Monday, May 12, 2014

The Unfortunate Part of Study Abroad - Dealing with Death across the Miles

For a 21-year-old, I have had more than my share of experiences with the end of life. One could say that my early childhood may have been filled with more funerals and visitations than play dates. While these are certainly not the most fun events to attend, over the years, they have taught me many lessons about the preciousness of life and how we must really make the most of our time here. Fortunately, it has also given me many strategies on how to grieve and how to support others who are grieving. Something that at this age, most (somewhat luckily, somewhat unluckily) have not yet had to develop well in their repertoire of skills.

In my quest to fulfill my dreams the last several years, the miles have meant that I have had to sadly miss out on countless events like birthdays, family gatherings, weddings, and so on, but nothing has been as hard as not being able to be there for funerals. And I'm not writing this for people to feel sorry for me, but for my family and friends to realize that when thousands of miles separate me, it is not rainbows and butterflies all of the time. Many people, even some of my closest friends, do not know that each time that I have been abroad, I have dealt with the death of a loved one(s). Even with all of the "practice," each one is still difficult in its own way. Faith in our Lord that everything happens for a reason is what pushes me through to the next day. With time, the pain slowly fades, the feeling of aliveness returns, and the memories always live on.

A major aspect of being abroad is being placed outside of your comfort zone and having to figure it out on your own. While most of the time this is a welcoming challenge, the grieving process is far from that. Death is not something that is openly free and comfortable for many, myself included, to talk about even with close friends and family in person. Most frequently, my grieving process involves maintaining a strong composure, unless it is with the right person at the right time where I feel comfortable enough to let those feelings free. Therefore, it is especially difficult when a death happens and I am in a different language, time zone, and culture, where I am away from my support network, the people who truly know me and the others who are mourning the same loss. While abroad, there is no one there to bake you cookies, no one to give a shoulder to cry on, and no one to share the memories with. Unfortunately, this is something that I have become all too familiar with in my recent travel experiences.

Since the losses that I have experienced while abroad are something that I have hardly discussed, I would like to take this moment to describe what happened in three of them and to honor and remember their impact.

In 2012, I left for my first time abroad knowing that it was likely that my last-living grandparent would not be alive when I returned. In honor of my grandma's spirit for seeing the world, whether it was on TV, in a magazine, or in person, I knew that I still had to go. Over the course of my childhood, she told me many times of the day that she saw the Eiffel Tower in Paris; how it was one of the best days of her life. I can still hear her voice saying, "Now, wasn't that something!" Since I was a little girl, I had dreamed of seeing that icon myself, maybe grandma had given me some of that dream. Just three weeks before my grandma's passing, I had that magic moment myself as my head turned and saw the Eiffel Tower steal the skyline. With a smile for ear to ear, I could not help but thinking of my grandma in that moment. Not too long afterwards, I began receiving emails from home that grandma was indeed entering her final earthly days. Making it until past August 8, my return date, was not going to happen. I was teaching English in China at the time, and in the midst of knowing that my grandma was dying, I had to continue as if nothing were wrong on the outside, planning lessons, teaching, attending meetings, and playing with the kids. I received the email that grandma was in heaven now from my pastor, 45 minutes before having to report for a full teaching day. There was no time off, sympathies given, and so on. I am grateful for my roommate, Ashley, who lent me her computer for communication with my family and did her best to provide support in the midst of our busy schedules. Luckily in between lesson planning, on a very bad connection, I was able to Skype into my grandma's funeral, but it still was not nearly the same as being there in person. Because of the circumstances with the lack of ability to grieve in China and missing out on the end-of-life celebrations, I do not feel that I ever grieved my grandmother's passing. It is sadly like a blur of something that never truly happened; I wish that I would have been given the opportunity to fully celebrate this special woman's life.

Then, last summer in Kenya, I lost my dear Aunt Inger, always a third grandma to me. As a woman who brought 70+ family members and counting into this world, Inger has touched my heart and hundreds of others. My childhood is filled with memories of family gatherings, homemade bread, and outings with my grandparents and Aunt Inger. Like my grandma's passing, I knew before I boarded my plane to East Africa, that the nights I spent with her in the nursing home would be my last. Just three weeks later, the inevitable 6 AM text arrived as I was tying my shoes in my mud hut in rural Kenya. Once again, I had a full day ahead of me with organizing and leading meetings, and there was no time or place for grieving. With my colleagues that I had barely known for two weeks and only a couple of texts from home through my old-school Nokia phone, it was a major internal struggle to not be able to be with my family to mourn the life of one of our treasured family matriarchs. A couple of days later, we had our first weekend excursion. There I was stuck in a beachfront mansion on the Indian Ocean with a house full of my colleagues drinking, blasting music, watching the water glow, having the time of their lives. What was I doing? Sitting in my room alone, listening to the external laughter and shouting, with tears down my face as I looked at my watch, and I knew that at that very moment, my family from all across the country was gathered to celebrate the life of a woman who holds a very dear place in all of our hearts. It was the funeral that I had said my entire life I would attend no matter what the circumstances were, but on a program, 10,000 miles away in rural coastal Kenya, I could not be there. I am eternally grateful for two family members, Helen and Dylan, who created a video to keep the memories alive of Aunt Inger alive. With the help of technology, I keep her voice and the photos of the family on my iPhone through this video. No matter where I go, my family is always with me.

When I returned from my travels a week ago, my Facebook newsfeed was filled with what no one ever wants to see, a death. A death of not anyone, but of a fellow Falcon and Panther. One of us, the Class of 2011, and the soon to be Class of 2015. For those who are not aware, Kellie, a high school and college classmate, joined the angels just one week short of finishing her semester at UNI. While I was never close with Kellie, I always viewed her as a girl full of school spirit, competitiveness, and laughter. If she was not on the playing field herself, she was in the front row of the student section cheering on our team at the top of her lungs. There was never a dull moment with Kellie around. As our class clown, Kellie had a defining personality in the Class of 2011. The loss of a young woman so filled with life threw hundreds of us a curveball. Even though we were never friends, I would be lying if I did not say that Kellie's passing hit me like a tidal wave last week. While I recognize that grieving each death is different, this one was unlike any one that I had ever been through before. From thousands of miles away, it felt so real and brought an incredible amount of tears again and again and again. A close friend, Hailey, who has unfortunately been touched by death too closely so young, has a special knack why such strong emotions were brought out in so many of us. I have watched over the last week on Facebook, the dozens and dozens of statuses that celebrate the memories of the 21 crazy years that the world had with Kellie. Despite the emotion trials of the last week, I have been finding reminders of Kellie's spirit around me, especially at this dune this weekend. A piece of her lives on in each of us.

A group of friends chasing each other down the Dune du Pilat in the rain.

After a face full of sand, the friends picked themselves and with lots of laughter continued their journey.

All in all, I wish that life, especially while miles away, would not have to endure the grieving process. Each time is never easy, but each time makes me stronger. Dying is the unfortunate part of life, but we cannot stop living in fear of ourselves or others around us dying, as there is a better life awaiting us on the other side. Henrietta, Inger, and Kellie, I wish that I could have been there to say good-bye, but I will see you again someday! Thanks for the impact that you had on hundreds of lives in your time on Earth.


P.S. - See a sad face? Don't be afraid to stop a person, stranger or not, and genuinely ask them how they are doing. You never know what is hiding behind their facial expressions - the loss of a friend, of a job, of a pet. Sometimes a simple, "How are you doing?" text, call, visit, is all that is needed to show that you care and can make all of the difference in the world.