Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
May 23, 2024

The truth about my semester in Paris, France

By MADELYN KYE | April 25, 2024

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COURTESY OF MADELYN KYE

Kye reflects on how grief affected her experience studying abroad in Paris.

I studied abroad in Paris last spring and it still comes up frequently. Naturally, when people learn that I studied abroad, they ask me about it. Not wanting to kill the mood, I usually find myself lying, or, at least, oversimplifying the situation. Typically I’ll admit that I didn’t love Paris, but that I appreciated the chance to travel and my great trip to Poland. I’ll say I made friends from other colleges that I’m still in touch with, and I’m lucky to have them in my life. I won’t say that I regretted going, much less explain why. 

In Paris, I was consumed by compounding feelings of grief and isolation following the death of my 21-year-old cousin, Thomas. I’ve written previously about dealing with homesickness in Paris and about making lists last summer, once I returned to the U.S., to get more in touch with my emotions, grief included. But I’ve avoided writing about just how terrible my time in Paris was. 

I’ve always been close with my cousins on my dad’s side of the family. Including me and my sister, my grandparents had eight grandchildren. Five of us grew up on Long Island. The other three, Thomas included, lived in Connecticut, and then moved to California in 2008. Thomas and his brother, Aidan, were a year older than me and a year younger than me, respectively, so we were naturally close as young children. Even after their move to California, we remained close for a number of years, mailing a notebook of letters back and forth detailing our daily lives. We also still saw one another fairly often. I visited California with my parents and sister in 2009, we all went on an extended family vacation in 2010 and I went to California again in 2011 with my grandparents. 

Thomas, Aidan and their younger sister, Ella, also came to visit us almost every summer, their parents shipping them off to Long Island for periods as long as two or three weeks. These summers are somewhat blended in my memory. Visits to Adventureland, an amusement park on Long Island. Fishing trips. Barbecues at my grandparents’ house in Asharoken, where my cousins and I would walk along the beach, play Capture the Flag and watch the fireworks on July 4. It would be an especially exciting visit if my California cousins would be in town for July 4. 

As we got older, the gaps lengthened between these visits, which had grown infrequent by the time I graduated high school. When I learned they would be visiting in June of 2021, I was cautiously optimistic but had no expectations of things being as they were. 

We weren’t children anymore, and we had new responsibilities. Thomas missed out on ice skating to type away on his laptop. I skipped a silly outing to White Castle because I was working my summer job. But the visit was nevertheless incredible; being older had also changed the way we interacted with one another, opening up new conversation topics. 

It was the summer after my freshman year of college, and I surprised myself by talking to Thomas about the heartbreak I had experienced that spring. He told me the story of how he met his girlfriend. I don’t remember the details, but I remember it was funny. I wanted to meet her. Still do. 

Before they went back to California, a photo was taken of the eight of us. It’s a terrible photo. It’s the last one we ever took. It became my dad’s iPhone wallpaper. 

In September of 2021, Thomas was diagnosed with leukemia. After months of treatment, in May of 2022, he entered remission. He and his girlfriend had plans to visit Long Island in September of 2022 — but canceled their trip when the cancer returned that summer. He entered hospice in March of 2023. I was in Paris. 

Due to the six-hour time difference, my mom told me she would only call me if he died. 

She called when I was in my French politics class. I knew it was over, but I didn’t answer. I think I texted her to ask if it was urgent, knowing it was, and I think she said no. I called her back in the hallway after class and received the news that he was dead, really dead, on a glitchy FaceTime audio call. I went and ate a sandwich in Luxembourg Gardens. Then I went back to my apartment.

I had already been crying for days at this point, dealing with anticipatory grief, but suddenly it was real. All of my family members were either in California, having flown out when Thomas entered hospice, or on Long Island, together in their grief at my grandparents’ house. I was alone. I wanted to go home. 

I cried. I scrolled through TikTok. I stopped crying. I realized I probably did have to go to my second class of the day since it looked like I would be missing future classes to attend a funeral in California. I started looking at flights. Then I stopped, put my shoes on and went to class. 

I cried on the métro. I cried walking from Raspail métro station to school. A stranger asked me, in French, if I was okay. I said yes, but that my cousin had died, that he was in California. He wished me courage. I went to class. 

My friends from Hopkins came to visit a few days later, for their spring break. I was a wreck. I tried to be fun. I wasn’t very successful. 

The funeral was scheduled for the first of April — when my parents had been planning on visiting me in Paris. 

I wanted to go to the funeral. Everyone said I didn’t have to go, that I was so many miles away and it was okay. I didn’t go. 

My parents came to see me as planned. It rained the entire time. The trip was horrible. I wished we were in California. 

The rest of the semester followed a similar trajectory. I traveled, only to find myself feeling despondent in some of the most beautiful places in the world. When I arrived home, everyone told me how impressed they were that I had traveled so much, and how I had really taken advantage of every opportunity. 

I was too ashamed to admit that I had only traveled to avoid sitting with my grief. 

Madelyn Kye is a senior from Long Island, N.Y. majoring in Writing Seminars and International Studies. Her column discusses people and things that have entered and exited her life, often through the lens of growing up. She is the Voices Editor for The News-Letter.


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