I got a splinter out the other day. The splinter was buried for about a month, since around the time when the tears resided. Working with seniors, speaking Spanish and navigating a new city all impacted me profoundly, but this splinter pierced deep into my skin. Nonetheless, I look back on the day I got it in the Andes with wonder and pride alongside the discomfort.
This trip gave me many reasons for tears. Some might say I’m a rather sensitive person, so I was prone to cry at my frequent mishaps and misfortunes. Abandoned in Chile due to a canceled flight, scammed out of $230, phone stolen on the subway – it was natural to shed a tear or two. After an intimidating first week, things had just begun to get exciting, when I came home to the phone call that my 30 year old cousin had taken his own life. My spirits plummeted.
My mom told me two things:
- You will not come home for the funeral.
- You will enjoy the rest of your trip.
I cried and yelled and lamented. How could I continue adventuring while my family grieved without me? I was unsure if I hurt more for the pain my dear family was processing, or for the emptiness I felt to not be a part of it.
This was the beginning of the trip, so I had 6 1/2 weeks left to make something of my experience, now in addition to overcoming grief. I say “overcome” because this was not the space for the motions of a normal grieving process. I had to learn to speed up and compartmentalize my mourning. It started with 3 hours of sleep, then fruitlessly seeking comfort in a Shabbat service, followed by a sunny bike ride through the lively city parks, some pensive journaling, and a night out at the bars with some new Argentine friends. I swung from completely reserved to cheerful to dazed and confused in varying cycles. I couldn’t plausibly allow myself to sightsee or enjoy the nightlife while my family planned a funeral, yet I couldn’t allow myself to wallow at home, of which I knew my family would disapprove. I was supposed to be sad and I was supposed to enjoy myself and I didn’t know how to do both at once.
The next day, I declined a lunch invitation in order to watch the funeral online. This was the only time I was grateful to be removed from the scene. For a single moment in all the challenging time ahead of me, the clouds cleared and the desperate sadness took over. Because I was alone, I was rewarded the space to be vehemently upset. I stared myself down in the mirror and repeated the facts of the situation, as I would do many times over the next two months, then made lunch.
In this manner, a strategy developed. Go about my life. When a stroke of pain hits, remind myself the facts of the situation, move forward. I would allow grief to accompany my experience alongside the adventure, but never in the way of it. The rawness of grief began to subside as I became absorbed in my life there. The tears began to fade. I accepted that I was alone in a foreign country and any issues were mine to deal with. Tears would not change the situation. I accumulated newfound emotional armor and faced the world with more courage.
Around a month into the trip, I reached some sort of turning point in my grief. It became more subdued just in time for the highlight of my trip; the Andes. I had been so excited for the trek, but found myself frustrated on the climb up the mountain. I was cold, wet, and paying for my recent emotional eating. I caught one nasty fall on the corner of a rock, which shot a splinter deep into my palm, among the many other shallow splinters dotting my hands and ankles. That view, though. That lively feeling of a physical feat. A splinter couldn’t stop me from enjoying it.
My skin healed over the splinter so that I could hardly see it, but it hurt every time I pushed with that hand. A few days after I returned home, it popped right out. I wish I could say the same about a cathartic end to my grief, but it still hurts at times. This experience gave me a lot more than I bargained for, and that toughened me up a bit. Plagued by some challenges, I learned throughout this experience to embrace that my skin is tougher than my tears; sorrow will not bar me from joy.