Grieving on the Other Side of the World

I can usually sleep through anything, but the distant buzzing of my phone under my pillow lifted me from a deep slumber, and I slowly rolled over to answer. A wave of dread swept over me as I heard my mother say, “Hi Sho,” on the other end of the line. This was not one of our scheduled weekly Skype calls and signaled to me that my mother was calling for something important. I moved into the bathroom for privacy and instinctively unrolled some toilet paper in preparation for the tears that were already beginning to fall. She had not said it yet, but I could tell in my mother’s tone that what she had to say was not good news. Although I had been trying to prepare myself for the past few weeks for what I knew was inevitable, the tears still fell uncontrollably when she said my grandfather had passed away.

Dealing with the Diagnosis

In early 2015, before my fall semester in Pune, India, my father told me that my grandfather, his own father, was diagnosed with lung cancer. I was taken aback, but the severity of his diagnosis never occurred to me. While in India, however, the severity began to set-in as my regular phone conversations with my dad became updates on Granddad’s health: in some pain, but remaining optimistic. I didn’t talk about it to my friends or roommates, partly because I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal, and I also didn’t want to be the person to bring the mood down. Things took a turn about halfway through my semester abroad. I had just returned from our travel week, where I had spent the past week travelling with two of my roommates around south India and celebrating my 21st birthday. I had the time of my life, enjoying the bustling city of Bangalore, the scenic views of Ooty, riding an elephant in Munnar, staying on a houseboat in Alleppey and more. It wasn’t until I went with another roommate to Sujata Mastani, a local ice cream shop, to catch up on each other’s travels, did I realized the severity of the situation. At that point, I couldn’t keep it to myself.
My dad called, and although he was trying to make casual conversation, I could tell that something wasn’t right. A few minutes into the call, he told me that my grandfather had taken a turn for the worse and was in hospital. My dad, who lives in Atlanta, had gone to London to be with the rest of my family, and that was the confirmation of the direction things were going in. As I tried to steady my shaking voice, I couldn’t help but let the tears roll down my cheeks. Although my Granddad was still with us, I knew it wouldn’t be long until he wasn’t. I also knew that I would still be on the other side of the world when he passed. At the end of the call, my roommate took my hand in hers. We sat in silence for a few minutes as I composed myself, and she listened when I was ready to share. Telling another person what had steadily been taking over my thoughts for the past few weeks was liberating, and I questioned why I hadn’t done it sooner. I had tried to avoid pity by keeping it to myself, but instead had robbed myself of a support system that was truly aware of what I was dealing with abroad.

Leaning on a Support System

A few weeks later, I needed that support system more than ever. A few hours after my mother called me, I walked to the Gokhale Institute where our classes and Alliance staff were based. I went into the program coordinator’s office to inform her of my grandfather’s passing. For the first time, I had to say aloud that he had passed away and explain what support I needed from her and the IFSA program. I knew that I would have to leave the program early to attend his funeral in London, how early I was not yet sure, and I did not want to have to worry about whether or not I completed the program or received full credit, on top of grieving away from my family and friends. To my relief, my program coordinator offered her condolences and full support. She informed the other staff and my host mother of my circumstance, and helped me in coordinating with my parents to change travel plans in order to get to London. I left the program a day before my peers and was still able to enjoy the disorientation and closing of our semester together.
I am quite a private person, however, grieving my Granddad while in a new and different country was a process that I could not fully do alone. Like anyone, I had good days and bad days, but I knew keeping all my feelings bottled up would make the bad days worse. Throughout the couple of weeks that remained of my time abroad, my friends, host mother, and the IFSA staff were there for me to talk to and help me to process my feelings. On my last day in Pune, we all presented to one another what we had learned and how we had grown during our semester abroad. I was the last person to share. Although I had spent almost every day of my life for the past four months with the people in front of me, my heart felt like it was going to pound out of my chest. I shared how much I had learned about myself and other cultures during my time in India, and how grateful I was to everyone for making that growth possible. “My granddad passed away a couple of weeks ago, and I know not all of you knew that, but thank you to all of you for always making me feel loved and at home, even when I’m grieving on the other side of the world.”
Shola Powell was an Anthropology major at Georgetown University and studied abroad with IFSA on the Contemporary India program in Pune, India in Fall 2015. She served as an alumni ambassador for IFSA.