Exploring Grief and Growth When You Move Across The World

Olivia Gaughran
9 min readFeb 6, 2023

Making sense of the love I have for England and the life I once had there.

Credit: Unsplash

In December 2022, I moved from Cambridge, England back to my hometown of Seattle, Washington. Shortly thereafter, I was invited to attend a networking event with HarperCollins UK in London, so I took a few days off from my new job and flew back to England sooner than I expected. Returning so soon has forced me to pay attention to the fact that I have not been writing about the move. I feel like I have been in transition for three years and I am tired of it — tired of all of this thinking, doing, moving, reflecting, aching, grieving, discovering, adjusting, realizing, changing. Writing about all of those things is a gift to myself, another way of making sense of things, but it is also work, and I have been turning my head away from it. As this trip draws to a close, I feel like I am finally ready to give it some attention.

I woke up alone in London today. It is the first day that I have been truly alone on this trip. I have spent the last seven days wrapped up in people I love. It was also the first day I slept through the night, the effects of jet-lag finally dissolved. When the morning light streamed its way into my bedsheets, a spidery panic began to web itself through my chest. I flicked through Spotify quickly so as to bring something else into the space with me, but still I felt outside myself. This is not my apartment; this is not a city I have lived in before. I have never been alone in London, really. It is a city where I reunite with friends and sleep on couches and catch late trains home to Cambridge and pass through on the way to the airport. It is a day-trip, or a weekend away, not a place with my own bed, not a place where I have to fill time.

All of this is to say that I am thrown off by this day. I think of all the places I could go and settle quickly on a public library in Westminster, my favorite place to be alone with others. I make my way there after stopping in Borough Market for a late breakfast, headphones on, walking at an odd, irregular pace. I am speeding along, dodging tourists and double-decker buses, when I stop suddenly in the middle of the pavement and stand there for a few minutes, frozen. I cry all along South Bank, and everything hurts in that weird, silent way that happens when your heart is breaking or already broken or about to break and it shifts your attention sideways, making you constantly and flatly aware that you’re hurting but not enough to call a friend about it. I remember the day my mother met me here for the first time.

I suppose I am crying because that is what I do when I’m in love. Or because that’s what I do when I learn a lesson. From Tolstoy, “All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey, or a stranger comes to town.” Whilst I hope to one day share the company of great literature, this story is certainly already both of these things today. A stranger came to town and went on a journey. It was one replete with magic, intimacy, struggle, and love. Forgiveness. Loss. Courage. These are classic elements in any tale worth telling, and the lesson I have learned is that I must be brave enough to speak honestly when someone asks, “What was it like in Cambridge?” or, “If you loved it so much, why did you leave?”

I arrived in England in 2021 with my suitcases and a single friend there. I came here knowing that this connection gave me a safe place to land as I hail-mary’d myself into a different life. Throughout the years, that friendship has disappointed me in different shades of blue — I came to realize that I loved him and he, me in different ways. I had to learn (am still learning) to hold onto relationships like these a little lighter. We are ships passing in the night: transitory, incidental, impermanent. I didn’t see him on this visit, which made me angry at first and then suddenly, desperately sad. But our friendship was what brought me here, and I am immeasurably grateful for it because this has changed the course of my life forever.

When I arrived in England, I was a stranger embarking on a journey. ‘Embarking’ feels too passive, like I stood, hands on hips, surveying the trailhead of my life before patiently setting off, map in hand. In reality, I ran blindly towards this place and threw open my arms, calling out fervently for something or someone who would recognize me from a dream. The land opened itself up, many hands stretched outwards to catch me, and suddenly I was there, living in a family reunion. Now all I do is reunite. A prodigal daughter returned, just for a moment. A visit. A kiss on the cheek. My friends tease that I am in love with this place. Of course I am! It could have been any other place, perhaps — but it was this one in the end. Looking at it this way, I suppose it really couldn’t have been any other place. I surrendered to this love just as much as I chose it.

We choose each other, friend and country, in the end.

So I take trains across the UK to the people who love me explicitly. We hold hands around London, eat dinner in Oxford, talk over tea in Cambridge. I am crying on South Bank because their ghosts follow me everywhere. They are next to me on the plane, giving me a thumbs up as I take off for Seattle. They are in my bed, rubbing the soft middle of my back and squishing our feet together under the sheets. They are in every birthday and celebration, make up every audience, answer every phone call. Is this what it is like to be in love? I am split into a hundred places, and it is like the water of them is breaking the rock of me.

To be a friend like this, to have friends like these — this is, I think, the greatest love story we write. Friends walk into the shadowed closet of ourselves and see us sitting on the floor, climb down there with us. I have been loved cross-legged in the dark. Friendship greets the wild animal of who we are and strokes us softly on the nose, howls back at us across a canyon: you are not alone. I sit in London this morning, waiting for the train which will take me to Heathrow, and we are together in some way. I love because I believe in love. I love because I don’t. Either way, I am here and they are here and together I can never look across the ocean and think, “Nobody will miss me.” To know that you will be missed is a gut-wrenching grip on the wrist which tethers you to the knowledge that your existence means something. This is enough to keep me alive forever. I am only able to get on this plane today because I know that I am leaving without going anywhere. We will embrace again, one day.

I have no idea how any of us are walking around, commuting and working and walking around with all this grief and change and pain on our backs. Aren’t we all caught between people and places we have loved? Aren’t we all heartbroken on public transport? I have accepted the fact that I am the girl people mention mid-bite at dinner, fork gesturing in the air as they swallow and say, “I saw a girl crying on the tube today.” Oh, well. I think it’s good for a person to witness public displays of deep emotion, so in this way, I am creating the world I want to live in. I want to find the other people who fall apart on the Underground and ask them, “Do you cry here because you cannot help it? Or because you can?”

These days, friendship breaks my heart more than anything. I suppose this is because being a friend as an adult is less about witnessing a life and more about listening to a tale of it. We are told about crises and jobs and fights with parents, dates and breakups and cross-roads. Now, it is an honor to spend an hour on the phone with each other. I wish I could live so many of those hours in real-time, sleeping on the couch of our lives together. Saying goodbye to a friend who loves you makes me ache. I’m not sure when we will hear from each other next, but I will never be too far away. Don’t forget me. I love you. I’ll miss you. I’ll come when you need me. Wherever you are, I’ll be there someday.

I get off the plane and feel like I’ve been left behind.

I don’t really believe there are silver linings to anxiety, but if there were, one would be that living with anxiety has taught me to do things scared. I have a whole history, entire volumes of experiences, that I can point to and say, “I did that, terrified.” I moved when I was frozen in place. I got off the floor. I picked up the keys. I zipped up my jacket. I walked outside. I got on the plane. The only things I ever did were the ones I couldn’t. The only things I ever did were the ones I couldn’t.

Moving back to Seattle in December was impossible and I did it and I’m doing it again and again every moment, even when I’m visiting England. If I were to reduce why I write into a single reason, it would sound something like that. Words are an impossible way to capture experience, which is irreducible and elusive, but therein the impossibility lies the necessity. It is an aporia which has captured my attention, one that demands expression for the sake of itself, courage for the sake of courage. It offers no outcome other than itself. This is the same as love — this is love itself. Writer and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams wrote, “I write because I believe in words, I write because I do not believe in words.”

I feel much the same. I love because I believe, because I don’t. I write because I believe, because I don’t. Everything hinges upon belief. It is an affirmative thing. You must lean forward. You must reach out. You must have faith. You have to choose it. Action without belief is empty, cold. Belief is a choice that colors the world with what is important to you. Where belief comes from, I do not know (you’ll have to ask a better anthropologist). But regardless of where it comes from, it is through belief that the impossible becomes possible.

Katie, a wonderful friend of mine and a brilliant astrophysicist, shared with me at dinner this week that she calls herself an absurdist. How could you not be, staring into the universe every day, encountering all the impossibility of meaning, the whole of it which is irreconcilable? And yet, in absurdism, Katie maintains beliefs and makes choices about things that matter to her. She is existentially agitated and also at peace. It is precisely because nothing matters that everything matters.

Is this not also love? I write because I write, I believe because I believe, I love because I love. I don’t say that to be trite or redundant, but rather because it is a miracle that we do any of these things at all! All of these things are impossible and all of them are why we are here and all of them are essential.

I have loved so many people this year, and this is not to say I will love them for my whole life or that they will love me for mine, but rather to say that it happened because it mattered; because I chose for it to matter. I left England because I have something essential to learn in Seattle. I left because I understand that this is why heartbreak is such an essential part of love, why we all take the risk with such terrible odds. Because although it is rarely permanent, choice is essential to the story of you becoming who you are meant to be.

No one loves halfway, even when you know the outcome. You love full-throttle because it is important in its own right. I left England not in spite of my love for it but because of it. I had to go to learn something — and I don’t know what that something is yet — so that I could return one day and know that it meant something, that this choice mattered, because I believed it did.

This is the essential, irresolvable contradiction of love, writing, belief, choice, and risk.

The only things to do are the things you can’t.

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Olivia Gaughran

Medical anthropologist, editor, and creator of The Olly Project @ theollyproject.com! Probably reading bell hooks or taking a long walk.