means want to end this incredible semester with a sad topic so there will be one more post following this one so that we can end on a happy note. I write this because I know that there are many other people out there who may fear going abroad because they are afraid that something will happen to a loved one while they are away, and I hope that what I write here may be of encouragement to them.
The third of February, 2019. I got up, showered, had breakfast with Katherine, and proceeded with my normal Sunday morning routine. I wandered back into my room to find that I had a missed call from my mom. What time is it over there? I wondered to myself. I was about to call her back when my phone started to ring in my hand again. There was something wrong. I knew it because my parents always let me call them back when I had the time, usually figuring that I was busy and would call when I could. When I opened FaceTime, my fears were confirmed. My mom’s face was red, the way it normally is when she’s upset, and my dad’s blue eyes shone even brighter than normal, something only seen when he’s exhausted. Passed the formalities and they informed me that my aunt, Nancy, aged 63, had passed away just hours before.
This was the moment that I had been dreading since I went to college. Nancy was diagnosed with a rare type of brain cancer just two weeks before I left Minnesota for my first year at Hope. At the time, I didn’t realize how serious her illness was, what odds she was up against, but as time passed and her condition worsened, the gravity of the situation started to sink in. I soon realized that there would come a day… I may be at home or school or even in France when she would finish her journey on this earth, and I may or may not be able to be there with her when she does.
A year and a half later and it was January 5, 2019; hours before I would get on a plane that would take me incredibly far away from home. I hugged my aunt and kissed her on the forehead. As I looked at her in her bed, she was not peaceful and she wasn’t without pain. Words cannot explain how difficult it was to convince myself that it was okay for me to leave, that she would be so upset with me if I didn’t get on that plane and go have the adventure of a lifetime. So I got up the next day and I got on the plane, fully aware that I most likely saw my aunt for the last time the night before.
Now was the day that I had been dreading for so long and I was without words. I cried, of course, but I also felt so relieved. Nancy was not in pain anymore and she didn’t struggle to form a coherent response to the simplest of questions. She was no longer holding on to a body that had failed her. She was free.
At the end of that phone call, my parents told me I should do something for myself that day, something that Nancy would have loved to do with me. I went and got coffee. I walked around for over an hour on a Sunday when everyone is brunching in the cafes until I found a place that seemed suitable. I sat under the awning with the classic Parisian wicker chairs that faced the street, and for the next two hours I watched people pass by as I sipped on the most expensive coffee I have ever purchased. The whole thing is laughable to me now because Nancy would have thought it was the most absurd thing, but she would have loved to just sit and people-watch for hours. After I finished my ridiculously overpriced coffee, I decided to go for a walk and, oh boy, am I glad I did. When Nancy got sick, she started to go for really long walks and I think she would have loved this one. I walked for what seemed like ages, but I couldn’t convince myself that it was time to go home. I followed to streets to Place de la Concorde and there I saw the most beautiful sunset that I have ever seen in Paris. The sun blazed orange along the horizon but the sky remained a pure blue, the clouds a glorious purple. At that moment I knew, that after everything that I had seen my aunt go through, she was okay and I truly believe that that sunset was the surest sign to let me know; to reassure me that everything was going to be okay.
The reason for my delay in writing about this loss is because for the longest time I didn’t feel like what had happened had really sunk in or that I was really prepared to talk about mourning, in general. For a while, I almost believed that when I got home I could just pop over to my aunt’s house for a chat, and play with her cats while enjoying a coconut La Croix together. It scares me to know that my world over here in France has existed entirely separately from my world at home. So, I fear that going back will be like learning the news all over again because I will finally see for myself that she is no longer there. Despite how difficult it has been abroad and how difficult it will be when I return home, I wanted to write about this because I know that there are many other people like me. People who are afraid to go abroad because they fear something might happen to a loved one while they’re gone. I want to let all of those people now that we can’t put our lives on hold just because we are afraid of missing something. I know that if I had missed out on going abroad because I wanted to be at home with my aunt that she would have been so mad at me. Life happens regardless of where you are, but when it comes to losing a loved one, you can’t let that fear keep you from following your aspirations.
Some days I feel the loss more strongly than others, but I know that Nancy would not want her death to be an excuse for me to sit inside and watch life pass me by. When grief hits me like a ton of bricks, there are some things that I’ve noticed help immensely:
Do the kinds of things that you enjoyed together. I’ll go for long walks, runs, drink coffee, or read for fun, literally anything that I know that she would want to do. At first, it’s really weird to do these things on your own because you desperately want your loved one to be there with you, but it’s a great way to honor and remember them.
Treat yourself with kindness. This means getting out of bed, showering, eating food in proper amounts, and getting some kind of exercise. Grief, believe it or not, puts a lot of stress on the body so it’s really important to take care of yourself. Your loved one would want to know that you are treating yourself well.
Talk about it. My sister (who was also studying in Europe) and I were able to get together and be able to talk about what that day was like for each of us, and it was incredibly cathartic for the both of us. Keeping all of those complex emotions bottled up isn’t good for anyone so it’s important to try and talk about them. It doesn’t even have to be another person. I monologued to myself in the shower about all of my feelings frequently trying to put into words I was experiencing. From doing that, I feel more at ease like I know the situation better.
Allow yourself to be sad, if you want to. I know that Nancy would not want me to be sad and grieve over her loss, but it is a completely natural response to a loss so if you start to feel those emotions, let them out so you can start to process and heal.
Closure. When I told a friend that my aunt had passed away, they asked me if I was going to fly back home for the funeral. Nancy didn’t want a funeral or a memorial service. No, she wanted a party and thankfully this party is taking place when I get back home so I don’t have to feel like I missed out. However, funerals, for a lot of people, are a means of closure and remembrance, so a lot of people feel like they have to be there in-person. I’ve talked with some friends about what has/would happen if they were in the situation of being abroad when they lost/lose a loved one. Most of them said that they would stay abroad, and they’d just Skype in to the service or whatever event was held in that person’s honor. There is no right or wrong choice and, ultimately, it has to be yours. Whether you want to be there in-person or not, you know yourself best and what would best help you to start healing.
These are just a couple of things I have done that have helped me start processing through my grief. Obviously, what works for one person might not work for another so it’s important that you listen to your emotions and do what feels right for you. A lot of study abroad programs also have counselors or can arrange for you to meet with one should that be something that you feel might be helpful.
I’m still apprehensive about going home and facing the new family dynamics, on top of the reverse culture shock I will no-doubt experience as well. I won’t lie, dealing with this loss while abroad has been difficult. Yet, I believe I made the right decision in studying abroad and I know Nancy believed so too.