Resilience Abroad: How I Managed Grief While Teaching Abroad
This blog showcases a series of six months. It will show how I worked through the processes of loss, grief and building resilience after the death of my beloved grandmother.
As I mentioned in the last post, the waves kept coming. I felt like a surfer on the north shore trying to ride huge waves with a ragged, water-logged surf board. It wasn’t until the third month after my grandmother passed that I realized what was happening. I had a friend point out how I had reacted about something. Shortly after this interaction, a tsunami of grief hit and it came crashing down harder than anything I had experienced before. My insides felt like they were on fire but really it was my nerves. I was angry. Why? I don’t know. It wasn’t happening all the time. The anger came in spurts and occurred for reasons that I can’t even explain. It would start with little things and then, the little things became big things. Then, I just stopped caring. One of the most important people in my life was gone, and I couldn’t process it. Period.
At this stage, my work was the only area of my life that was consistent each day. It was the highlight of my day and, looking back, some of my best memories in Madrid were made there. I looked at each day in the classroom as my opportunity to channel my inner Tata, which gave me the strength that I needed to get past the sadness and get on the path to feeling normal again.
A New Normal
I couldn’t talk about Tata or what I was feeling in my heart because it was too painful to bring up memories while I was so far from home. Instead, I built walls for protection. I didn’t realize the walls were as strong and high as they were until they caused problems in my social life. I lost two friends because of my behavior and realized at that point that I needed to make a change. A bit thereafter, my social life started to come back to a state of normalcy. I began to open up more and the walls slowly came down.
Month 3: Walls
“I guess it’s like a voice inside my heart; reminding me that there is nothing to fear in the things that I am afraid of.” – Tove Lo
Day after day, I walked the streets of Madrid and rode the metro listening to music on my way to work. I was going through my days trying to work through my loss. The more I walked, the more the music meant to me. There was one specific song on Tove Lo’s album in March that really touched my soul one morning on the metro. It’s called Imaginary Friend, and the quote above is from that song. The song makes you think she has an imaginary friend that she calls on when she is going through a hard time. However, at the end of the song, you realize there is more to the story. This was an important insight for me, understanding that things go beyond the surface. A good lesson that helped me through this time.
March was difficult in the beginning but it got better. I was on the path to building resilience. My personal life suffered because I was suppressing grief. My friends didn’t know how it was affecting me because my walls were so high. I was not as thoughtful as I could have been about how I handled certain exchanges between us. One of my close friends was strong enough to point out how I was reacting to certain things, and pretty much from that point on, I was more aware of things like my deliberate avoidance of using the Spanish language or becoming negative about certain things in life (that I am usually not negative about). Looking back, it was her good-natured spirit that made me become aware of what was happening. I became aware of my actions and myself; I realized that I needed to make changes. Shortly thereafter, I signed up for private lessons with a Spanish conversation tutor, Enrique, who quickly became a Spanish friend.
Can’t Is NOT an Option
During my grief process abroad, I had a tipping point and this was it. Before the death of my grandmother, I signed up for Spanish classes at a private academy upon my return from my winter vacation. After a few lessons and the week after my grandma’s death in January, the instructor approached me after class and asked me in Spanish if I would consider moving down a level. I replied to her again with tears in my eyes and said in Spanish, “eres muy mal profe.” I walked out of the academy feeling a bolt of pain in my heart that I think also contributed to the disconnect and soon detachment that I started to feel with the language. But this taught me a valuable lesson, the importance of getting to know your students and their needs.
The instructor did not realize that I was one week out from the recent death of my grandmother. It was so hard to try to get to class let alone try to communicate in a foreign language. I tried my best and in the end, it all worked out because I met Enrique. I realized in my first few sessions with Enrique that the previous teacher had caused me to doubt myself and subconsciously I was stalling with words that I had never had trouble with before. However, this was an important lesson learned for my self-growth and most importantly, my growth as a foreign and second language teacher. I mention this part of my journey in month three because this tipping point added to my self doubt, frustration and anger. When the tsunami hit there were many outside factors that contributed to the anger and frustration that I felt while living abroad. I just didn’t know why at the time.
*Lesson learned: if a student is struggling, find out more. Don’t assume it’s their proficiency level right away. Most important, don’t tell them they can’t. Often times we are so quick to doubt or blame others for their shortcomings. ENCOURAGE your students to try their best! Look beyond the surface.
March was an incredibly complex month which is why I have broken this piece into two parts. Stay tuned for part two!
To read previous posts in this series, please go here.