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Sad News from Home: Coping with Death While Living Abroad

Life hits hard and it can get complicated when you’re in another country.

In my first two months studying abroad in Salvador, Brazil, I had moved in with a host family, studied Portuguese, made countless trips to the beach, and marched in Carnaval. I thought that life abroad was bliss. Five more months remained in my stay, and I was certain things were only going to get better.

Just as I was settling into life in Brazil, I received devastating news. My beloved great-grandmother, Mama Hat, was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. This made no sense; I had just spoken to her a week prior. Aside from a lingering cough, she had been her normal, healthy self. “She’s in the hospital,” my parents confirmed. “She only has a few weeks to live.”

Suddenly, my life abroad took on a whole new meaning.

I had a tough decision to make: I could stay in Brazil until she passed and attend her funeral. Or I could fly home, say goodbye, and miss the funeral. After four days of deciding, I begged my university for supplementary funds and booked a flight to her home in Mississippi. When I entered her hospital room, she recognized me, despite the drugs.

On the steps of the famous Escadaria Selarón in Rio de Janeiro. This photo was taken just a few weeks after my great-grandma died.
photo courtesy of Leila Green

Two weeks later, I returned to Salvador. Miraculously, Mama Hat was still hanging on. I was glad I chose to say goodbye. I’d decided it was better than looking in a casket.

But this relief didn’t last long. A few days later, my parents gave me a solemn call. Mama Hat didn’t make it. I hung up the phone and sat on the floor in my room, but I wouldn’t let myself cry. Tears felt futile. All I wanted to do was forget. That night, I got dressed and went to a party.

I had a tough decision to make: I could stay in Brazil until she passed and attend her funeral. Or I could fly home, say goodbye, and miss the funeral.

Tearless days went on. I was fine. I went to class, went to the beach, and put my grief on hold. There were undercurrents, of course. No grief can be totally stomped out. But I mostly kept my sadness under wraps. The day of her funeral was particularly tough. I spent it in sociology class.

I told myself I had to make it work. I couldn’t let grief get in the way of my study-abroad dreams. Since every opportunity I’d had was from scholarships, I didn’t know when I’d have the chance to return. I had dreamt of Brazil since I was 16; I had taken years of Portuguese classes and entered the program committed to total immersion. This was supposed to be a period of transformation and fun. It was not supposed to be about being sad. But every day, the grief I thought I was burying was only digging deeper roots—preparing to sprout something ugly.


After completing my study-abroad program at the beginning of the summer, I didn’t return home immediately. I went to another town in Brazil called Paraty. Before my great-grandmother fell ill, I had scored an eight-week paid English-teaching internship. Even though I felt dead inside, the opportunity felt too good to pass up.

Did they expect me to be some super-peppy intern? Could they tell I was depressed? Would I be able to hide the grief?

My first day on the job, I wondered what my emptiness would mean for my work. Did they expect me to be some super-peppy intern? Could they tell I was depressed? Would I be able to hide the grief? The inner me screamed to quit and go home. But that didn’t feel possible. After all, who lets emotions get in the way of living abroad? Who allows grief to shatter a rare opportunity? I got my teaching schedule, and went to work.


That evening, I sat at my new host family’s dinner table. They tried to converse, but every answer I gave felt too short. Grief makes you fold into yourself, and living with a host family is like living with a mask on. You’ve got to always be the best version of yourself. With grief pulsing through my veins, that act felt especially impossible.

I had been holding it together for two months, and I was falling apart. I could no longer pretend. I decided I needed to look for a place of my own. After a couple weeks, my host dad drove me to my new place. When the front door closed and his engine hummed in the distance, I felt a strange peace that I didn’t want to end. Alone for the first time, I decided I needed to take care of myself. I took a small break from work and gave myself permission to rest.

In Chapada Diamantina, a beautiful nature reserve and hiking destination in Bahia, Brazil. I took this trip right before Carnaval.
photo courtesy of Leila Green

In late July, one evening after teaching, I rode home on my bike. Halfway there, I was nearly hit by a car. The driver made a sudden U-turn, paying no attention. I felt the headlights burn my skin. He’d halted an inch from my body. Shaking, I sped home in tears.

For the first time, I realized how much I was risking. I realized that by putting endless pressure on myself to have the perfect experience abroad, I was literally putting myself in harm’s way.

While in bed later that night, the near-collision played in a loop. I tossed and turned, suddenly feeling breakable. The accident scare seemed to be a wake-up call to my own fragility. For the first time, I realized how much I was risking. I realized that by putting endless pressure on myself to have the perfect experience abroad, I was literally putting myself in harm’s way.

I awoke the next morning with a decision: I was going to leave Brazil two weeks early.


When I got back home to Milwaukee, I let myself wonder “what if?” What if I had allowed myself to grieve while abroad? Would it have meant fewer memories? Fewer photos by the beach? Would Mama Hat have even wanted me holed up inside, crying? Is she angry that I went to a party the night I found out she died?

The shame of denying myself the chance to grieve haunted me. I regretted holding everything in. I wished I hadn’t pretended so much. Through it all, I ended up learning a harsh lesson: when you commit to live abroad, you commit to the unknown. You commit to the fact that whether or not you’re home, life still goes on.

I regretted holding everything in. I wished I hadn’t pretended so much.

This experience taught me lessons about self-care that I carried with me on future trips, lessons that are useful for us Black women because we’re often forced to be stronger than we should be. Opportunities, memories, and passport stamps matter. But so do you. These are the things I learned—mostly in hindsight—to do before, during, and after tragedy strikes while abroad:

  1. Rethink what it means to “live” abroad. Living abroad comes with the same tough stuff that comes with living at home. You can still get depressed or have to cope with something awful. Give yourself permission to feel all your emotions while abroad. Not just picture-perfect bliss but frustration, anger, and even grief. That doesn’t make you a “bad traveler.” It makes you a person.
  2. Before you leave, talk with your loved ones and establish an emergency plan for yourself. If you can, stow away money in case of an emergency. If you need to go home, you just need to go home. It doesn’t make you weak. Sometimes a trip home gives you the energy to keep going. If you can’t afford to go home, reach out to your school or employer. They may have an emergency fund. On the flip side: Just because you aren’t home doesn’t mean you don’t care.
  3. Take the pressure off yourself to have a picture-perfect experience. If you miss something, it’s okay. By going home, I missed the chance to do a dance class in Salvador. At the time, I felt terrible. Now, I wish I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself. This is not the last time you’ll ever have a chance to visit this country. You don’t know that for sure. If you miss a bucket-list excursion or even need to leave early, remind yourself that you can always return in the future.
  4. Make choices that have your best interests at heart, keeping your mental health and long-term vision in mind.  Wherever you are in the world, carve out a space for yourself where you can decompress. Getting my own apartment in Paraty saved me in so many ways.
  5. Most of all, don’t stay at home just because you’re afraid something might happen while you’re abroad. Go! No matter what happens, you can make it work.

 

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