You exchange a bit of the life you’re familiar to, with a bit of a life you’re creating somewhere else. This is the reality of living abroad. Plain and simple.
It’s this constant struggle of following your dreams to be happy, and feeling like you’re not whole because there is such a big part of your life that you aren’t living anymore.
And once you realize the life “back home” that you’re pining for actually doesn’t exist anymore because people have moved on, moved away, gotten married, you start to doubt yourself.
And then – if the worst happens and someone dies while you’re living abroad, you could practically drown in the guilt and grief life deals your way. I am praying with all my heart that this never happens to you, but I’m writing this because I know it could.
When I decided to live in Belgium, I knew there were a lot of things I’d miss. Like anyone, I had my moments of doubt and sadness every time I missed one of my sisters’ birthdays, or my nephews asked me why I didn’t come visit them more often.
But I chose this life and my family knew it made me happy, and that made them happy.
GETTING THAT NEWS.
So, happily I was living. Happily they were accepting it.
And then one day (when I was 27 weeks pregnant) I got a phone call that is basically every traveler’s worst nightmare.
My dad had been diagnosed with cancer.
At that time, he was close to death, and time was limited. So, with a week to go before my third trimester of pregnancy, I flew from Belgium to Canada. It was such a whirlwind. Within 32 hours of getting the news, I was there in Canada standing next to his hospital bed. He placed his hand on my pregnant belly and smiled.
That wasn’t the end for my dad. He pulled through and he went on to live almost a full year after that. But this isn’t that story.
There is so much no one tells you about the aftermath of someone’s death. Not only are you dealing with an impossible situation but you’re also forced to keep living your life. Jobs need to be returned to, bills need to be paid, families mended. And that’s just the personal aspect. We were making arrangments for his celebration of life, getting documents in order, contacting people, writing obituary notices, packing up boxes of his belongings.
In the weeks after my fathers passing, everything felt…paused.
For almost 3 weeks I had so much time to spend with my sisters that I normally wouldn’t have, that I found myself getting caught up in that. We grieved as much as we spent time, bonded and laughed together.
When we couldn’t be helping with the planning and organizing of after-life details for my dad, we were going to the park, playing on the beach, and trying to keep each other going. And it was working.
I look back on that month and think about how I managed to get through every day. I think about how we were able to laugh and to play and to talk about our favourite dad memories. It was hard, but we were making it.
Maybe I was powering through because I was solo-parenting the entire time (my boyfriend stuck in Belgium as he couldn’t get that much time from work). Or maybe it was the love and laughter that filled the house as my sisters spent unheard of time with my son.
But looking back I think maybe having that time was some kind of saving grace. Because when I returned to my home abroad, I became undone.
RETURNING TO ‘NORMAL’ LIFE.
I didn’t just become undone once I got back to my home abroad…I shattered into an infinite amount of pieces that I would never again put back together completely.
For 4 days, I ate, slept and took care of my son. It’s all I could do to get through a day. I gave up things I’d loved doing. Quit working out, baby food jars became the norm over homemade food, and any sense of personal care went out the window. I found myself going through the motions, and not doing a good job of it. But I had nothing left, all I could do was survive.
The next weeks would go a little better, and then a lot worse. I started to slowly collect myself. But for every shattered piece of myself I found, it seemed another broke off.
An afternoon out to lunch with my friends took about 3 days to recover from. I’d laugh at something my son did, and immediately burst into tears.
Our life here; my house, my favorite places, our garden…my dad never got to see any of that. Then my mind went into over-drive; my son’s first steps, his first words, buying a new house…I will be filled with such joy about all of these things, but will they be a little tainted now that I can’t share that joy with my father? I had been so busy building this life that he could be proud of and now he won’t see any of it.
How dare I find happiness right now? How could I possibly laugh?
There is the guilt. While grief is more of a restless, quiet agitator that sometimes tries to rob you of little happy moments – guilt is so much more destructive. It comes on like a fucking hurricane, destroying everything in its path.
There were about 10 times a day when I told myself I was a bad daughter because I didn’t visit him more, or pay for him to come visit us, or about a million other things I couldn’t have possibly known at the time to do differently.
Then that guilt turns into fear. Fear of losing someone else. Then it turns back into grief and tries to steal more moments from me. Then it suddenly flips into some sort of growing resentment towards myself for actively building a life that had nothing to do with my father. It doesn’t matter if I was happy or if he was happy that I was happy. I missed time with him that I wouldn’t have missed if I would have just stayed.
But then I look at my son and think, he wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t of taken this big leap. I couldn’t imagine my life any other way…but why did having this amazing life mean losing precious time with my dad?
I feel so consumed and I can’t get out of this hollow pit. There are about 10 other times a day when I tell myself I am now turning into a bad girlfriend and mother.
I can’t see anything. I can’t find a moment of happiness without a day of tears following it. My boyfriend becomes accustomed to picking my sobbing body up off the floor and trying to help me breathe.
I try to push myself into feeling better…keeping myself busy. But when there is even a moment of calm, that completely backfires and shatters me into a few million more pieces.
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Some weeks I could push myself and really search for (and even find) the happiness for brief moments, and other weeks I would do nothing but take care of my son and lay around in my pajamas.
MOVING FORWARD. Because you have to.
Life just keeps sweeping you along, time marches on and if you stop for too long, you get trampled.
So, I kept going. Becuase I had to. And eventually, I started noticing a pattern….one 10 minute walk every morning just to get out of the house made me feel something that wasn’t quite happiness, but wasn’t total despair, either.
A lunch with my friends so our kids could play together. A date night with my boyfriend. Slowly, the emotional recovery time from my outings started to become a little easier to handle.
I wrote my dad emails I knew he’d never get. I talked to him. I leaned into the heartache and let myself feel it for as long as I needed to. And then I’d try to get on with my day.
There were a lot of setbacks. There will likely be a lot more. Days or weeks where I can’t quite pull myself out of it.
Now, months after my father’s passing, the pain comes in waves. For days, I will be okay…happy, even. Then for a few days, everything and anything will make me cry. Some days I shed a few little tears while looking at an empty field and thinking of my dad. Other days I drop to the floor in big sobs over seemingly nothing.
This kind of heartache is unpredictable and never-ending. But you will smile again. You will laugh again. You can come back to life.
From the moment you lose a family member, a part of you is just gone. I won’t tell you it gets better because I don’t know that it does. It just gets different.
You go through stages. You avoid grief. Then you seek it out, going through old photos and making yourself remember. You try to replace grief; with anger, resentment or recklessness.
But slowly, grief becomes a part of your life, and it’s not as debilitating as it once was. It doesn’t paralyze you in the ways it once did. It’s a scar that’s covering up a damaged nerve. Its always there, sometimes going unnoticed until something makes it flare up.
Maybe one night you’re cooking and you remember enjoying that same meal together with that person you love – and instead of collapsing in tears, you smile. Maybe one morning when you wake up with the sun in your face, you think of them and your heart feels light instead of heavy.
Everyone deals with grief differently, but what’s worked for me…
Leaning into the grief.
Feeling it. Letting it in, because it’s coming in no matter what you do.
Finding some way of expressing it. Writing letters, keeping a journal, and having at least moment every day where you I let myself think of them, surrendering to that moment and whatever emotion it brings.
If tears come, then I cry. If a smile comes, I laugh. If I need to sob uncontrollably for 20 minutes, I do that.
Because sometimes we just have to hold on in whatever way we can.