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Erica Ho / Map Happy

The Transformative Role Travel Plays In Grief’s Wake

Editor’s NoteIn our minds, traveling has always been about looking at the world differently. Sometimes, there is so much fixation on getting there that we forget there are many ways to learn, do, and be; and this, we believe, is one of travel’s greatest lessons. Check out other great perspectives we have showcased in the past.

Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.

Exactly a year ago, I was on a Boeing 787, en route from Dublin to New York. This was the final leg of my journey home, a trip originally supposed to last two weeks and had somehow morphed into two months.

I spent the majority of that trip laying on a beach in the U.K., watching the tide wash in, wash out. Sleeping, eating fish and chips. I had never seen sands stripped so bare at low tide; in California, there was little discernible difference as the tide came in and came out. It was a metaphor for my grief, the friend I was visiting and I had decided.

I never planned to be there. I had waited until my stepfather—really, my father of 20 years—died, and the day after he passed, I flew home to New York. I called my boyfriend at the time when I got back: he, a doctor, texted he would call back. In our relationship, where patients died left and right, that had become normal.1 Stressed, I messaged a friend in London, and asked, what if I came? Four days later, I was on a plane to Heathrow.

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Tide out in Margate, England.

In movies and books, these trips get eulogized, memorialized, almost like the dead ones we seek to grieve. Perhaps, there is something about contextualizing it in a physical way that makes it concrete, real, easier to see, so we can ultimately let go.

For many, it isn’t the trip itself that matters, it is the journey of grief. These trips are singularly unique in their experience, set among a backdrop of many, even for the most experienced of travelers. At best, travel can be healing, and at the very least, it can function as a temporary shelter until it’s time to go back, to start the real work of healing.

The rationale was simple: I needed my happy place. My happy place was traveling. My stepfather loved traveling; we shared that (and food!) in common. It was the best way to honor his memory, I told myself: To continue living life as he had never died.

Even in his final months, he had asked that of me, not to shorten or cancel my trips for him, as it was becoming clear the end was approaching. (Ultimately, a decision still mired in mixed feelings.)

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From the balcony in the place I mostly slept in abroad.

On a peripheral level, I can recount my time in the U.K. in intricate detail. I can name the places and towns visited (Kent, Dorset, Somerset, Devon, Yorkshire, ultimately, passing through Wales to Dublin; and packing more tea in my suitcase than what should be suitable), the people I dined with, including a friend I had met in Portugal months prior, the spots where my rental broke down twice on the road, and the ensuing credit card disputes with Enterprise.

Mostly, I had no destination or end in mind. All I wanted to do was get in a car and go where I felt like going.

The ‘work sabbatical’ still serves as a tool in selective deflection for the times I choose in abstaining from explanation. The anonymity was a gift I embraced on the road; other times, I babbled to almost anyone—really, anyone—that would listen.

Looking for my happy place, it turns out, wasn’t even in the the question: On one plane, the world continued to operate, and I continued to operate. In reality, there was an impenetrable, invisible veil where nothing broke through.

Imperceptibly, there is an immediate acknowledgment that the person you were is gone. The door has closed shut. It may not even be the person you were that you mourn; it is the choice to return to that person you mourn.

At some point I decided that I would give myself the permission to be, well, depressed, unhappy, and an overall terrible dinner guest, if that was what was necessary.2 Maybe, intuitively, I knew that space was not available in my life back home. It would have to be a space, I created figuratively, and literally, for myself. To even, in the most basic terms, to exist.

There is a particular grief that happens when someone dies, another one when a parent dies, and another, final one when both parents die. I thought, because I had known he was dying, because I held his hand while his body started giving up, that somehow the process would be easier.

That turned out not to be true.

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On one of the final legs of the journey in Whitby, England.

Months later, I ran across the concept of Buddhist sand mandalas and it became fixated in my mind for what seemed an indeterminate amount of time. For weeks, Buddhist monks painstakingly create an intricate, diagrammed layer of paintings, individually dying and coloring the sand granules. Its sole purpose for creation is so that it can be destroyed, in ritualized fashion. It’s a celebration of its beauty, its ephemera.

All of us spend weeks, months, years doing that with our lives, constructing and building our identities in that fashion. Maybe, I was already on my way, “trending,” if you will, to completely letting go of the deeper worries and fears that crippled me in daily life, to realizing none of it mattered. The death was a final release.

Eventually, later, I realized, there comes a point where you learn to release the grief too.

In my current life, everything has changed: Relationships, apartments, my self. Life is made up of turning points; none is quite so definitive as death. Travel can hold a separate, empty space in between all of that, when the only focus is being alive, when feeling alive can be even too much to ask for.

This is my favorite version of myself thus yet, most likely because it is constructed with compassion and love. Passing on the love to yourself that we were so privy to is sometimes the best eulogy that can ever be written.

2 footnotes

  1. This was a seminal moment. Had I not gotten that response, it would have been that much harder to move forward, nor would I have embarked on the trip. In retrospect, sometimes we have to lose everything.
  2. To my friends: Sorry for the countless parties I made awkward!
The Transformative Role Travel Plays In Grief’s Wake via @maphappy
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