Losing a Loved One While Abroad

I arrived in Germany for a semester-long study abroad on February 23, 2017. Eleven days later, my grandmother, Nana, passed away.

My experience abroad was heavily impacted by Nana’s death at the beginning of my stay. Being five thousand miles away from the rest of my family for the five months following her funeral was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and though I’d like to separate the two experiences – studying abroad and losing a grandparent – the two will forever be linked.

About six weeks before I left for Germany, Nana was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. Every few days, her situation got worse. They discovered fluid in her lungs which needed to be drained. Eventually, they found several tumors in her lungs. My mom flew out to visit her, then came home, then flew back. My dad, sister, brother-in-law, and I joined her in Pennsylvania for a few days, eleven days before I flew to Germany. We said our goodbyes to Nana then.

“I’ll see you again, you know,” Nana said to me as I was hugging her for the last time, hours before our flight back to Montana. In the moment, I felt confused; up until then, she had been very cogent and understanding of her situation. I thought I was seeing her mind start to slip, until she spoke again.

“In heaven, I mean. I won’t see you here anymore. But we’ll see each other again.”

This was just like Nana. She was frank to the end. She was not losing her mind; no, she was giving her family the hope and strength we needed to get through this time, which she probably considered more difficult for all of us than it was for her, just like she always took on other people’s problems throughout her life. I’m sure she said the same words to all thirteen of her other grandchildren, all four of her kids and their spouses, all her friends, everyone who was lucky enough to say goodbye to her before the end, because she knew that those were the words we all needed to hear.

When I left for Germany, I knew I would never see Nana again – at least not “here,” as she put it. And when I left, I thought it was a certainty that I would miss her funeral. It seemed completely out of the realm of possibility to fly back to the states immediately after arriving in Germany. We knew she only had a few weeks left, at best. Leaving my family, uprooting my life and moving to a foreign country during this time was, for lack of a better word, complicated. I left with the understanding that I would be dealing with this, all of this, alone. And I tried to be okay with that.

But the morning I woke up to the text from my dad telling me that Nana had died, I knew that I couldn’t be alone for this. I talked to my mom on the phone that morning, just hours after she and my aunt had sat together in the room while Nana breathed her last breaths, and I knew I just couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be five thousand miles away from my family, in a place where I hardly knew anyone. I felt hopeless, lost, and completely alone.

My mom said on the phone that Dad was already looking for tickets for me to fly home for the funeral, and that when they were all awake the next morning (afternoon for me in Germany), we would figure out a plan. She said it was my choice whether or not to go home for the funeral. I had orientation programs all day, and my mom told me to tell someone in my program what I was going through.

The six hours following that phone call were incredibly difficult. My mom went to bed right after, and no one else in the states was awake for the first six hours of my morning. I followed my mom’s advice and told my new friend Brittany.

It’s a pretty twisted way to test a new friendship, to find out if this new friendship is really real, telling your new friend that your grandmother passed away that morning. But Brittany passed the test with flying colors, and I will forever be grateful to her for being the shoulder I needed to cry on that morning. She and Paul, the other friend I decided to confide in later that day, will be permanently etched in my memory for their support on one of the most difficult days of my life.

When my family in the states finally started waking up, the cloud that had been over my head for the day lifted a bit. I talked to my dad in between orientation programs and he bought my ticket home. It turned out to be cheaper to fly from Frankfurt to Philadelphia than it was for him to fly from Montana. It was a done deal. I would be going to the funeral. I didn’t know how I felt about it, but I knew that I was going.

Nothing else I did in my five-month study abroad came close to being as important as the funeral ended up being for me. My family mourns very well. Nana’s funeral was truly a celebration of her life, and we felt her presence there the whole time – for good reason: she planned the funeral herself. The service was perfect. Being there with my family was so, so good. And without having gone home for the funeral, I cannot say whether my study abroad experience would have been a positive one.

That being said, the next five months were not painless. Just as anyone who has lost a loved one knows, the grief doesn’t just evaporate after the funeral. And being so far away from my family during this time did not help speed up the grieving process for me. Now, two months after coming home from Germany, I mean it when I say I had a great time abroad – I learned a lot, experienced many new things, and met people from all over the world. But at the same time, those five months abroad were also the five months following Nana’s death, and these two experiences of the same time period are, in many ways, inseparable.

If you ever find yourself in a situation like mine, and I sincerely hope you don’t, here is my advice: do not pretend that this won’t be a tough time, but do not wallow. Be honest with yourself, and be honest with the people whose opinions matter to you. It will help you, as it helped me, to move on with your life without forgetting what has happened. I will admit, there were times when I felt guilty for enjoying my time abroad when I felt like I should have been mourning my grandmother’s passing. And there were also times when I felt guilty for feeling sad, because I felt like I should be embracing my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to study abroad. In the end, the key was finding the compromise between the two, allowing time to think about Nana, but also letting myself go out with friends and have a good time.

I learned a lot about myself in the five months after Nana’s funeral, which also happened to be the five months I spent studying abroad. I learned that I could not ignore the fact that I was grieving, but I also couldn’t ignore the fact that I was living in a foreign country for a limited time. I learned that grief wears many faces. I learned to appreciate the true friendships in my life, both the new ones and old ones – the friends who helped me enjoy my time abroad and the friends who helped me through a very tough time.

You can’t control the things that happen back home when you go abroad. But you do have control over how you react to these things. Seven months later, I am still reminding myself of this.

Thank you, Nana, for this lesson and so many more.

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