This Is What You Learn When You Travel While Grieving

Ethan Sykes

Growing up Italian, I never went to after-school programs or summer camp, or daycare for that matter.  Summers and time outside school were spent at my Nonna’s house – no questions asked.  The bond my brothers and I shared with my Nonna is truly indescribable.

She came to America from a small impoverished town in Italy so that her kids and her grandkids can have the life and opportunities that we now have.  As bad as things were in Italy, she still missed Italy and the family she left behind every single day.  There was nothing like the smile that came across her face when she talked about Calabria and growing up in Italy.

The values, the culture, the language, the food, the people – I could write a book – a very detailed book– on Calabrian life, simply through growing up with her stories.  She is the reason for my love of knowledge, my desire to see this whole world, the itch to learn many different languages.  For some time I traveled simply to come home and tell her about the world.  When she couldn’t physically return to Italy anymore, I decided I would become her eyes and go for her, returning with her favorite foods, pictures, clothes, rosary beads (of course), anything I saw that reminded me of her I would scoop up.

 On January 20th, 2016, very suddenly I lost my best friend, my strength and the kindest soul I’ll ever know.

I had previously had a trip booked to head to Italy for Carnivale during the second week of February.  I was and still am in a devastated, broken, confused, heart-broken state.  I called Alitalia in attempts to cancel my flight to no luck.  I was ready to just take the lost in money, but my Mother convinced me to go.  Italy holds such a special place in my Nonna and my own heart that I thought it may be good for me.  I decided to take the trip and here’s what I learned:


I was afraid to be in a foreign country alone at this time, even in a place where I spoke the language and have been numerous times.  It is intimidating to be traveling alone during such an emotional time.  However, something was urging me to make a stop in Milan to go inside the Duomo.  I went in and was amazed.  I had been to Milan a handful of times and never went to the Duomo.  I’m not going to lie, I broke down crying the second I walked in, but it was such a rewarding time to sit in that church and feel my Nonna’s spirit, knowing how much she would adore this church.


Reference the above.  I probably looked like a crazy person walking around crying, but it was healthy and necessary.  I was actually more open to expressing my emotions while I was away.  There was no need to put up a tough front, I was able to explore the country I love with beautiful thoughts of my beautiful Nonna.


For obvious reasons I wanted to be out of my room as much as possible.  Although I would have liked to stay in bed all day, I knew that my thoughts and sadness would eat me alive if I had, so I got up and got out as much as I could.  I mainly was in Florence, but I made trips to Milano, Burano, Venice, Viareggio, and Siena. Hearing broken english-italian was actually very comforting, as it reminded me of her.   Even though I was experiencing heartbreak, this trip made me fall in love with Italy all over again.


In my mind, the worst had happen, so I was fearless.  I did anything and everything I wanted.  I spoke up, tried new things and went places I normally wouldn’t.  I realized that I need to bring this fearlessness into my everyday life.  So many more opportunities and positive things came my way when I took the first step.

I will forever miss my Nonna, her knowledge, her kindness, her (rare but) sarcastic jokes, her broken english, her cooking, everything, literally everything about her, but this past trip turned out to be exactly what I needed to get over the first hump of mourning such a loss.  Don’t get me wrong, I am no where close to coming to terms with her being gone, but I know I wouldn’t be where I am today if I had stayed home. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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