Resilience Abroad: How I Managed Grief While Teaching Abroad
This blog 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.
As each week passed, I felt more and more adjusted to my life in Madrid. The best part about all of it was that I was getting stronger and more confident in making my way around the city—and speaking Spanish! I made amends with friends and tried my best to accept that I couldn’t change the fact that Tata was gone. All I could do was remember her and the good times we shared. And so, I did.
I decided to spend spring break exploring! I wanted the chance to see Italy again. But, this time, I wanted to see Milan and experience the southern parts of Italy that I had read about in travel magazines. I wanted to experience Italian culture and let my soul search deep into the wine, food and rich history. I also knew that the week of my travels would be an incredibly special time. It was around Easter, and Good Friday happened to fall on what would have been Tata’s 90th birthday. She was born on April 14, 1927. In her memory, I planned a trip to Italy and spent much of my time reflecting on life but also, celebrating her life the way she would have wanted me to. During this trip, I realized through subtle reminders such as a song being played by a live street performer as you pass, that the people we hold dear to us, often become a part of us.
The people who were an important part of our lives will not go away after they pass if we choose not to let their memory fade. I realized I could always have her live on through me by continuing to do some of the things she liked to do. I felt a piece of her in my heart and considered it a sign of good luck. There were things that would remind me of her, especially certain types of music, food, and wine! I believe part of the healing in my grief process was facing the things that reminded me most of her and celebrating them instead of feeling sad about them.
“Keep your head up, your heart strong.” –Ben Howard
Month 4: Signs
Eat, drink and be merry. Tata loved all three. I will save the details of all the locations for another post (I could blog all day about the many fascinating parts of my Italian experience, but I will save this for another post!).
The first stop on my itinerary was Milan, where I saw my first Italian opera at the Teatro Alla Scala. The performance Anna Bolena was outstanding and so were my seats! I was sitting in the balcony and was able to hear and see the movement of the performers as the show carried on. My favorite part of the show was the orchestra, which was right below me. I could hear and see each instrument being played in sync to each character’s dramatic role. What an experience!
Second stop, Rome! It wasn’t quite what I pictured in my mind. I heard details from people who had been there before who had said it was old and run down. I didn’t feel that vibe while I was there at all. Yes, the city is extremely old but it is FULL of life. I especially enjoyed being in Rome the week before Easter because a variety of reasons but mainly because of it’s history. I have heard mixed reviews about Rome from an array of travelers. My personal opinion is that it’s definitely a city that has its good and bad spots like any city. But, overall the city feels like you are walking back in time with every step you take. I was fortunate enough to have a guide take me through town, which was very nice. I knew the history in Rome was one of the highlights of my trip and therefore, I wanted to spend a good deal of time learning about it. The area I enjoyed walking through most was the Jewish ghetto (what the locals it) and because of the time of year, the Vatican was a favorite too. I was there the Monday after Palm Sunday. I was able to keep a piece of palm from the Vatican ceremony the day before. I have plenty of recommendations for this part of my trip (I will elaborate more on this in a different post with more photos. Leave a comment below and tell me your thoughts on what you want to know more about.).
Last, but certainly not least, I visited two parts on the island of Sicily. I flew from Rome to Palermo (I will write more about Sicily and places to check out in another post). And then drove to Taormina. The most interesting part about Taormina is that you have to take a funicular or cable car to get up to the town on top of the hill. My first night there, which happened to be Good Friday, and also my Tata’s birthday, I did just that. I got a glimpse of Taormina atop the hill.
It’s Good Friday
The most important part of this trip were the events that took place on what would have been Tata’s 90th birthday. The magical part about this day was that I was able to see a full religious procession in Sicily (on a whim).
In an earlier post I spoke about how the St. Croixe church in Bordeaux, France helped me take an important step forward in my grieving process. Well, something similar happened on Good Friday. I was walking around Taormina in the downtown area up on the hill. I was browsing through the Swarovski Crystal store (this was not on purpose). Backstory: I had given a necklace to a friend as a keepsake before we said goodbye in Madrid and I was looking for a replacement (something different but unique to Italy) for myself. However, looking back now, the irony to this story and why the “sign” or symbol of Swarovski is important, is because my grandfather used to always bring Tata a Swarovski crystal back for Christmas from abroad. I fondly remember sitting in her kitchen on Whitehall drive one Christmas, and Papa telling her to reach over her shoulder into the stocking above, hanging on the wall. To this day, I will always remember the smile on her face when she reached into the stocking and pulled out the box. She opened the box, and it was a tiny mouse-shaped crystal that had a tiny metal spring as its tail. It was definitely something my grandfather would have picked out. She looked at it adoringly and put it next to the swan crystal in her glass cabinet. Over the years, her collection grew as did my memories of her adoring the Christmas holiday and of course my Papa’s special gifts.
While in the store, the lights grew dim, and the staff asked me to leave so we could watch the procession. I knew what a procession was because I had heard about it the week before from my students in class. However, in Italy they do their processions a bit differently than in Spain (this could also be its own post). As I walked outside, I heard music and singing. I saw votive candles and women wearing black. They were carrying Jesus Christ during each stage of his life on Good Friday. The feeling I felt while watching this unexpected event is one I will never forget and hold dear to my heart.
As I look back on this moment, how I felt and how I feel now, I realize that this trip to Italy helped me let go and officially mourn my grandmother in a way that was special for my own self growth. The procession that happened on her birthday was a moment for me, my way of laying her to rest. Since I was not able to be with my family for a memorial or for the prayer with the priest as she took her last breath, this procession on her birthday made me feel as if I got closure. I took deep breaths and lived in the moment. Each breath I took, I looked into the crowd into the eyes of either a young Italian girl or an elderly Italian woman all proceeding in honor of a man who died for others. For me, observing this culture and seeing these women gave me the peace in my heart that I needed to close the door in order to move on without feeling the guilt I had been feeling. For whatever reason, because I wasn’t there to see her when she died, I felt guilty and I needed to let that go. Me being hard on me (or that guilt that I just identified) made me feel unsettled inside. And, for whatever reason, this procession and this moment during my quest made me start to feel at peace in my heart and especially, within my soul.
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.
- Take time to mourn and reflect the way you feel in order to start healing. Make plans ahead of time during a holiday break to enjoy yourself by doing something fun. Do the things you need in order to find peace within.
I know we all grieve in different ways, and I am in no way suggesting that this is the right way for everyone. I 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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