Grief and Travel

travel and grief

My mum died.

Christmas day, of all the days.

It came as a surprise but really it shouldn’t have. Looking back at my calendar over the previous 18 months, I realise how littered it had become with her doctor’s appointments. I spent so much time at the hospital, the canteen ladies started to ask if I was staff. It had become a way of life and we’d adapted to it. Sure, my writing schedule had dropped down from once a week to once a month, but what could I do – there were places to go and doctors to see.

Over four months on since she died, I also shouldn’t be surprised that I’m finding it so hard to sit here and wring travel words out of my mind; words that are intended to spark joy and inspire adventure. I have half written posts about safaris and China and train journeys and food. I can’t finish any of them.

I did, however, manage to finish something. It’s a post that’s been sat unpublished for weeks now. About the first trip I took after my mum died. Every few days I’d go in and tinker with it, determined to publish. But I couldn’t do it. It felt too personal. Too raw. It still does. But my experience with writer’s block tells me that I have to hit publish. So my other writing can go on.

I’d intended it to be an insightful piece about whether travel is helpful when we’re experiencing grief. But I was naive. One week of travel, barely two months after a death, is hardly going to produce an answer. And anyway, anyone who has ever written anything – even a postcard or a shopping list – knows that what you plan to write and the words that come out, aren’t always the same thing.

So, here’s what I did write. Here’s my unedited experience of what it’s like to travel in the early days of grief.

Friend: How was Malaga?
Me: I slept a lot.
Late mornings.
Afternoon siestas.
Early nights.
Long walks on the beach.
Warm enough to wear a t-shirt.
Yoga.
Reading.
Drinking coffee.
Wandering through the old town.
Grilled fish, olive oil, tomatoes that taste of tomatoes.

Friend: It sounds divine.

Me (internal thought): it wasn’t.

Actually, that’s not fair. It was divine. Those parts. The bits I’ve listed above. But also it wasn’t.

Without realising it, I’ve edited my story. I’ve taken out the hard parts. The bits I assume (probably wrongly) people don’t want to hear. I’ve taken away the pain. For their benefit. And for mine. But it was there, the whole way; every one of the seven days I’d allotted myself to relax in Spain.

Here’s how the story should read. Without the edits. With the grief.

I slept a lot.
Because for the past two months my sleep has fallen apart. It’s always the first thing to go when stress and sorrow visit my life. Months of nights lying awake, thoughts churning, stomach churning, heart churning. Or collapsing by eight p.m. when fatigue wins out. Then waking at three. Watching the clock turn towards four, then five, when I can legitimately get up and get busy.

Late mornings.
Because mornings are hardest. Those first hours when I wake from sleep and remember she is still gone. No, not just still gone. More gone. More gone than she was yesterday. Each new day representing more time since I saw her last. Or mornings when I try to fall back to sleep, clutching onto the remnants of a dream she was in. Unwilling to part with the duvet because I feel heavy and it feels safe to lie here and cry; sometimes tears of frustration knowing I’m frittering away hours of the blue sky that I’ve flown for hours to see.

Afternoon siestas.
Because all that smiling, at waiters and strangers, pasting a look of normal on my face has worn me thin. Or because a glass of white wine with my lunch on the beach seemed like a good idea – the kind of thing I would have done before – even though alcohol on grief has the potential to put me into a depressive spin.

Early nights.
Because my body hurts. It physically hurts. Acid burning. Stomach cramps. Pain in my arms, shoulders and neck. An ache so deep in my muscles I’m beginning to wonder if it’s seeped into my bones. And whether it will ever leave.

Long walks on the beach.
Because this is why I’m here. To see the sea. To search for the kind of fortification that only the water and the shoreline can give me. Walking even when it feels like I’m dragging leaden legs across the sand.

Warm enough to wear a t-shirt.
Yet not being able to get warm. Not with jumpers. Nor with jeans. Not by adding double layers of socks. Or tights. Taking baths to stop the shivering at night.

Yoga.
Because it’s one of the few things that calms me. I’d never cried on my mat until she died. Now it happens every time. But the tears are more intentional, growing from happy thoughts and love, calmed by intentional breathe, knowing I’m extending a kindness to myself. And she would want that.

Reading.
Because within books I can escape. Twenty-six books in just over two months. Audio books to blot out any nanosecond of silence. Reading books for everything else. I’ve escaped that much.

Drinking coffee.
Because coffee sits hand in hand with my pen. Writing. Daily. Journalling. Blogging. Planning. Doodling. Putting the thoughts somewhere other than my head.

Wandering through the old town.
Because I don’t know what to do with myself. Sitting in my rental apartment comes with the exhaustion of rumination. Lingering in a cafe with a book for more than an hour brings the paranoia I’ll be challenged. But wandering doesn’t work either. I feel lost. And abandoned. Looking at the souvenir stores, catching myself as I think I’ll send her a postcard. Wondering if she’d like that scarf on that stall. Going to send her a picture of an old building she’d like. Would have liked. Memories and reminders of her everywhere, even though she’s never been here.

And then,

Grilled fish, olive oil, tomatoes that taste of tomatoes.
Because some days I have no interest in food. And other days it’s a crutch. A yo-yo of famine and feast. So I return to the foods I like best. Simple. Fresh. With natural flavour. And just for a short while, with the sun on my face, the sea in my ears and olive oil in my mouth, I find myself content.

Postscript: I have a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head about travel and grief and I’m about to go on my third trip this year, so the chances are I will write more. Before then, if you’re struggling or just want to chat to someone who understands, reach out.

42 thoughts on “Grief and Travel”

    • Hi Kristen, I feel your pain. Literally. So sorry for the loss of your dad. There are no words really. Thanks for stopping by and I’m glad this helped in some way.

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  1. I lost my mom and then i traveled alone to Mauritius, my dream destination.It was so weird , a zombie in earthly paradise.But it was also a release to be there and disconnect somehow from anger, sufference and social obligations.So, yes travel helps , for honeymoon celebrations but also to relieve the impossible burden of loosing a mom which is the heaviest of all the happenings of a lifetime.

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    • Hi Gabriela, thanks for sharing your experience. I can relate to it so much. I’m about to go on a much longer trip and I’m both excited and terrified. I’m definitely in an emotional place where I could with shedding some burden. Thanks for giving me hope.

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  2. I am so sorry for your loss. I lost my husband and love of my life for 44 yrs in 2018. It was tragic, sudden and unexpected. I have struggled so much since then, I hear the pain of grief in your voice. I don’t understand it, why we all must die, and I don’t know how those of us left behind deal with the devastation from loss.

    I too put on the face everyone expects to see, then when alone breakdown in total and complete despair. The quiet and loneliness is crushing. I have Xanax, I go to the doctor, I reach out to ppl, I have tried Google “Meetups”, but absolutely nothing helps.

    Next on my “force yourself to do it” list, is to try travel. Some say it helps. I would do anything for relief from this terrible grief. Having to travel as a single may be hard, I don’t know, but I just keep trying everything to try and feel better.

    Thank you, and the ppl making comments for sharing you stories. It helps to know we are not alone in our sorrow. Best wishes you feel better soon.

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    • Hi Melissa, I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your husband and the pain you’re feeling. I’m coming up on a year since my mum died and call BS on the ‘time heals’ mantra people quote after a big loss. I don’t think it ever heals. And I agree, death makes no sense, nor does the pain that it causes. I do think the pain changes over time and our coping skills do, and as a complete non-expert, it sounds to me like you’re doing well, trying to find out which coping skills work for you. If it helps, I’ve found comfort in audio books to fill the silence that my thoughts would otherwise fill. Have a look for small group travel. Intrepid Travel is one of my favourites. There are lots of solo travellers on those trips and it’s a nice balance of independent and organised travel so you can mix alone time and pre-made travel friend time when you might want it most e.g. at dinner. I’m so sorry you’re hurting. Message me here or directly anytime. You have an online friend here if you need one.

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  3. Hi Jo,

    I would like to say sorry for your loss.

    I have come across the link this post on numerous occasions when I’ve been searching for things online. I have always been curious to read it as, I like to travel, Nd have also lost a parent.

    Today I saw the link again and said I’m reading this today, and I’m very glad that I did. I, (we) can relate to many of the points you have raised, one of those being tiu spent so much time at the hospital you were mistaken for staff, also after travel if someone asks how it was, you don’t say how you really truly feel.

    For my sister and I, and our mum, because of the circumstances behind our Dad’s passing we haven’t really begun to grieve as we have been so caught up in the legal aspects of when someone passes away.

    I’m very pleased for you that you decided to publish this post, it is great. And I also hope you find some enjoyment on your third holiday (you might have been already).

    Wishing you a blessed remainder of the day and the same for this weekend.

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    • Thanks, Tara. I’m sorry to hear about your loss and also that you were faced with a long illness/hospital trips beforehand. Sometimes I weirdly miss those visits. Not because I miss the hospital, but because my mum, at least, was there. Strange how the brain works?! The legal process is absolutely the wrong thing at the wrong time and I’m sorry you’re having to do that. Hopefully it will be done soon and you can truly start to grieve. Travel has helped me tremendously – even sitting 35k feet above gives me perspective. I’m planning an extended trip later this year and I hope that will help me heal even more. I wish the same for you – travel and healing and as little of the pain of grief as possible. Pass my thoughts on to your mum and family.

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  4. Jo, Thank you for your article that honors your mother and brings healing to those of us grieving. My only son died April 22, 2019 and I am on a month long vacation with family. I float in the ocean for hours and try to remain in the moment, but my mind forever drifts to memories and sadness. I know it is one day at a time, but vacations provide the ability to live outside of the mundane tasks and thoughts of every day life. I hope you find comfort whenever and wherever you can.
    Sincerely,
    Mary

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    • Oh Mary, that is so, deeply sad. I can’t even begin to imagine what it must be like to lose a son. I’m glad that your vacation is offering some respite. It is difficult to stay in the moment when you have such grief in your life. Thank you for your kind words and I hope you can find some comfort too.

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  5. Dear Jo,
    I started crying when I read, “My mum died”. My mum also died. Even saying those words hurts, makes it too real, too awful. Wanting to write her a postcard, buy her a scarf…all too familiar. I don’t know why people don’t tell you how hard it is.
    I took my first trip after my mum died to Mexico and was in a zombie-like daze, even though I love Mexico. I remember crying at lunch, crying at dinner, crying in the pool. Feeling awkward, a stranger to myself, and unable to have a conversation. Back home I became one with the sofa, watching comedy acts on Netflix because I couldn’t handle anything else.
    It’s been three years, and I feel different. The grief is no longer overtly constant, but I do feel forever changed. I could go on and on about the experience of grieving. It was something I never imagined.
    Hang in there. Big hug.
    Gillian

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    • Hi Gillian, I’m so sorry to have caused you tears. And I’m sorry that you’ve had to suffer the loss of your mum. I feel your pain so much and wish I could take it away for you – for all of us. Thanks for being brave and sharing your own experience. You’re right – we come to grief entirely unprepared and it changes us forever. But by writing about it, hopefully we can help make someone a little more ready when it happens to them. I hope you get back to Mexico and have a less sad time there. Be kind to yourself. Jo

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  6. This post made me go back and read my first blog post after my dad died. No, that first trip isn’t the happy time you’d like to say it was but it is healing. You take your loved ones with you. I’m sorry about your mom.

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    • Thanks, Susan. It’s all of those firsts, including the first trip. I’m sorry to hear about your dad. I’d be interested to read your post about your dad if it’s public.

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  7. I felt your posting was incredibly insightful. My father ( before his death) perceptively explained to me that we will all feel loss at sometime in our lives. That clinical explanation is so bland when it comes to the actual pain we feel when we lose someone who was very important to us. It has helped me to know my feelings are the same. I loved my lost family and I continue to love them. I hope you will always be able to remember how important you were to her too.

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    • Hi Jody, that’s where I’ve found the most comfort – speaking to people who have been through the same thing. I don’t know why nobody tells us how devastating losing a parent is. At the moment all of the memories are too raw and trigger really deep sadness and usually tears. I am told and believe that this will reduce and the memories will be less painful. Thanks for leaving a comment. It helps.

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  8. Jo, the loss of a mom is one of the hardest things to get through. Your words, the ones filled with grief reminded me of how it felt when my mom passed. Unfortunately, my “story” was your edited version. Thank you for allowing me to accept how tough it is, even after 10 years, to continue to get through it. You are an amazing writer.

    I am truly sorry for your loss.

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    • Hi Grace, I’m sorry that you also lost your mum. I’m also sorry fo all of us that we live this edited version of our emotions. I remember about a year before my mum died she confessed that she still every now and then reached to phone her own mum (my nan) who’d died many years before. I guess it never leaves us entirely. Thanks for your kind words.

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  9. All my love, heart, and empathy towards you. I couldn’t help crying while reading this.

    Thank you for finding the courage within you to share such a beautifully written insight into what may only be a fraction of what you’re feeling.

    I send you all the bravery and strength to put one foot in front of the other.

    Love.

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    • Thanks, Caroline. Felt like I was needing some of that bravery today and it definitely is one foot in front of the other so thanks for the comment x

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  10. I’m sorry for your loss, Jo. I am honestly at lost for words, but this article that you wrote is very beautiful. Let travel heal your wounds.

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  11. I am so sorry to hear that you have lost your mom, Jo. We are never the same again. Everything about us changes, and there is a sadness that never goes away. But as you know, we do find a way to go on, and to have happy moments, and know that she would be happy to see us having those happy moments.
    As a subscriber, I had been wondering for some time where you were, why your emails had become so seldom. Now I understand, and I truly feel for you. May you find that place that brings you peace…

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    • Hi Roxanna, thanks for your words – they’re comforting. It’s also nice (for my ego) to know I have been missed. Slowly getting back up to speed..

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  12. Jo, I am so sorry for your loss. Mums are special and the severance of that connection is just so damn painful. I lost my Mum a few years ago, although her slide into dementia made it feel like I had lost her a long time before. In my case it brought on a serious emotional life audit, pulling things out of the emotional cupboard and taking a good hard look at them in the cold light of day. And that’s exhausting. Be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to feel crappy – or not. You’ll swing from one to the other. xxxx

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  13. Jo, so sorry for your loss, losing your mom is tough. I went on a three month trip after my dad died, it was a way to try to deal with the grief and be alone. For some reason, my emotions and feelings are easier to express when I’m completely alone. I would say it gets easier, but there are days I still miss my parents and really would like their input on my major life decisions.

    I guess we have to take comfort in knowing we had as much time as we did with them and have truly been loved.

    Sending hugs,
    Jennifer

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    • Hi Jennifer, I know what you mean about being able to better deal with your emotions alone. I seem to mostly put on a brave face around other people and save my emotions for when I’m alone. That can be exhausting if I can’t get enough alone time. I have a feeling we miss our parents for the rest of our lives. I’m glad you managed to get some time and space for travel after your dad died and I hope it helped.

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  14. My condolences about your mum. I hope travel and books continue to give you some bit of respite from your pain and sadness, especially in these early dark days.

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  15. Jo: How lucky you are to have a had mother whose death affected you this way. She gave you so much and your grief shows it.
    Some of us don’t shed a tear, except those of regret that we had a mother who never loved & cared for her children.
    There is a poem, one you probably know, from the french resistance, by Leo Marks. My english cousin sent it on my husband’s death. I wish I could feel this way about my own, now gone, mother. You grieve, yet one day you will wake up and the sun will be shining and the air clear and you will feel your mom telling you it’a time to live again, as my husband told me. This I fervently wish for you.

    The life that I have is all that I have
    And the life that I have is yours.
    The love that I have of the life that I have
    Is yours and yours and yours.

    A sleep I shall have
    A rest I shall have,
    Yet death will be but a pause,
    For the peace of my years in the long green grass
    Will be yours and yours and yours.

    Keep on traveling and writing and knowing your mom is with you still.

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    • Thanks MJ – that’s a really beautiful perspective on grief and I really appreciate it together with the poem (which did make me cry). I’m sorry you didn’t have the relationship you wanted with your mother and I’m even more sorry about the loss of your husband. I can only imagine how that tears a person apart. I still feel very much behind a cloud but every now and then the sun peaks thought. I’m sure in time those clouds will part. Thank you again for such lovely words.

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  16. Oh Jo!!

    I loved this so much and it’s so good to hear someone speak so honestly about it. A friend of mine just lost her mom last week to a sudden massive stroke. It’s crazy. Much love to you and your family lady friend! I truly loved this piece. 🙂 Come back to Canada! xo

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  17. This is exactly what I needed to read. The truth. Whether travelling or not you still have to show you can function on a normal level for others during waking hours. I like the yoga part. I’m not a yoga person but my friends say yoga is their biggest physical release. I applaud you for finally hitting that publish button. Natasha, Dorset.

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    • Thanks, Tash. It’s like grief is one of the few taboos which is insane because we all have to go through it at some point. Hop on the yoga mat – you won’t regret it!

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