The benefits of a grief-cation: How travel helped me deal with losing my mom to cancer
Sitting on a meditation cushion in Venice, California, with tears pouring down my face and the sun stinging my eyes, I felt embarrassed, frustrated and vulnerable. Here I was, breaking down on the vacation that was supposed to soothe my grief from losing my mother a month earlier.
“I’m not a crier,” I told my friends through tears after my mom was diagnosed with stage IV ovarian cancer in November 2015. Although shedding tears in public has become more frequent for me, it’s never been comfortable. I gave up my signature purple eyeliner weeks before she died, after finally acknowledging I was crying it off daily.
As my mom’s illness progressed, I plotted my escape from the East Coast. I’d spent countless hours in New York City hospitals and at my family’s New Jersey home, spending time by her side and watching the once-vivacious woman slip away as we began to exhaust the chemotherapy treatments. When her doctor told us she had months to live, I started contemplating where I could heal.
Sitting at my desk job in New York, I took the “flight” part of the fight-or-flight response literally. I researched surf camps in Costa Rica and yoga retreats in Bali, convinced I could find meaning through movement in an exotic locale. I dreamed of getting on a plane and traveling somewhere far-flung without a second thought, escaping the meaningless minutiae of everyday life that just didn’t seem to matter any more.
“Loss can be liberating, and the desire to escape is so common,” Claire Bidwell Smith, a grief therapist who lost both of her parents by the age of 25, said in a phone interview. “Everything is pared down to what’s important and it makes you want to run out into the world into that great big life.”
I took the “flight” part of the fight-or-flight response literally.
But going somewhere with no familiar faces overwhelmed me. During my mom’s final months, I had surrounded myself with friends for support and comfort, and so I decided to visit friends on the West Coast. I booked a flight to Los Angeles, thinking I could out-fly my feelings.
“That’s the tricky part,” Smith told me. “On one level, it’s literally running away from the situation — [you’re] getting as far as you can geographically from painful memories. But they’re always there waiting for you.”
Traveling through — and with — grief
Before and during my trip, my grief followed me like a shadow. I had been anxious to travel while my mom was sick because I didn’t want anything to happen while I was out of town, and that same fear of leaving New York haunted me while I packed.
My emotions were there, waiting for me at the gate on the other side of the security screening. A heavy feeling of sadness turned into a lump in my throat I couldn’t push down when I realized I couldn’t call or text her to say I’d made it to the airport and was about to take off.
My emotions trailed me on my two flights out West. From LaGuardia to Dulles, my body felt heavy and weighed down by emotions. On the flight from Dulles to LAX, my salty tears dripped onto my sandwich and dotted the journal pages I filled.
Smith, the grief therapist, told me journaling and reading a book on grief can remind mourners their feelings are normal. Journaling helped me access the feelings lingering just below the surface — like the anger I felt at my mom for leaving me so soon and the regrets I had about things we hadn’t done — so I could put them on paper and begin to process them.
Once I landed in Los Angeles, I grabbed tacos with a college friend and we talked about everything from dating to the stress of what I’d been through. I began to get an idea of what healing could look like, how my mom’s death and illness wouldn’t always be the only things on my mind. I felt a bit of my goofy self return as the darkness faded from the foreground of my mind.
A yearning to feel normal led me to be open-minded to whatever might ease my grief. I found myself at the very-LA House of Intuition, where the walls are adorned with the words “Your Intuition Led You Here.” I bought an Honor Your Ancestors candle, meant to strengthen the bond with our lost loved ones, and a handful of crystals. I reasoned that even if they didn’t “work,” they were still pretty. But when I got home, I did find a peace in saying “goodnight, Mom” aloud as I snuffed the candle out at night, feeling a connection to her.
“Anything that helps a person feel connected to their loved one — even objects or experiences that aren’t ‘scientifically proven’ — can offer an enormous sense of relief and connection,” Smith said, which made me feel slightly less silly. If the craziest thing I had done while grieving was spend money on an overpriced candle, I felt a glimmer of hope that I was going to be OK.
Overcoming waves of sadness
As I was watching the waves in Malibu and laughing, I felt a small wave of normalcy, only to be knocked down by a tsunami of emotion when I saw a woman my age walking her frail mother to the water. I cried for the trips I had taken with my mom, the trips I’d never get to take and the regret of one last trip to the beach I’d contemplated but not followed through on. I’d started crying quietly until I couldn’t anymore, and I was physically shaking, sitting on my beach blanket, hugging my friend.
Smith called these fast-moving tidal waves of sadness “grief attacks,” and I can’t think of a more apt description. For me, they seem to be triggered by small and mundane things that remind me of my mom. They come on suddenly and they’re not unlike panic attacks.
Finally accepting my grief, I opened myself up to unpredictably beautiful moments, like a memorable, teary conversation with my Lyft driver back to the airport. She asked about my family and I blurted out that I’d just lost my mom.
As we inched through LA traffic, she told me she’d lost her mom recently, too. I ugly cried, a heaving, snotty mess in the back of her car, missing my mom but also feeling the strength and power of this bond with a Lyft driver I’d probably never see again.
Though I couldn’t leave my grief at home in New York, it wasn’t the worst travel companion. It didn’t play music late at night or refuse to pay its share. But it wasn’t the best either — it jumped out at inopportune times and made me feel detached from myself and incapable of forming new memories, and it was constantly there. Over time, I learned how to navigate my new world: I learned to let love and comfort in from unexpected places, and I found a solid waterproof mascara that could stand up to even the worst crying jags.