This soul-searching series showcases my grieving process over the course of the most harrowing and heartbreaking six months of my life. It offers a window into how I worked through the processes of loss and resiliency after the passing of my beloved grandmother. Perhaps it will be of benefit to you if you are struggling to cope with a similar situation.
Travel With Heart
I took two trips in March: one to London and the other to Bordeaux in France. Both trips were special and added meaning to my overall journey abroad. They also marked a very important part of my grieving process and in discovering resilience.
After I took these trips, I knew my grandmother’s memory would not only live on in my recollections but also, remain within my soul. Tata enjoyed traveling too. Both she and my grandfather traveled their entire adult lives, which I heard stories of as a child. It was her travel tales that came to life in my mind that added fuel to my own dreams abroad.
When I began my solo travels in 2013, Tata was not able to accompany me. The first trip I took was to Puerto Rico to see where my grandparents were born and lived. Since that adventure, I traveled to many different places in South America. Ultimately, I decided to move to Madrid to teach abroad. I chose the Spanish capital so that I could find out more about the culture and history of this Iberian country. After all, my ancestors were from Mallorca!
Exploring Apart From Tata
There were moments during my travels where I felt like Tata and I were bonding spiritually. Although she was not physically with me, I felt her with me in my heart. Over time, I realized what traveling meant to her.
I began to enjoy travel 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 pastime. With each place I went, she was there with me, even though her dementia was getting worse and worse.
After 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. Despite my grief, I felt inspired with each new memory I made when visiting 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 my grieving process because of its many unforgettable moments. I went to a Blue October concert with a very special friend. The event felt so raw and cathartic. Each time I heard the violin coupled with the lyrics to the songs I knew by heart, it took me to a calm and peaceful place. When I listen to the LP, I still feel like I am standing in London at the concert. Very few performances have ever been that powerful in my life, and have ever resonated with so much emotion.
Lighting a Candle for Tata
On that same trip, Emma and I did some sightseeing. We went to Shakespeare’s Globe for a performance of Othello. It was an unforgettable moment in time. Emma made the wonderful recommendation to light a candle at Westminster Abbey. I remembered Tata by lighting a candle in her honor and found solace in my own special way in an amazing place. Since that day, I am so thankful that Emma made the suggestion. I had never realized that lighting a candle could be so meaningful. My healing process actually began the day I lit that candle in the Abbey.
What stood out the most to me inside this amazing church was not only the architecture, but also, the amazing people who were laid to rest there. Some of the most renowned people from English history like kings, warriors, and scientists rest there. They are people who left their mark on England and the world. I felt reverence as I passed through Westminster. I felt truly amazed by the incredible history. Westminster Abbey, the beautiful church where I began my personal letting-go and healing process. At the time and over the course of my stay abroad, I didn’t realize that’s where discovering resilience began.
A March Miracle
The second holiday weekend in March, I traveled with Morgan to Bordeaux. This trip became even more important in my grieving process. By this time, I had suppressed a lot of feelings. I felt as if I would explode at any moment. I struggled with feelings of grief, not receiving enough sleep, and the constant challenge of dealing with cultural and language barriers.
The last day in Bordeaux, I took the day to explore the streets. The beautiful springtime in Bordeaux finds itself as the perfect time for adventuring! I stumbled upon a beautiful church in St. Peter’s Square: the Église Sainte-Croix de Bordeaux . The experience inside this church felt life-changing for a number of reasons. While I sat on a bench, I listened to the hymns that floated from some unknown location in the church. The hymns made the experience even more magical.
As I sat, I let go of all the stress and bottled-up nerves that I spoke of in part one. It felt like something inside me finally turned on. Then, all of a sudden, all of the emotions that I bottled up came out. Again, I didn’t realize at the time that this was a huge stepping stone in my grieving process. I would only realize it months later. But, that day in the church, something struck me with a moment of clarity that shook me to my core. It began a moment of serious self-realization and trusting myself in order to understand what I needed to make these feelings of intense sadness go away.
I usually schedule my trips meticulously. On this day, at this time, I hadn’t. I had stumbled upon this place — it found me. After that moment, my grief became a whole lot easier to process. My walls came down.
A Lesson Learned
The lesson I learned from month three was that I needed to let my walls come down. I barricaded myself inside my own mental fortress after returning from the States in January. Since then, I’d created sensitivities to the Spanish culture that had never been there before. Even one of my friends noticed a change in me. She didn’t know anything about what I felt because of the walls I built around me for protection after the death of my grandmother.
The months after her death felt extremely difficult. I didn’t leave my house for the first ten days after she died. If I did, it was to go to work. I was closed off to friends, to learning the language, to meeting new people, to trying new things, and most importantly, to living my life in Madrid. If you know someone who just lost a loved one, go easy on them. 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.
Building The Essential Checklist:
Here are some helpful tips that I developed as I dealt with the grieving process abroad:
- Go out and talk to friends and coworkers. Try to remain as normal as you can and maintain a routine as much as possible. You don’t have to talk to people 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 in delayed, and sometimes worse, outcomes.
- Seek professional counseling if you feel like you can’t keep 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 well will help you relieve some of the suppressed feelings you experience.
- 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. Note whether or not you need to adjust your lifestyle choices. Discovering resilience begins once you understand your behavior and its effects, and how you should adjust in order to be able to recover from grief to become your better self.
- ENCOURAGE people in your life to try their best. Teachers: get to know your students’ needs. Most importantly, get to know your students before telling them they CAN’T do something. This type of behavior causes learner anxiety and self-doubt.
My next article How I Managed Grief While Teaching Abroad will show a progression of my journey through the grief and loss of my beloved grandmother. During the month of April, I went on a trip to Italy and began to find peace of mind and in my heart. Join me on my adventure back in time through one of Europe’s most beautiful countries.
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