Resilience Abroad: How I Managed Grief While Teaching Abroad
Continued from Month 3: Walls
This blog series showcases my life and my grieving process over six months. It shows how I worked through the processes of loss, grief, and building resilience after the death of my beloved grandmother.
Travel with Heart
I took two trips in March one to London, England and the other to Bordeaux, France. Both trips were special and added meaning to my overall journey abroad but also, marked a very important part of my grieving process. After I took these trips I knew my grandmother’s memory would not only live on in my memory but also, remain within my soul. Tata enjoyed traveling too. Both she and my grandfather traveled their entire adult lives, which I heard about as a child. It was her stories that came to life in my mind that added fuel to my own dreams.
When I began my solo travels in 2013, Tata was not able to come with me. The first trip I took was to Puerto Rico to see where my grandparents were born and lived. Since that trip, I traveled to many different places in South America, but decided to move to Madrid, Spain to teach abroad. I chose Madrid so that I could find out more about the culture and history of Spain. After all, my ancestors were from Mallorca!
There were moments during my travels where I felt like Tata and I were bonding spiritually (she was not physically with me but I felt her with me in my heart) and over time, I realized what traveling meant to her. I began to enjoy it and I got good at it. I picked up the vibes of foreign places and I understood how to interact with locals on their terms. Traveling became (and still is) my favorite past time and each place I went, she was there with me, even though her dementia was getting worse and worse.
When I moved to Madrid the divide between us was no longer distance, but life and death. I truly believe I have honored her by leading a life of exploration of both the world and myself. Below I talk about the special places and the feelings that I had while grieving hard but feeling inspired by the new memories made in new places.
“Pray for the ones I wish I could erase
Cause we are who we are and we’ll be who we’ll be
Live for the moment and the mystery of everybody owns a scar
To show us how we got this far
Cause we are who we are and we’ll be who we’ll be
Don’t ever think you’ll take away the fight in me”
– lyric from I Want It by Blue October
An Ode to Tata
London was a significant part of this process because of its many unforgettable moments. I went to a Blue October concert with a very special friend and the event was so raw and cathartic. Each time I heard the violin coupled with the lyrics to the songs that I knew by heart, it took me to a calm and peaceful place. When I listen to the tracks, I still feel like I am standing in London at the concert. Very few performances have ever been that powerful in my life.
On that same trip, Emma and I did some sight-seeing. We went to the Globe theatre where we watched Othello, which was another unforgettable moment. We also spent time at Westminster Abbey, where I was able to remember Tata by lighting a candle and finding solace in my own special way in such amazing place. Emma made the wonderful recommendation to light the candle at the Abbey. Since that day, I am so thankful that she did because I had never known lighting candles could be so meaningful. My healing process actually began the day I lit the candle in the Abbey.
What stood out the most inside this amazing church was not only the architecture, but also, the amazing people who were laid to rest here. Some of the most renowned people from English history from kings, to warriors to scientists are buried here. People who left their mark on England and the world. I felt reverence as I passed through Westminster, truly amazed by the incredible history. Westminster Abbey was a beautiful church where I began my personal letting-go and healing process, although at the time and over the course of my stay abroad, I didn’t realize it.
A March Miracle
The second holiday weekend in March, I went with Morgan to Bordeaux. This trip was even more important. By this time, I had suppressed a lot of feelings and I felt as if I would explode at any moment. These feelings were caused by a range of things: grief, not enough sleep, and culture and language barriers.
The last day there, I took the day to explore the streets. Springtime in Bordeaux was beautiful and prime time for adventuring! I stumbled upon a tiny church in St. Peter’s Square, the St. Croixe Church. The experience inside this church was life changing for a number of reasons. I sat down on a bench, listened to the hymns that came from somewhere in the church. The recordings made the experience even more magical because I was able to sit and let go of all the stress and bottled up nerve feeling that I spoke about in part one. It felt like something inside me was turned on. Then, all of the sudden, all the emotion that had been bottled up, came out. I didn’t realize it at the time, it took months to realize that this was part of my grief process. But, that day in the church, I had had a moment of clarity. I also had a moment of truth and trust with myself in order to understand what I needed in order to make these feelings of intense sadness go away.
I usually schedule my trips meticulously but on this day, at this time, I hadn’t. I had stumbled upon this place – it found me. After that moment, the grief became a whole lot easier to process. My walls came down.
Another lesson learned from Month 3 was that I needed to let my walls come down. I had barricaded myself inside after my return from the States in January, and since then I’d created sensitivities to the Spanish culture that had never been there before. One of my friends noticed a change in me as well, but she didn’t know anything I had been experiencing because I had built walls up around me for protection since the death of my grandmother. For example, I didn’t leave my house for the first ten days after she died and if I did, it was to go to work. I became closed off to friends, to learning the language, to meeting new people, to trying new things and most important to living my life in Madrid. If you know someone who has just lost a loved one, go easy on him or her. You never know what they might be feeling that is making them behave a certain way. If they matter to you, talk to them; if they don’t want to talk, listen to them.
Looking back, here is a helpful list that I keep adding to as I continue to write my way through my grieving process abroad:
- Go out and talk to friends, coworkers and try to remain as normal and as a routine as possible. You don’t have to talk to them about your grief, but it does help to go out and make new memories while you are trying to let the pain subside.
- Cry when it hurts, but don’t let it consume you. Suppressing feelings is not a normal thing to do. It only results into delayed, and sometimes worse, outcomes.
- Seek professional counseling if you feel like you can’t do your normal routine and things aren’t getting better.
- Try not to internalize your sadness. Write to your family and friends back home or write to a stranger. Maybe talking to someone you don’t know as well as someone you do know will help you get out some of the suppressed feelings you are experiencing.
- Find a hobby and find a way to focus on making it as meaningful as you can while you are abroad.
- Listen to feedback from friends and family. Be aware of what they say and note whether or not you need to adjust your lifestyle choices. Resilience begins once you understand your behavior and its effects, and how you should adjust to be able to recover from grief in order to become your better self.
- ENCOURAGE people in your life to try their best. Teachers, get to know your students’ needs, and most important, get to know your students before telling them they CAN’T do something. This type of behavior causes learner anxiety and self-doubt.
I know we all grieve in different ways, and I am in no way suggesting that this is the right way for everyone. I have shared these tips so that perhaps someone who feels like I did while living abroad (or even in the States) might have a reference from someone who has lived it and reflected upon it.
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