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You Are Stronger Than You Think: 5 Ways I Dealt with Grief While Abroad

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My biggest fear before heading to New Zealand was not being able to come home in case of an emergency because I would be about 8,000 miles away. Before going abroad, I had only ever lived about an hour away from my hometown. It was a far-fetched problem that remained in the back of my mind as I boarded the plane. As soon as I began my IFSA orientation, all the worry left my mind. I kept myself so busy by taking advantage of every opportunity to travel and explore. I was meeting so many new people and having the time of my life. Then February came around and the reality of life hit me hard. Here is what happened:

  • In February, my father had a massive heart attack.
  • In March, my Uncle passed away from a stroke.
  • In May, my childhood best-friend passed away unexpectedly.

I had never experienced loss or grief like this before and was not sure how to tackle it. The time difference and distance from home made it easy to feel disconnected from my family and friends. This feeling of detachment from reality was frustrating and confusing for me and I am sure my loved ones back home felt the same way. As I reflect on my experience dealing with these heartaches, I realize that my perspective on life has changed drastically. Without the support from my IFSA family and services, my study abroad experience would’ve been completely different.

Below is my advice on how to deal with grief, confusion, disconnect and heartache while abroad:

1. Make Yourself Available At All Hours Of The Day/Night For People To Contact You

You must realize that you are not the only one grieving. Your family and friends back home rely on you to comfort them through difficult times too. Making yourself available (even when it’s not convenient for you) shows the people you love the most just how much you care. For example, my Uncle’s death took a great toll on my mom. She needed me to comfort her through the tough nights of sadness and grief. We talked about their good memories together and how much fun we all had at Thanksgiving. Consoling others through the grieving process made me feel like I wasn’t alone.

2. Utilize the IFSA Resources

IFSA provides students with a supportive, loving and caring community of people. Every week our Auckland IFSA group would have a catch-up meeting to discuss our highs and lows of the previous week. This was an excellent time for me to talk about how I was dealing with my struggles. The advice, comfort and support I received from my peers and my IFSA coordinator, Ellen Sanders, was remarkable. Throughout my time abroad, my IFSA coordinator would send me encouraging texts and make herself available if I ever needed to talk. If it wasn’t for my IFSA community I would’ve never been able to get through the grieving process.

3. Write Down How You Are Feeling

I kept a travel/personal blog and journal during my time in New Zealand. It allowed me to take the time out of my busy schedule to reflect on how I was feeling and coping with the news from home. Here is an excerpt from my blog to my childhood friend:

Sunday, May 27th: I woke up to unspeakable text messages saying that the world has lost someone so precious and loving – my neighbor and friend, Maggie Tidd. You will forever hold a special place in my heart and, as I am writing this, I can’t help but smile thinking about the wonderful memories we have made. No matter what, I knew I could always count on you. You were an excellent listener and always so positive. I will never forget the late night slumber parties, summer kickball tournaments, and bus rides to and from school with you.

Nothing prepares you in life for loss. Honestly, I feel so disconnected from my life back home that this feels like a dream. That nothing really happened to you and you will be there once I get back. Unfortunately, I am wrong. I wish I could’ve been there to formally say my goodbyes, but this is the best I can do. I hope you can forgive me for not reaching out every so often and asking how you were doing. It was selfish of me to get caught up in my own life and forget about people, like you, who have helped shape me into the person I am today.   Maggie, you were always such a good friend to me and I love you so much. I will never understand why this has happened, but I trust that you are walking alongside our Lord in Heaven and you are happy.

4. Be Patient

Dealing with grief and heartache is a slow and painful process, especially when you are so far away from home. It is important that you allow time to heal your pain and not try to rush through the process. Understanding that you will experience both highs and lows during the process will make yourself more aware of your feelings and willing to ask for comfort.

5. Be Grateful

Although this is a terrible experience, it can be an excellent time for growth and clarity. My outlook on life and relationships has completely shifted after going through the grieving process. It made me realize that I needed to allocate my time towards important matters (like family, friends and life experiences) instead of insignificant things. I realized that I spent so much time worrying about all of the tasks I needed to accomplish before the end of the day that I wasn’t taking the time to talk with those around me. I never spent more than 5 minutes socializing with someone because I felt like I was “too busy”. Now I realize that time is precious and the people around you are what matters the most. Be appreciative of the opportunities, people and experiences you have.

Unfortunately, nothing in life prepares you for loss or heartache. The only thing you can control is how you react to it. Through experience, I found the best way to deal with grief is by being open and honest about how you feel and trying to make light of a terrible situation. IFSA provided me with an abundance of resources, a fantastic student services coordinator and a community of lifelong friends.

Claire Collett is a Business student at Butler University and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of Auckland in Auckland, New Zealand in Spring 2018.