I remember the moment very distinctly. I had just gotten off a 14 hour flight from Vancouver to Auckland. I had picked up all my bags and transported them from the international terminal to the domestic terminal, located in a separate building. Tired, I sat down in the domestic terminal floor and waited for my final flight to Dunedin. Now that I had a moment of piece and quiet, I turned on my phone to text my family and tell them I’d arrive safely.
When I turned on my phone there was a text from my mom. She told me my grandpa had passed away the previous night. I hadn’t even been in New Zealand an hour.
I knew this was a possibility. I even knew it was likely. He had very aggressive cancer. The week before I left for New Zealand I made a trip to visit him. I was confident that it was goodbye, though I didn’t let him know that. He wished me luck on my adventure and was looking forward to hearing all about it when I returned. I held back tears. I’m holding back tears now as I write this.
Grieving is always terrible, but I think it’s even harder when the Pacific Ocean is between you and everyone you know and love
There’s a reason I didn’t title this post “how to deal with grieving when you’re abroad”. I have no idea how to grieve; I still don’t know how to. I didn’t tell anyone in New Zealand what had happened. I don’t think I even FaceTimed my family right away. I went along like everything was fine because I’m good at downplaying emotions (or better, pretending I don’t have any at all). It’s even easier to pretend nothing is wrong when no one knows who you are.
In all honesty, there were moments in New Zealand where I was really happy and forgot that anything had happened. There were also points where I cried in my bedroom not knowing if I should go home or not.
Going home or not – that’s the million dollar question isn’t it? Do you go home for the funeral and see your family, or do you stay where you are? I had already discussed this with my parents, who had already discussed it with my grandpa. They were clear: I was not to return home for the funeral. Had it been a sudden death, things would have been different and maybe I would have gone home. However, we all knew the reality of the situation weeks in advance so, for me, it was never really a question.
I did write a beautiful eulogy for his funeral and that made me feel some connection to family and home, however I was probably asleep during the actual funeral (time differences and all). Sometimes I feel like I never got proper closure, but then again is there even such a thing as “proper closure”?
Fast forward four months and death had stuck again
After a few months in New Zealand, I got another piece of bad news. My cat, Smokey, had been diagnosed with a tumour in his brain. This one hit harder for two reasons. First, it was completely unexpected. When I left home, Smokey was healthy. He was 14 years old, but cats regularly live to 18 years and older. I had completely expected to see him again.
Second, Smokey hadn’t died yet. The do-I-go-home question wasn’t in regards to attending a funeral, but was the last opportunity for me to see and comfort Smokey. You see, Smokey was my best friend. He greeted me at the door when I came home from class. He slept beside me each night. He listened to me rant about anything and everything and always knew exactly how to respond. He was so sick and scared, sneezing blood and unable to eat anything. I wanted to comfort him.
However, after lengthy conversations with my parents, we decided I wouldn’t go home. For starters, it was the middle of exam season and round trip flights were $2500 minimum. Second, my parents didn’t want me to see Smokey in that state. I chose not to go home. Two weeks later he had to be put down. I was solo traveling in Tasmania and this completely derailed my next month of traveling. I ditched my non-refundable tickets, wrote a blog post about homesickness and left the country five days later. Did I make the right call not going home? I like to think I did, but who really knows.
While I can’t offer advice on how best to grieve overseas, please know that despite what you are feeling, you are not alone
I really do wish this could have been a “10 things to heal your grieving while abroad” post. Heck, I’d like to read that post myself. Death is omnipresent; we are all surrounded by it constantly. But while death affects us all, grieving means different things to different people; what works for you might not work for me. You might like talking about your feelings; I perhaps prefer pretending I don’t have feelings at all (two different styles of grieving, but only one of these sounds healthy, mind you). Basically, what I’m trying to say is I don’t know how to properly express my emotions so I’m in no position to be dishing out advice.
However, what I can say is you are not alone. By virtue of reading this post you now have me, so by definition, you are not alone. Lean on your parents. Talk to your siblings. Remember your friends and significant other. Bring them all in, even if it’s to talk about something mundane and ordinary. You might never open up and talk about your deepest feelings (a year later and I’m not even sure if I have yet) but keep the connection going.
Also, I really hope you’re reading this because you’re curious about what I have to say, not because you are personally grieving. But if you are grieving, I am sorry for your loss.
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