When people think about travel and living abroad they don’t often think about grief, or death. The charm of far, far away is that life where you’re from almost seems to be on hold while you’re off gallivanting about Europe, Asia, the Upper Peninsula or wherever.
Except life is never on hold, not for anyone. Children grow-up, friends change…. and worst of all, people you care about die.
I’ve been living in Spain and traveling every chance I get for more than seven years now.
After I up and married a Spaniard, when my mom started to view my decision to live in Barcelona as “permanent” she asked me what I would do if someone died. Young and inexperienced as I was, I said, “I don’t know what I could do. What would be the point of coming home, if the person I love is already gone from this world?”
Too soon I would be eating those words, as that very year my grandmother (whom I adored and called weekly) had a second stroke, was hospitalized and died before I could even think about rushing to her bedside. It was then I realized I had to get back, hell or high water to be there with my family. I needed to support and be supported. It didn’t matter if my job would give me the time off. I had to be there to hold my mom and my grandpa’s hands. I needed to be with other people that had known and loved my grandmother. I was so angry that I couldn’t see her before she died, so mad that if she had lived even a month longer, I would have seen her one last time, had one last Christmas with her.
But I was lucky. My grandfather was willing to hold the funeral so I had time to get my life together and get home. My relatives on both sides of the Atlantic understood. My job gave me leave. It was an awful trip, but I was grateful to be there, am still grateful to have been there.
Only last week, I lost another family member, an aunt. She had serious mental and physical health problems and had been in a nursing home for some time. Whenever I was stateside, I would visit her, even though it was hard, as she would be happy to see us, but so sad to see us go. When the phone rang at 7:30am Spanish time and I saw it was my mom, I knew it couldn’t be good news. But I hoped for the best, the way we all do…and was disappointed. My aunt had stopped breathing, and they hadn’t been able to resuscitate her. The funeral would be right away; I shouldn’t try to make arrangements to get home.
So I didn’t make it. And part of me is happy to have avoided seeing my aunt in a wooden box–seeing that box lowered into the ground. Because it’s hard enough that my most recent memories of her all involve her unhappy existence in a nursing home, having to leave her there, by herself. But part of me is having trouble recovering because here I am, in a foreign country, mourning alone, thousands of miles away from anyone that ever knew her.
And no amount of phone calls adds up to a long hard hug from mom, or my dad’s shoulder to cry on.
As I get older, I think about it more and more: How people I love and care about will die. And since my loved ones are spread across multiple continents (a common side effect of traveling, living abroad and making friends as you go), more often than not I’ll be left to grieve from a distance, cry my eyes out on my own, and hope that those around me have patience for my tears for my faraway friends and family.
Because near or far, grief is always a challenge. How to face it, embrace it, and continue with our lives is an ongoing battle for all human beings. When a dear friend or relative passes, or even when a dream dies, it’s hard to know how or when to turn the page, but we must.
Losing loved ones is a call to action to live and love again—you can’t forget the world and stay at “home” because bad things happen, and people die. If nothing else, these reminders of the brevity of life should push you to do more, see more, value all of your experiences and regard the ups and downs as proof of a life well-lived.