On Loneliness and Living Abroad

Attending a funeral via Facetime is a surreal experience.

You are definitely there; you see everything that’s happening, hear every eulogy and laugh at every joke. Yet, you miss all of the physical sensations of being there; the chill of the wind on your cheek, the smell of the flowers (in purple and yellow for your Grandma’s favorite team, the Lakers), the smooth wood of the coffin under your hand. You are separated by 16 hours of time and over 5,000 miles, and yet you are still present for this moment. You are happy to see your relatives, sad about your grandmother, and hit with the pain of loneliness. With life being so ephemeral and family being so important, you kind of wonder why you choose to be away.

Loneliness and being alone have become part of my reality in the last few years, something that took me completely by surprise. I’m a pretty social creature and I’ve always had a wide circle of close friends and amiable acquaintances, and growing up with a twin sister assured that I was never alone during childhood. But moving away from home, and eventually moving out of the country and traveling and living abroad have meant that now I’m often alone. Teaching English in a foreign country is a lifestyle choice that comes with a constantly revolving door, especially here in Japan, where there are a myriad of personal and professional reasons that bring people here – and sometimes just as quickly send them back.

In the beginning, I didn’t know how to be alone, or how to deal with my feelings of loneliness. Often times I still don’t. It’s something I’m working on.

First there were the weddings and babies. The eight months that I lived in Turkey were also the eight months during which it seemed that everyone I knew, upon suddenly realizing they had entered their late 20’s, decided to get married. I missed six weddings during those eight months. Every time someone posted a slew of wedding photos on Facebook, I would pore over all of them, a twinge of loneliness striking my heart. Missing out on big life cycle events, especially ones where there’s photographic evidence of all of your friends having fun without you, sucks. Ditto the babies. Even though I’m not a baby person (I’m that person that refuses to hold the baby because I just don’t know what to do with it), I still want those I love to find happiness and wish I could celebrate their happiness with them.

Then there was my grandmother. My spunky, independent Grandma who loved to laugh, play cards, and drink her white Zin, had unfortunately spent the past seven years becoming a shadow of her former self while suffering from Alzheimer’s. Her recent death was the first I’ve had to experience from afar, and the pain brought on by that kind of loneliness caught me off-guard. Where the first kind of loneliness was a twinge, this was a stab. Since she’d been deteriorating for so long, and my family had been dealing with this for so many years, I did not expect to be so affected by her passing. But she was my last grandparent to go, and was such a big part of my life growing up. So, in a way, it felt like my childhood was truly ending. Being away and watching my family grieve through Facetime on my sister’s phone was rough.

And then, there’s a third kind of loneliness. This one is a real sneaker, and has nothing to do with anything going on back home, but with those you meet here. Once in a while, when the fates and the cosmos and all that shit aligns, you meet someone new, someone with whom you have a powerful and instant connection with, something that sparkles with magic and just feels so right. But, because of the reality of this life you’ve chosen, you don’t have time to get to know them better, much less entertain fantasies of a possible future together. Before you know it, they’ve gone back to their life, and you are left wondering “What if. . .?”

This kind of loneliness isn’t as acute, but rather a dull ache inside your gut.

So what do you do? You wouldn’t choose another life, this life is pretty great, you just get a little lonely sometimes. So you text and Skype your friends, tell your mother you love her, and go out to meetups and go out on dates, ready for the next connection.

Happy Travels,

Mo

8 thoughts on “On Loneliness and Living Abroad

  1. Mo,

    My heart breaks for you as you grieved your grandma’s passing from afar. It was a beautiful post to read as we could feel your distress missing so many important moments in the lives of friends and yet the joy of discovering new experiences and new acquaintances living abroad. Please keep sharing stories of your life in another part of the world – I know I am not alone in wanting to read the good and the not so good.

    Annie

  2. LORI WINTHER

    Mo, That was so beautiful and of course made me cry.I was so proud of myself for not crying the whole week, but that sent me into a good cry.When we told people about the service, we told them about how you were on facetime from Japan, and how hard it must have been to be all alone and not able to put our arms around you and hug and kiss you. Now we know how incredible hard it was. In honor of Grandma, I will be making strawberry jello for Easter, not sure how it will come out, but I’m going to try.
    Stay safe, Love Aunt Lori

  3. So beautifully written Mo. There’s really no answer is there, except to keep putting one foot in front of the other and fully living the life you’ve chosen, or that’s chosen you.
    I was lucky enough that when each of my parents died (11 years apart) I was able to go back to Australia. I’m not sure how I’d have been able to handle it if that had not been possible.
    I’m so with you on the baby thing!
    Alison

  4. I’m currently living abroad in a different continent which is definitely far away from home. I really enjoy the independence I have now and the opportunity to explore other countries and culture. However, I always have this fear of something happening to my beloved family and I can’t be there. I’m sorry about your grandma. She’s in a better place now. Know that her presence always lives in you. ❤

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