Everyone tells you what to expect when you move to a new country: the weather, the dress code, the social etiquette, and even the unwavering storm of homesickness that slaps you every now and then. But no one tells you what to expect when sickness or death in the family arises, because how could they? How could anyone possibly be prepared for a tragedy? How can anyone dream of surviving the agony of losing a part of themselves?
Akin to missing birthdays, weddings and anniversaries, I knew that death in the family was part of a possible equation when I left home. Two months after moving in 2013, I lost my aunt to an unknown circumstance. While that broke me, the grief wasn’t as soul shattering as it was this latest time. This time, I am ground to pieces.
It’s all been written before; dealing with unexpected loss when living abroad, either during travels or right before moving away. It’s a common feeling that travellers have to deal with. But if it’s "normal" to lose someone when you’re 11,835 km away—not being able to say goodbye, attend the funeral or mourn with family—what if it happens days before you’re meant to travel? Or two days before your birthday?
Or what if you’re only six days short of having breakfast with that person before she passed? Would that still be a norm to prepare for?
It was Sunday morning when I got the call that my grandma was hospitalized, heavily sedated and not responsive to any treatments. Less than 24 hours later, my phone buzzed me awake at 2:00 in the morning, with my younger brother’s cracking voice notifying me that she was gone.
The plan was to fly home and see her on Saturday morning, before embarking on my big Southeast Asia adventure. I was six days too late.
The plan was to fly home and see her on Saturday morning, before embarking on my big Southeast Asia adventure. I was six days too late. Just like that. No warning signs, no time stretching, nothing. My breakfast plan for that Saturday, and many other Saturdays, vanished like the snow.
That week was a shipwreck. Nothing hits harder than having to walk into work with a heavy heart, celebrating a birthday that wasn’t at all joyous (and receiving well wishes that regrettably blended with condolences), an empty homecoming and finally, travelling with loss. All in a span of a week.
I thought travelling would help me breathe a little better, because I knew she didn’t want me to stop my life at her expense. She would’ve wanted me to go on living, breathing and most importantly, feeling. Hard and fast, like she did when she was alive.
Travel away I did, but I realized how hard it was to travel and stay distracted. I could be completely immersed by the sights in a moment and lose it the next. Riding a tuk-tuk in Phnom Penh reminded me of my grandma’s fearful ride in Bangkok a few years ago. The old ladies climbing the Vietnamese Marble Mountains with me, had her energy and gusto in them. The lady selling coconuts by the roadside chews on fruit exactly the way she did. Some people seek solace in distraction; I’m definitely not one of them.
You see your lost loved one in every corner you turn, because grief haunts you. It warrants a response so you could propel forward towards acceptance and in the long run, achieve clarity. So I broke down. I broke down a lot as travelling made me feel guilty, but in between all that despair, I knew I missed her insatiably. I grieved so she’d know how much I regret not being around more than I did, even though I was almost home again. I rang my family and I spoke to my travel mates, woefully explaining my plight and admitting that I’m not okay. Because it helps. Admitting "defeat" helps.
The important takeaway from this experience is learning that time is a true elixir of all wounds, and there’s no shortcut to it. A little relief can be achieved through travelling, but distractions shouldn’t be confused with one’s repression of feelings. What aids the healing process is voicing out and surrendering to loss when it comes and demands attention. Believe me, I’m sure many of us wish there was a manual to refer to, something to guide us in manoeuvering through the lost paths. Something to override the waves of misery. Anything to prevent grief from turning into our best friend.
So travel away, travel hard, beam at new places and feel new experiences. I’ve learnt that while it wouldn’t stop you from dealing with your emotions, it ignites a fire in you that helps you open up. It gives room to understand that travelling and happiness, aren’t mutually exclusive terms. Travelling with loss is gruelling, but not impossible. Sometimes it’s necessary.Add this article to your reading list