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Dealing with Family Loss While Abroad

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Going abroad is exciting and wonderful but can also be a little intimidating. Leading up to my departure to Edinburgh, I had all those conflicting feelings. I had asked all the necessary questions to students who had studied in Scotland and I felt confident in my abilities and ecstatic for the opportunity to live in a foreign city for a whole semester. However, no one expects to deal with a family loss as you’re leaving on this great adventure. Almost a week before my flight to Edinburgh, Hurricane Harvey hit the gulf coast of Texas, flooding the city of Houston including the home of a family member. Not too long after the storm, my paternal grandfather passed away unexpectedly. I reached Edinburgh just two days before my whole family and close friends gathered for the funeral to celebrate my grandfather’s life.
In the months before I left for the semester, he and I had spoken at length about how wonderful my time in the UK was going to be, as he and my grandmother lived in the Cotswolds in southern England for a few years while he was in the Air Force. They loved the short time they lived in the small town of Stow-on-the-Wold, their trips around the country, and the time he and my uncles played golf at St. Andrews. They couldn’t stop talking about how lovely it was, so I promised them I would go visit the Cotswolds.

Adjusting and grieving

Upon my arrival in Edinburgh, I was busy with orientation, scheduling classes, meeting new friends, and slowly getting over my jet lag. I was so busy during those first few days, distracted from everything going on at home. The first night on my own was honestly rough. Once I could take a breath, relax, and spend some alone time, I FaceTimed my parents. Once they asked about my day, I broke down an    d cried. I saw all my family together, and my absence thousands of miles away from them. Though I could FaceTime them whenever I wanted, I felt very alone in processing the loss of my grandfather.
Balancing learning to live in a new city and processing all that happened in the days leading up to my departure was one of my biggest challenges. I was immersed in Edinburgh, its culture, going to classes, and wandering the city with friends. But often, I wasn’t giving myself time to process and reflect on these new experiences and grieve. I was so caught up in enjoying each moment that I forgot to check how I was doing mentally and emotionally. It is easy to get caught in this cycle. Though it was amazing to be traveling or sightseeing every weekend or out with friends at night, it is so important to take time for yourself.

Leaning on my support system

My support system was so integral to my grieving process. IFSA reached out to me right after hurricane Harvey hit to be of any assistance with those affected. When I met the IFSA Scotland coordinators, I was able to let them know about my situation going on at home. I met one on one with them in those first few days and several times throughout the semester to check in with me and offer support for any homesickness. It was refreshing to have the ability to walk to their offices or attend a weekly drop-in session and have someone to lean on.  I also made friends who, after the first couple weeks of getting to know one another, I could share the news about my grandfather, and the grief that I was still working through. They were so wonderful to me – I could lean on them when I was having a tough day, travel throughout Europe with them, and make amazing memories. They were so important in my adjustment to living alone abroad.

Making some bittersweet memories

Throughout my semester, I found myself visiting areas of the UK wishing that when I would return home, I could show my grandparents pictures of the breathtaking sights. When I spent my homestay in Northern England near the Lake District in a small farming village, I remembered how fondly my grandparents talked about living in the English countryside. It made the already memorable weekend trip even more impactful, in that now I shared that same sentiment that my grandparents mentioned to me. When Thanksgiving came around, those strong emotions rushed back, as we always spent Thanksgiving with my father’s side of the family. My parents and brother visited, and we traveled to St. Andrews on a Sunday to wander around the city and walk around the golf course. My grandfather played that very course decades ago. He taught my family to play and to love the game almost as much as him. It felt right to be with my family at a place so treasured by my grandfather and it became easier to deal with the loss.
When I returned home I was excited to visit my grandmother and share pictures and stories of my time in Scotland as I promised I would. It felt surreal that I wouldn’t be able to share in my excitement with my grandfather of a place we both cherished. I never made it to the Cotswolds like I promised them, but I look back on my time in Edinburgh, not with the sadness of how it began, but reminisce on the beautiful sights I saw, the friends and memories I made, and the personal growth that still impacts me today.

Sophie Bradford is a student at Rhodes College and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland in the fall of 2017.