How Openness, Mindfulness and Exploration Helped Me to Cope with the Loss of a Loved One Abroad


When I was abroad in New Zealand, my grandpa died of cancer. He had battled the disease for three years and had a hospice nurse by the time I left for New Zealand. Because of this, I was prepared for our goodbye before I left to be the final one. Even though the prospect of being absent frommy family during his final days really scared me, I decided not to let it dissuade me from going to New Zealand. I chose to study abroad because I wanted to experience the world in a new way. I thought that going abroad would be a great opportunity to meet new people, break out of my routine, and learn more about myself. I believe that self-awareness is crucial in developing and maintaining strong relationships with other people, so I felt that this adventure abroad had the potential to help me cope with my grandpa’s death and communicate with my family effectively about it.

While all of this turned out to be true, in the days and weeks that followed his death, I found it really difficult to reconcile with the fact that he was gone. Despite the unsurprising nature of the news, it deeply affected me. This was certainly elevated by the distance- all I wanted the moment I heard the news was to hug my family members tightly and find comfort in their understanding of the situation. Because of this, initially I felt unsure of how to deal with my emotions. I began to cry whenever I thought about him, spoke to a family member or looked through old pictures.


Opening Up

At first, I was nervous to tell anyone in New Zealand about it because I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated to check up on me or care for me when they were all busy with their own lives. However, once I told my housemate and two of my close friends, I began to feel a lot better. I was motivated to tell them when I realized that holding it in was only making it worse. I thought about past times I had struggled with something and realized that the support and advice of friends had always been the key to feeling better. Soon after hearing the news, they arrived at my front door with open arms and copious snacks. We watched a lighthearted movie and talked for hours, and they made it clear that they were there for me unconditionally. I’m so glad I decided to inform them, because it not only helped me cope in a much healthier way, but strengthened my bond with these new friends substantially.


Finding Support Through IFSA

Dealing with a loss can be incredibly difficult, even if it does not come as a surprise. I found that allowing myself to grieveand to work through my emotions was a critical aspect of the healing process. Recognizing and utilizing my support systems, both in my community abroad and from home, was critical. Friends I made through the IFSA program proved to be incredibly thoughtful and helpful in this difficult time. I also found a lot of comfort in the weekly IFSA meet-ups, when our program advisor would spoil us with delicious snacks and, through thoughtful conversations, demonstrate how much she cared about our wellbeing. A meeting that particularly stood out to me was a picnic on a sunny day on the university campus when Hannah, our advisor, gave a presentation on the importance of self-love and self-care. She emphasized the importance of getting enough sleep, spending time doing activities you really love, and attempting to keep negative thoughts in perspective. It’s easy to slip into cycles of self deprecation, especially in stressful environments such as college during the exam period. This conversation with Hannah helped me recognize when and why I think poorly of myself and how to combat those thoughts. To hear this sentiment from someone I respected and admired so much lead me to value the connections I made in New Zealand even more than I had before.


Staying Active and Mindful

Additionally, various activities abroad also helped me learn how to cope. Hiking, channeling energy into activity and enjoying the beauty of the world around me was especially constructive. This was largely because it was something I knew my grandpa would have wanted for me, as he was a huge nature enthusiast. I also engaged in mindful activities such as cooking and journaling, and tried to make sure to stay on top of my work and manage my schedule well. Although this was difficult at times, I found that when Iand kept up with my work, I limited stress and my overall mood improved.

Studying abroad in New Zealand is an experience that I will never forget. Although the loss of a grandparent is a difficult thing to bear, especially far away from home, I coped with it while abroad in New Zealand and learned a lot about myself in the process. Opening up to people I love, utilizing the support network of my abroad program, practicing mindfulness and maintaining a full and active lifestyle helped me to both handle the loss and grow into a more confident and self-aware person.


Madeleine Ruwitch is a student at Kenyon College and studied abroad with IFSA at Victoria University in Wellington, New Zealand in 2017. 


Article by Madeline Ruwitch