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 It’s a post that’s been sat unpublished for weeks now.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.
Museums.
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.

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Article written by

Jo Fitzsimons is a freelance travel writer who has visited over 60 countries. www.indianajo.com is the place where she shares destination details, travel itineraries, planning and booking tips and trip tales. Her aim: to help you plan your travel adventure on your terms and to your budget.

4 Responses

  1. Paul Smith
    Paul Smith at | | Reply

    So sorry to hear of your loss. Hope you are starting to heal. x

  2. Rosa
    Rosa at | | Reply

    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

  3. murissa
    murissa at | | Reply

    Sending love to you Jo.
    Beautifully written. Through pain we can create beauty.

    ❤️

  4. Shan
    Shan at | | Reply

    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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