When I was abroad, my grandpa died of cancer. He had battled the disease for three years and had a hospice nurse by the time I left for New Zealand, so I was prepared for our goodbye before my trip to be the final one. Even though the prospect of being absent from my family during his final days really scared me, I decided not to let it dissuade me from going to New Zealand. I thought that going abroad would be a great opportunity to meet new people, break out of my routine, and develop greater self-awareness. I hoped that despite being far away, my experiences and lessons learned abroad about myself and the world around me would help me cope with my grandpa’s death and communicate with my family effectively about it.
While all of this turned out to be true, in the days that followed his death, I found it really difficult to reconcile with the fact that he was gone. This was certainly elevated by the distance– all I wanted the moment I heard the news was to hug my family members tightly and find comfort in their familiarity. Initially, I found it difficult to navigate my emotions. I felt upset whenever I thought about him, spoke to a family member or looked through old pictures.

Opening Up

At first, I was nervous to tell people in New Zealand about it because I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated to check up on me or care for me, as they were all busy with their own lives. However, when I finally told my housemate and two of my close friends, I began to feel a lot better. I was motivated to tell them when I realized that holding it in was only making it worse. I thought about past times I had struggled with something and realized that the support and advice of friends had always been the keys to feeling better. Soon after hearing the news, they arrived at my front door with open arms and copious snacks. We watched a lighthearted movie and talked for hours, and they made it clear that they were there for me unconditionally. Informing them not only helped me cope in a much healthier way but strengthened my bond with these new friends substantially.

Finding Support Through IFSA

Dealing with a loss can be incredibly difficult, even if it does not come as a surprise. I found that allowing myself to grieve and to work through my emotions was a critical aspect of the healing process. Recognizing and utilizing my support systems, both in my community abroad and from home, was critical.

I found comfort in the weekly IFSA meet-ups when our program advisor would spoil us with snacks and offer support and guidance. A meeting that particularly stood out to me was a picnic on a sunny day when Hannah, our advisor, gave a presentation on self-care. She emphasized the importance of getting enough sleep, spending time doing activities you really love, and attempting to keep negative thoughts in perspective. It’s easy to slip into cycles of self deprecation and inadequate self-care, especially in stressful environments such as college during the exam period. When coping with a loss, self-care is especially important. To hear this sentiment from someone I respected and admired so much lead me to value the connections I made in New Zealand even more than I had before and encouraged me to set and achieve regular self-care as a goal for my time abroad.

Staying Active and Mindful

Additionally, various activities abroad helped me learn how to cope. Hiking and channeling energy into outdoor activity was especially constructive. Hiking was especially meaningful because it was something I knew my grandpa would have wanted for me, as he was a huge nature enthusiast. I also engaged in mindful activities such as cooking and journaling and tried to make sure to stay on top of my work and manage my schedule well. Although this was difficult at times, I found that when I kept up with my work, I limited stress and my overall mood improved.
Studying abroad in New Zealand is an experience that I will never forget. Although the loss of a grandparent is a difficult thing to bear, especially far away from home, I learned how to cope with it while abroad in New Zealand and learned a lot about myself in the process. Opening up to people I love, utilizing the support network of my abroad program, practicing mindfulness and maintaining a full and active lifestyle helped me to both handle the loss and grow into a more confident and self-aware person.
Maddie Ruwitch is a student at Kenyon College and studied abroad with IFSA at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand in 2017.