Sunday, November 16, I had skyped with my mom , because I felt homesick (which you are not supposed to do). My mom asked me if I wanted to skype with my dad a little later that day, but I could not due to homesickness-shopping with one of my best friends. The next morning my alarm went off at 6:15, so like every other morning I checked if I had missed any messages on my phone from back home. It looked like a bomb of notifications had exploded. Some messages were short, some were longer, but they all came down to one thing: “I am so sorry for your loss.”
A year abroad is an exceptional thing to experience and it helps you discover yourself in ways you will never expect. Being far away from home in another country, another culture, gives you space to develop your own abilities and helps you to see the world with broader perception. You will read all about that in so many different blogposts, but that is not what this one is about. This post is not about all the happy things, homesickness, culture shock or any other common ‘year abroad’ experiences. This one is about losing people close to you while you are 4000 miles away.
Unfortunately, I have experienced this during my year abroad. In July of 2014, two weeks after my arrival in the United States, a close family friend died. Two months later, my granddad died, but on November 17, my very own dad passed away unexpectedly. That morning I was in total shock because of all the messages. My host-parents came running into my room as soon as they had noticed that I was awake. They told me to skype with my family right away. It seemed to take forever for my laptop to open skype, but then I finally got the news. The rest of the day consisted of sobbing, packing and saying goodbye to my friends. Before I realized it, I was back at the airport and on my way home.
Being abroad while somebody close to you dies has two sides. On the one hand you will never feel more alone, nobody in your host-country has a clue who your loved one is and what part of your life he/she has been. They just know you and the fact that you are leaving all of a sudden, maybe they will never see you again. Besides this, you are not with your biological family. You miss the words, hugs and smells you have been used to since you were born. You are not able to support the most important people in your life. On the other hand, you will not have to experience death from that close. My dad died at home next to my mom, while my brother’s girlfriend performed CPR and the whole emergency team was arriving. To be honest, I am glad that I did not have to see all of that. Though, the most devastating thing is to know that the day you left, the goodbye was for real. You left, but you were not the one to leave forever.
After 3 weeks of being at home I decided to go back and finish my year abroad. It was one of the hardest decisions I have ever made. You want to be there for your family, of course, but you also do not want to have that ‘what if…’ feeling. Thanks to my mom I was able to make the decision to go back. This decision is different for everyone and depends on the strength of your family members too, it is not just you. Thanks to my organization I did not even have to worry about plane tickets, they arranged everything for me. In a week I was back at the airport, surrounded by my host-family and one of my best friends who had come with them. I cannot thank my host-family enough for all of their support and kindness.
If you are ever at this point in your life where you have to decide to stay with you family or to continue your adventure, do talk with your family about your thoughts. Communication is key, to everything actually.
Living abroad gives you the feeling that you are living a different life, being a different version of yourself. Everybody likes or dislikes you for who you are, instead of who you are related to. The hardest part about coming back, was that nobody knows your loss. Your lost one did not live in this other world. Because you do not see any of your biological family, you miss everyone as much as you miss your lost one, or you do not miss them, depending on how you feel. I know this may be
really hard to understand, but I cannot think of any other way to put it. This did result in some terrible moments of wake-up-calls. All of a sudden there is the realization that the person that you used to see as your invincible hero (at least that how I saw my dad as a kid), is no longer invincible. Those are the really hard times and whenever that happened it crushed me. Unfortunately I did not realize, back then, that it would be wise to talk to somebody. Whenever you are in that very situation, hopefully never, please do talk to somebody. It is like homesickness, do not deal with it alone. Though, there are times that you just want to be alone. There were times that I did not even wanted to be myself and I wished that I was somebody else. Then I would just know this person who experienced all of this. All these feelings will get weaker over time. It is like the waves on the water after a ship has passed. Over time it gets calmer. Even though people tell you that time heals the pain, you will come to see that is does not. You just learn to live with it.
As I am writing this I have been back in my home country for almost two months. It is already been a year since I traveled to the United States for the first time and touched my dad for the last time. Coming back was the strangest feeling. The first night I heard some noises downstairs and as a reflex I thought that it was my dad, but it was not. Then of course there was the fact that everyone around me has been living in this world without my dad. On top that I just felt empty, that awful feeling is the price you have to pay for your exchange. It is like you have been asleep for 10 months and everything has been a dream, because no one knows what or who you are talking about. Sometimes it still feels all wrong.
I have been trying to find an article from somebody who has experienced something comparable, but I did not find any. For the people who encounter the same struggles as I did, just know you are not alone.
This incredibly brave guest post was written by Sofie van den Brand, a Dutch girl who spent her exchange year in the United States of America.