I am sitting at a small cafe in Krabi, Thailand, waiting to take a ferry to the Phi Phi Islands. Before arriving here from Bangkok, I spent a week building two houses with Habitat for Humanity International’s Global Village program in Cambodia. My team of 22 volunteers worked in a remote village in Cambodia’s Siem Reap Province; I can speak for all 22 people in saying it was an incredible week, and we all feel so gracious for such an amazing experience.
I had been planning this trip with a friend for months. It started with me wanting to travel to Southeast Asia: my newly formed yoga and meditation practices sparked my interest in this part of the world. Naturally, I came up with the best excuse I could find to travel to a new place: volunteering with Habitat for Humanity. When I shared with my friend I was planning to join the team in Cambodia, she, to my gleeful surprise, asked, “Can I go too?!” Fast-forward a few weeks later and it was official: we were going to Cambodia to volunteer with Habitat and we had decided to extend our trip to explore more of the region. We planned to visit Vietnam and Thailand as well as Cambodia, and had SO much fun planning the trip. About one week before we departed New Orleans for this epic adventure, I was absolutely elated that it was getting so close.
But something very unexpected happened in my life: my paternal grandfather became very ill very unexpectedly. He had been in and out of hospitals and rehab for various related and unrelated health issues. Then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, he became consistently non-responsive. My mother called me on a Monday night, shared the news, and I booked a flight that night. The next day, I flew up to Wisconsin to see my grandfather for what could have been the last time. And it was the last time I saw him.
My trip to Wisconsin was very short but I regretted that I couldn’t spend more time with my family: I was set to fly out to Vietnam (our first stop on our epic Asian journey) later that week. It took almost two days to travel from New Orleans to Vietnam and, suffice to say, my friend and I were absolutely exhausted once we arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (aka Saigon). The next day, I got word from my mother that my grandfather had died. Although we knew he was dying, the news still sent a shock through my system.
After speaking with my father, my travel companion and I continued our day as planned: exploring the city of Saigon. I didn’t know how to feel and, right away, I was afraid to acknowledge my feelings. This was my first grandparent to die. I was across the world, unable to be with my family to support them and mourn our collective loss. So, that day, I ignored my feelings. My grandfather’s death was constantly in the back of my mind, but I pushed those thoughts as far away as I could, fearing that my feelings would ruin my trip. And I almost let them.
Once we arrived in Cambodia, I began wondering if I’d made a mistake. Should I go home, inevitably skipping the Habitat portion of my trip, and most likely skipping this trip in its entirety? Should I be putting my family first, above the rural Cambodians I had traveled so far to serve? It felt too hard to search for the answers to those questions. After conversations with my family, my partner, and my travel companion, I decided I needed to stay and serve. After all, my grandfather truly believed in serving others, and I knew he would be proud of me. So, I decided to continue on my journey in honor of him.
The next couple days were extremely difficult for me. I wanted so badly to focus on the reason I was in Cambodia: to see a new part of the world, to immerse myself in true Cambodian culture, and to serve some of the least-fortunate people of our world. I thought focusing on these things rather than feeling feelings would help. It didn’t.
I spent those first few days in Cambodia feeling so broken: although I knew I was making the right choice by staying, I couldn’t help but feel confused, sad, even guilty bout my grandfather’s death and my choice to stay in Cambodia. I would start crying sporadically on the work site, in the van taking us to and from the site, in the hotel room… everywhere. I would only allow myself to cry for a few minutes, eventually forcing myself to “get it together” so I could focus on my volunteer work. But ignoring my feelings did not help one bit: in fact, it made a difficult situation even more difficult.
In the past, I would bury difficult, confusing feelings so deep that I often forgot I even had those feelings. I allowed myself to be numb to my feelings. I thought that avoiding my feelings would make them go away. But avoiding my feelings caused me to disengaged from the world around me. I had spent the last year and half in intense therapy working on my fear and avoidance of feelings and I knew I owed it to myself to let go and let myself really, truly feel. So, I did. I finally allowed myself to feel.
Although I find it difficult to open up to people about my feelings, I forced myself to open up while in Cambodia. I don’t like sharing bad news, being a “downer,” putting a damper on someone’s day; but I figured that surely people understand the struggles of losing a loved one. My travel companion gave me the physical space I needed to feel. I found myself really opening up to two teammates I had met just a few days before. Both teammates were incredibly comforting; and, within our conversations, they truly gave me the space I needed to explore my feelings out loud. I also opened up to my team leader about my grandfather’s death; my team leader was also incredibly supportive. He directed me to a nearby wat (“temple”) and suggested that when I go, I leave an offering in honor of my grandfather.
I finally made it to the wat halfway through the trip. Once there, I took my time to meditate, lighting incense to honor the universe (or Buddha, God, whatever you want to call it); I walked through the sculpture garden slowly, taking in the intricacies of each piece of art; I left a small monetary donation and a flower at an alter in honor of my grandfather.
After my trip to the wat, I immediately felt lighter. It is still difficult to explain “what happened,” but to me, I think it was that I finally allowed myself to feel. I stopped fearing my feelings and acknowledged my feelings. I haven’t cried for my grandfather since that day, and almost a week has passed. I realized that my grandfather would never want his granddaughter (or anyone) to be so sad for his sake. So, finally, it felt right to let go of my sadness.
I cannot put into words how thankful I am for the people who gave me space to feel, to cry, to mourn, to share my favorite memories of my grandfather even though they never had the privilege to meet him. My family was across the world yet I felt as if they were there with me in Cambodia through my teammates who comforted me and gave me a safe haven to feel.
It doesn’t always feel “good” to feel feelings, but I realized that I needed to feel bad before I could feel good again. So don’t fear feelings, simply feel them: the more you feel, the more you can let go; and the more you let go, the more you can grow.
Peace, love, & start quitting shit.
P.S. In 5 days, my team finished building 2 houses in Cambodia!