Traveling Through Grief

· 10 min read ·

As I noted in my first post — “On Creative Living” — while this trip has been a long time aspiration, the planning for it really kickstarted after I lost my mother to cancer in August of 2018.

This trip is adventuresome, rich, beautiful, and educational. It is also therapeutic, challenging, and emotional.

Ever since our packrafting trip to Bovec, Slovenia, I’ve been reflecting on how stepping away from the habitual life and the gift of busyness grants great opportunity to be present and do serious work in the way of healing and personal growth. In that way, I’m not working — but I am doing work. I’ll get into this later on.

I wanted to share a bit of my experience, traveling through grief and navigating what it means to explore a world that is missing the person that once inspired the way.

In moments of quiet, memories crescendo.

In the days leading up to her service, I was busy writing my part 1 of her eulogy. I shuffled through memories in my mind and I even searched through some of her writing. I pulled themes and lessons and, together with my dad and sister, put together a piece she would be proud of. After those days though, there were few windows through which memories of my mom could emerge. I returned to what I knew— to working, exercising, commuting, socializing, and scheduling my life. I didn’t schedule the time blocks for “reflection” and “commemoration”, and so they didn’t happen frequently.

On the road it’s been different. Leading into this trip I was intentional about not picking up work outside of my weekly newsletter and website. I don’t have regimented exercise. I allow memories of my mom to wash over me. For the first time I’m more introspective than I am social.

On beautiful mornings, I think about the photos she’d take of the surrounding nature. At particularly amazing moments I hear her distinctive “Holy Cow!” In times of illness I long for the texts I know she’d be sending me — a mix of reassurance and WebMD info that I always begged her to not search for. At times, memories and yearnings like these are short lived, and at other times I feel her and the loss with the whole of my being. I do my best to allow the natural flow of emotion. I remind myself I have “nowhere to be” other than being there for myself and the present moment. I know that memories crescendo, and then settle into the new normal. I remember how last fall, on the heels of my mom’s passing, I was terrified of free time. I wouldn’t just plan out my week, but also the hours within each day, so as to assure there was no space for thoughts and memories and sadness to seep in. Structure, I thought, could keep grief at bay. I knew it was wrong, irrational, and it did not align with my beliefs about emotional honesty and healing. At the same time, it felt safe.

One night I was at a concert with some friends and I remember about halfway through the set, I felt a slight panic — I had been looking forward to this concert for the past few days, so I quickly needed to find something new to look forward to. It then dawned on me that often our lives are a series of “looking forward to”s and that if that was the case, we were not fully experiencing the present moment and all of its ordinary beauty.

Leaving the work life has freed time and space for memories to enter, uninterrupted, and for the real healing to occur.

Seeing mother-daughter travelers is hard.

I’m bound to see mother daughter duos traveling together: in cafes sipping Aperol spritz; crossing the street, arms linked; asking for a photo in front of a local monument. I imagine what it would be like to travel the same footsteps with my own mother. It’s not difficult to do, as I was fortunate enough to travel both nationally and internationally with her.

In the morning we’d have a slow wake up and our first priority would be coffee. Then it would be sightseeing around a predetermined location (my mom and I are both planners). Plenty of photos would ensue, including selfies, solo headshots, and silly action shots. Then we’d have lunch and she would probably get a beer. Maybe I’d join her but likely I would insist I didn’t want one, and later proceed to sip hers. Later more walking and visiting local shops, where she’d definitely pick up gifts for family, friends, colleagues. She’d insist on buying me anything I got excited about, so I would reserve my excitement unless I saw something too good to pass up. For dinner we’d have a reservation at a recommended spot, especially if it was our last night somewhere. The meal would go on for a few hours, as we got lost in conversation and people watching. Early to bed! Or so we’d attempt, and end up in more conversation. We’d discuss the favorite parts of the day and the bright day ahead!

I’m not accustomed to experiencing the feeling of bitterness. It feels so foreign and shameful, yet I do believe it’s a natural response in the beginning stages of grief. I’ve heard from many people that the first year after loss you get “a pass.” What exactly that means I’m not sure … a pass to forget to send birthday cards or a pass to stay in bed for days on end and be unapologetically irate? Either way, I don’t want the pass. I’d much prefer to carry on with my day to day and carry out my dreams without needing a pass or explanation.

Unfortunately, my memory after my mom’s passing was blurred and I did in fact feel different in social and professional situations. What I’ve found most helpful is to practice self-love in tandem with empathy for those around me. This sometimes means removing myself from trigger situations that involve mother daughter pairs, as well as smiling at them and sharing in their bliss.

I’ve been so lucky throughout my life to have many mother-like figures: my friends’ moms, close family friends, aunts, and my host mother in Costa Rica. I am also lucky that I had my own mother for 25 years of my life. I just wish that number of years was not already solidified.

I’ve only woken up crying once.

I was a very different emotional responder just two years ago. I limited myself to only being the happy carefree person that people knew me as and, in times of sadness or doubt, I challenged my mind to set aside such feelings and keep busy with more “useful” ones. I imagined that emotions were like a little buffet, and I could pick and choose which ones I wanted and which ones to discard. It’s impressive (and also frightening) how powerful the mind can be. Though I adhere to Bryon Katie’s teachings about how suffering can be manifested in the mind and we can do “The Work” to free ourselves, I look back on my younger self and realize I was not in fact doing the work, but avoiding it and complying with what I thought was good for me — inhaling and swallowing suffering. I know now that identifying feelings is not only healthy, it can also create opportunities for stronger human connections.

I completed my 200-hr Yoga Teacher Training in the 2018-2019 year and it taught me as much about myself and human connection as it did about yoga. Some training days were filled with hours of trainees sharing personal past stories or their current challenges. When one of us shared something personal, our teacher posed the question to the rest of the group: “Do you now feel closer to __ or further away?” There was no debate about it— no matter what the situation, we always felt closer to someone when we learned the intimacies of their past, their mind, and their heart. I’ll never forget that. If for nothing else, I’ve learned to express emotion more freely for health reasons — stress becomes inflammation and inflammation becomes disease.

The word only in the title of this section signifies that I realize my experience of grieving could be more emotionally packed. I consider myself lucky — for being able to have outlets and having people that help me to express my emotions during waking hours. Since the day I opened up about my mom’s diagnosis 2, I was suddenly presented with a new community — people with parents who were living with cancer, people whose parents had passed, people that were experiencing cancer themselves, and people who did not have thorough experience with loss, but were damn good friends who somehow knew the magic ways to help.

My way of grieving as an individual has run like Andrew Cohen’s third tenantFace everything and avoid nothing. Around the time of my mom’s death, I consulted a dear friend of mine whose mom had died of MS just a few years ago. He told me that when he feels emotional, he allows himself to grieve, hard, and then he does something really fun. This doesn’t work for everyone but I knew it would for me — Once I realized that being open and vulnerable was benefiting my relationships and my healing, I tried my best to respect the emotional waves, let them wash over me hard … then do something to make myself (and undoubtedly my mom) happy. On the road this isn’t so easy. I don’t have easy access to my grief community and my yoga practice and, as you can imagine, emotional congestion can bubble up unexpectedly. Mostly it’s the mornings, the beautiful moments of quiet (as mentioned above), and the times of travel sickness that create the ripples and waves of emotion. I consider myself incredibly lucky to have a travel partner like James, who appreciates vulnerability and emotional honesty. In this way, I am able to express myself in waking hours and continue to unravel the years of swallowing suffering. It’s challenging and messy, but also dang therapeutic.

There is no “right way to commemorate.”

I remember the morning after my mom passed, when my dad, sister, and I visited the funeral home to square away logistics. It was crazy to me / us, because we were faced with all these questions we didn’t know how to answer … we had never done this before, so how should we know what to do?! In the end, there is no one else to make those decisions for you. We couldn’t sit back and wait for things to happen so, hard as it was, we had to just go with our gut. For me, being in Paris at times was similar. In June of 2018, just a couple of months before my mom’s passing, we were in Paris together on the “trip of a lifetime.” It merited that superlative because we had planned it on a whim three months prior and launched into it wholeheartedly, even though the trip itself would last “only” a single long weekend. For three days, we lived it up in a city we’d never seen, eating pastries we’d never imagined, and taking photos we could savor forever. I felt like the luckiest girl in the world, making the most out of every day with my radiant mother; my dear friend; the older and wiser version of myself.

Upon her first stroke that July she texted me the words: “We’ll always have Paris!” And so we will always have Paris, but of course I didn’t know at the time that we wouldn’t also have many other destinations and mother daughter weekends together.

I feared what it would be like — returning to the place where I have such vivid memories of her, as they are indeed also some of the final memories I have with her. James gave me full authority to decide where we went and what we saw and how I wanted to navigate commemorating my mom.

I’ll share that, though I was excited for the weeks in Paris, I was equally nervous. I didn’t know what the memories and places would trigger and I questioned my sanity for this self imposition. All the same, I’ve been leaning into fear and change this past year, so why stunt the inertia?

I’ll also share that it was not as painful as I geared up for it to be. The reality is that I’ve felt my mother in all aspects of this adventure — in nature, in travel sickness, in beauty, in “luck” — and in the end, Paris is just the physical embodiment of our recent travel experience, not wholly who she is or was for me. Her essence is everywhere and that’s been the biggest realization yet.

My post on June 3, 2018
My post on June 3, 2018

  1. The day before her passing, we promised my mom a service with our favorite priest, followed by a big party. For the service, my father, sister, and I contributed individually to a group eulogy that we delivered together.

    ↩ back to post!
  2. One of the ways I “more publicly” opened up was by launching my Three Good Things Project. What originally started as a photo book to surprise her on her last day of chemo, became a beautiful way for people to see and share three simple things in life. This was a reversal to the “all bad things come in threes” belief. If you’d like to contribute to the project, I welcome you to take a look through the existing gallery and submit your own Three Good Things photo using the link above.

    ↩ back to post!

Adventure travel blog by James Simone & Sheila Murray. Travel along with them on their backpacking trip(s) as they actively explore the American West, Europe and beyond:

Follow @sheflowsandgrowsFollow @mrwordsmith#travellightexperienceheavy