I had just finished ordering at the Indiana Café in the Place de la République in Paris, when a group of men in heavy uniforms burst into the restaurant and started yelling in French.
I was terrified. Everything happened so fast that it didn’t even seem real at first.
I didn’t understand them, so I simply followed everyone else’s lead and calmly filed out of the restaurant. I remember seeing ambulances, fire trucks and police cars in the vicinity.
I was in Paris that November as part of a weekend trip as part of my London semester abroad program. It turned out to be the same weekend that the Paris terror attacks took place.
The day of the attacks, Nov. 13, was our first day in Paris. We spent it visiting the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum, the Palace of Versailles and other iconic sites.
Traveling to Paris after a loss
The Paris trip had come at a good time for me. I was trying to get back to my normal life, but it wasn’t easy. Six days before the trip, I had flown home to Los Angeles for my grandmother’s funeral.
It was hard for me to open up to my friends about what I was going through, but it helped me to go out and enjoy the city with them.
At the end of the day after splitting into smaller groups, my group decided to head back to Place de la République for dinner. We didn’t even get a chance to eat before the French officers ran into the restaurant ordering us to leave.
I linked arms with one of the girls in my program and power-walked back to our hotel around the corner, where we immediately turned on the news. We didn’t need to understand French in order to see the numbers on the screen signified the number of casualties. The first number I saw was 18. Ultimately, there were 130 victims.
Starting to work as a journalist
I whipped out my phone and sent messages to family and friends, many of which already started reaching out to me to make sure I was okay. I reassured people by texting, posting on Snapchat and checking in on Facebook.
That night, I started covering the attacks for the Daily Orange, my college newspaper at Syracuse University. I filed three stories that told my fellow students’ stories of navigating the streets during that night, sleeping at a Frenchman’s house and being at the Stade de France, where a few bombs exploded.
The reporting was easy. When I went into journalist mode, it was my basic instinct to push my own feelings aside so I could distance myself from my coverage.
I didn’t realize the effect that covering the terrorist attacks would have on me until the following Monday, while I was sitting in my classroom back in London.
The live feed made me cry
Across France and other European countries, a moment of silence was to be observed at noon.
Two minutes before the moment of silence, my professor displayed a live BBC feed, which showed places throughout Paris and France where people gathered to remember victims.
The Place de la République is one of the most iconic locations in Paris, and it also served as a prominent memorial site for the Charlie Hebdo attacks in 2014. My hotel was just around the corner from the site, so I visited the memorial a few times after the attacks.
When the BBC feed showed the Place de la République, I started crying. It came out of nowhere, and I couldn’t explain why I was doing it.
No, it wasn’t a loud sob, and no, I didn’t make a scene. There were only six people in the class, anyway. But it was an unfamiliar feeling —uncomfortable, even —knowing that I had a personal connection to the news. I felt scared and anxious as I was still trying to wrap my head around the situation.
“Loud noises made me jittery”
There were five weeks left during my semester abroad in London, but they might as well have been five months. I wasn’t comfortable exploring the city on my own anymore.
Loud noises made me jittery. Every time I heard a siren, I had flashbacks to staying up all night in my Paris hotel room hearing sirens pass by. I was emotionally and physically restless.
And I was still mourning my grandmother.
Like the attacks, my grandmother’s death came unexpectedly and without warning. I grew up incredibly close with my extended family, and losing my grandmother marked the first time I had ever lost a close relative.
It was comforting that my family felt the same grief I did from losing my grandmother. It was also comforting that my friends felt the same uneasiness and anxiety I did after being in Paris that weekend.
But it was painful to realize no one knew what it felt like to experience everything at once.
Stressing the importance of family
I avoided discussing Paris with my family because I didn’t want to add to their pain, and I avoided discussing my grandmother with my Paris roommates because I didn’t want to add on to anyone’s suffering.
In the end, what helped me push through the pain of Paris was the memory of my grandmother. She stressed the importance of family and taught me that personal strength is rooted in my loved ones.
When I remembered her, I could cope with my uneasiness and fear around Paris.
I also became aware that the myth that journalists should tough it out alone wasn’t necessarily true. I know I’m bound to cover tragedies and sensitive events, and I know it’s the job I signed up for when I committed to being a journalist. I just thought I’d have to block my emotions.
It’s OK to be vulnerable
The twin tragedies of losing my grandmother and living through Paris helped me fully embrace the values and the lessons my grandmother instilled in my family: It’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK to turn to family and friends to let them know I need them. It’s OK to be vulnerable.
That’s a valuable lesson for anyone — not just journalists — to learn.
It was December, less than a week before Christmas and just one week after my grandmother’s birthday, when I came home to Los Angeles. It was my family’s first holiday season without her, and we were still mourning. Being home with my family helped so much.
It’s easier for me to look back on that difficult time now that more time has passed, rather than in the heat of the moment when my mind wasn’t in the best shape. Ten months later, as I think back to the grief and distress that consumed me last November, I know that I look at the world through a different lens.
More faith and hope than ever
I’ve never lost sight of the fact that it very well could have been me that night whose dinner was cut short. I, too, was sitting in a restaurant just after 9 p.m., the same time that gunmen drove around and shot people at restaurants.
Having come together with my friends and family over these twin tragedies, solidarity and strength are more than just words to me now. And despite the terrible events, I have more faith and hope in humanity. I’m grateful to be alive, and I’m even more grateful to have wonderful family and friends in my life.
And for that, I thank my grandmother.