Loss Overseas: How I Dealt With Losing a Loved One While Studying Abroad

When I woke up in the middle of the night to a series of texts from my father and brother, I immediately knew something was wrong. The time difference between Eastern US and Italy made it difficult to get in touch with them right away; I was fast asleep when my family at home was registering the loss of my grandmother.

That was the first thought that came to mind when I heard the news: I wasn’t there. The second thought was even more paralyzing: I won’t be there.

I was a 12 hour plane ride, 4,000 miles, and $1,000 away from home. When you think of losing someone important to you, you don’t imagine missing the funeral or being away from your family. You don’t imagine going through the heartbreak and grief alone.

However, this was my reality. It also can be the reality of many young people who are studying or living away from home and don’t have the means to travel at a moment’s notice. Not only was I away from home, but I was also studying abroad in Europe, something I always dreamed of doing and had planned on taking advantage of every moment and every new adventure. I was surrounded by new people and in a new place and I didn’t know whether to carry on or shut down.

Grief is never a perfect science. There is no right way to act. However, this experience did help me understand that no matter where you are, whatever circumstance you may be in, love and loss and acceptance are universal. I don’t know if what I did and how I decided to approach the situation was perfect – but I do know it helped.



Taking Time to Think

Instead of going on with my day and going to classes, I took a moment to reflect on the past. I initially felt guilty for being away from home, for not seeing my Nana in the last few weeks she was alive. After more time, I thought about memories and times spent with my Nana. Instead of focusing on how I couldn’t be home, I thought about what it was like when I was home and the memories I had with my grandmother when she was alive.


Staying in Touch

This is simple but can be overlooked. Although I couldn’t be there in person, I could still talk to people from home. Being more connected to my family in the days and weeks following my grandmother’s death, even when we weren’t talking about my grandmother, made me feel less alone and like I was still part of the family. It can be hard to keep in touch with time differences and busy schedules, but it is worth the effort to have the comfort of hearing the voices of people from people back home. It made the death more real and was the only time I could openly talk about it with people who fully understood my feelings.


Finding a Piece of Home

Perhaps the hardest part of this experience was how surreal it felt. Since I was not home, there was nothing to remind me of what happened. I would get lost in the orange trees and architectural magnificence of the city, and forget, just for a moment, that anything happened at all.

The day of my grandmother’s funeral was a bright, warm day in Italy. Something I always associated with my Nana was the small Dunkin’ Donuts coffee and plain donut she bought every single morning. While there are no Dunkins in Rome, I bought a traditional American drip coffee one morning and a plain donut stick. I walked to a park that reminded me of the one near my Nana’s house. It was not the same as being there, but it was as close as I could get. I missed the eulogy and casket, but I spent the time remembering my grandmother’s life and said good bye in the best way I could.



Appreciating Where You Are

Along with the aching, hollow feeling of losing someone you love, my heart panged with regret and self-loathing. I was in Rome, exploring Europe, when back home my family was planning a funeral. I began to dislike where I was, longing for bitter winter and picket fences over palm trees and cobblestone.

The more I walked through Rome, however, the more I began to understand that life is not a series of pauses and jolts – it is a fluid cycle of events, all coalescing. My grandmother dying and the opportunity to study abroad do not have to oppose one another. I am allowed to experience both fully. I am allowed to appreciate the archaic beauty of this city while also being sick in the heart from losing someone I love.


When I got the call, I felt raw. I felt lost. I felt guilty and ashamed for not being home. My grandmother, however, wanted me to be here. She wanted me to see the world, to live my life in the best way possible. Grief and loss don’t have a vicinity – you can feel it everywhere. Being away from home was, and still is, difficult but it is also a time to grow, to learn, and to continue on.



Photos: All Photos Belong to Author