Grieving Away from Home

I have grieved. I have gone through this process enough times that I have my own meter for the “severity” of each moment of grief I experience. Realizing the pint of Ben and Jerry’s is already empty but it’s only 8:30pm is a tragedy, but I do not feel the same heaviness and despair for this event as I would when reading about a natural disaster that took human lives.

I have felt the loss of a pet, a friend, a place. I have felt sadness so overwhelming I became resigned to “this is my life now, a grey and endless space” and I have felt a fleeting moment of “that’s a shame” before moving on.

I have always been able to turn to comfortable places and food (a common theme) and activities to distract and cope while I heal and process. If we have talked together about feelings before, you’ll know I tend to lean far away from them and touch with only the tip of my finger, so I don’t stir up any uncomfortable thoughts I’d have to deal with at that moment. I like to hide away with my wounds and emerge when I’ve found my calm. I like to talk through tough situations with my friends and be a shoulder for whatever life throws at them. But I’m not good at opening up more than a small amount of myself. Still, having these brief difficult conversations with family and friends and being in spaces that are well-known are my method, my way of healing. I don’t have to discuss what I’m feeling to feel, I just need to be around what I find familiar and warm.

But I have never grieved away from my family. And I’ve never not had my favorite comforts surrounding me to form a shield I can hide behind while I gather myself and get ready for whatever comes next. I’ve always had a cat (or two) ready to be forcefully loved and petted (until they’ve had quite enough of that thank you very much) and plenty of Star Trek on Netflix; there’s always the 7-11s less than a mile away for the ice cream and Cupcake wine. My favorite bar was always down the street or a quick drive away and the friend who will sit with you either in silence or with the appropriate feel-good remark (“yeah he sucks, no you totally did not deserve that, F all of that, let’s get shots”). Here, I can’t have my material feel-goods instantly. Sad on a Sunday? Better hope you went to the store the day before because there is not a single place open here. Star Trek on Netflix? For whatever reason, the Netflix gods did not see fit to bless Germany IPs with this access so better load up the shaky VPN. And cats? Well, they’re happily roaming around in VA getting totally spoiled by my parents.

And as you can guess by now, there has been something in my life to cause grief; a family event and one that was not unexpected. What I’ve learned though is that expected is not “easy” or “prepared for.” Being away has turned me into an overly-sharp observer and hyper-aware of my surroundings. Because I spent the 6 weeks from decision to move date being overly organized and processed, and then the next three months being even more so as I went through immigrations, I’ve kept into this habit of trying to see the future and make plans A through J, just in case. I thought I knew what to do to get through loss. I’ve had loss, I know how to deal.

I did not know how much I relied on a process and rituals and routines (and some things) to keep me moving from a low point back up to a high. I don’t think it’s necessarily bad to rely on something material or familiar to get one through the bad times, but I have learned the meaning of flexibility and adaptability. I have to have new ways of pushing through rough seas to calmer waters when all the other familiar lifeboats are gone. Lots of quiet introspection, reflection on feeling sad and coming to terms with that invulnerability, and learning how to share all of this with a partner, this was hard. It was in my face everyday, I felt like there wasn’t a break. Instead of reaching for my feel-goods that I could buy or go visit, I reached inside to some place I didn’t know I had to find calm. I can’t figure out any other non-hippie way to describe this new feeling. And honestly, I don’t think I would have learned how to do that if I was still home.

My grandmother passed away in August. Before I left I knew I had probably seen her for the last time during my visit last year. We would speak a few more times on Hangouts chats and in this way she was able to meet Zach. Because of the time difference between us, I received the news from my dad when it was early her morning, but during my evening when I was at work on the water. The next few days plans were made and arrangements set and I knew there was nothing I could do to help or fix, behaviors I rely on to distract me from feeling. I knew I wouldn’t even be able to make it home in time as travel time alone would have been more than 24 hours long, arriving after the funeral. Facebook became a way for me to feel connected and see everyone, though it was really hard to see all my cousins lined up in pictures and see the spot next to my brother where I was supposed to be. At the same time, I’m so glad everyone came together and took those pictures.

A huge comfort I had was knowing my parents would be arriving soon. They had made plans to be here months before and having them here was going to be what I needed to feel calm and normal (though have you seen my mother in a cheese shop? Anything but calm). We spent the next two and a half weeks traveling and being together and sharing stories of grandma when it felt appropriate. And when they left, I didn’t have such a hurting heart anymore.

Being away is hard, being away is also liberating. Learning new ways to take care of oneself during times of hurt is a wonderful challenge I hope everyone experiences. Not because of the hurt, but because when you come out on the other side whole and fresh, the feelings of accomplishment and being able to take on new challenges with less fear are exhilarating.

This post is dedicated to my grandmother, Diane, and to her smiles and ability to bring down a fever with a bag of frozen peas. I sewed a straight line on a sewing machine with her once (and only once) and learned to use vodka in my pie crusts instead of water. I love her very much and will miss her always.

Me, Grandma and Mom

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