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 It’s a post that’s been sat unpublished for weeks now.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

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.

40 Responses

  1. Gabriela
    Gabriela at | | Reply

    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.

  2. Melissa Witcher
    Melissa Witcher at | | Reply

    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.

  3. Tara Greene
    Tara Greene at | | Reply

    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.

  4. Mary
    Mary at | | Reply

    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

  5. Gillian Heather
    Gillian Heather at | | Reply

    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

  6. Susan
    Susan at | | Reply

    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.

  7. Jody
    Jody at | | Reply

    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.

  8. Grace
    Grace at | | Reply

    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.

  9. Caroline
    Caroline at | | Reply

    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.

  10. Anne
    Anne at | | Reply

    Jo – I am so sorry to hear about your loss. Sending you love and a big warm hug.

  11. Agness | the adventure traveler
    Agness | the adventure traveler at | | Reply

    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.

  12. Roxanna
    Roxanna at | | Reply

    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…

  13. Paul Smith
    Paul Smith at | | Reply

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

  14. 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

  15. Jennifer
    Jennifer at | | Reply

    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

  16. Susan
    Susan at | | Reply

    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.

  17. MJ
    MJ at | | Reply

    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.

  18. murissa
    murissa at | | Reply

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

    ❤️

  19. 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

  20. Natasha
    Natasha at | | Reply

    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.

  21. Helen
    Helen at | | Reply

    I’m so sorry Jo.

    So beautifully written.

    x

  22. Jo Baker
    Jo Baker at | | Reply

    Beautiful writing Jo.

Please comment with your real name using good manners.

Leave a Reply