Life for me took a tragic turn in August, when I lost one of my dearest friends, Jeremy, to suicide. Then on December 2nd, a new blow was struck to my world, as we laid to rest my younger brother Zachary. These devastating losses have rocked me to my foundations, in a manner that I cannot quite express clearly just yet. To lose two wonderful souls, both very young, in such a short span of time is wrenching and indescribable. As such, there have been no blog posts, and no new youtube videos uploaded, even though I do indeed have footage and stories to share. With the very recent loss of my sibling, and the thought of facing this wave of renewed grief, I find myself looking at the months in between, and the ways I processed and dealt with losing Jeremy. Unsurprisingly enough, one of the things that helped me immensely was going on a trip abroad. Perhaps sharing my experience and story will make someone else feel a little less alone in their own grief.
As noted, I went to Europe in October. This trip was booked just a few days prior to losing Jeremy, and I was admittedly hesitant to move forward with the plans. Jeremy was the first close person in my life to pass away, and it really bowled me over. But travel has a way of clearing my head and restoring some balance for me in general, and knowing this about myself, I decided it was worth it to follow through with the initial plans. My friend Kiley came as well on this adventure, perhaps you may remember this gentleman from my post about our trip to Niagara in April. This time around, we went to Amsterdam, Brussels, Cologne, and then back to Amsterdam to fly home to Boston. The trip itself was entirely unique and filled with new friends, art, and delicious beers, but what I want to share with you all is the impact my grief had on traveling, as well as the impact travel had on my grief. This of course is only my experience and thus is singularly subjective and may not be relative to your experiences or needs whatsoever. I’m sharing purely for selfish reasons: writing helps me work through the tough stuff. Of course, perhaps someone else might relate to my experiences as well, and find some measure of comfort in the same manner that I did.
Leaving your home to go somewhere beautiful and new does not automatically mean you are going to be happy. Planes are magnificent things but unfortunately lifting off the runway is not going to magically solve the problem. That horribly heavy feeling of depression still weighed on me, like dragging around a wet blanket. There is something peculiar about traveling while you are still trying to find your feet again through mourning. Have you ever felt the need to sob, at 3am, in a hostel? It’s weird. The feeling of trying to find some private space, so you’re not disturbing anyone’s rest, and cleaning up your snotty tears afterwards in case you walk by anyone when returning to the room, because god forbid a stranger ask you what’s wrong? Yeah, it’s honestly just as uncomfortable as it sounds. Add one too many beers into the mix, and you’re just a pitiful sight. However, there’s also something cleansing about this. At home you have the ability to just cry when you need to. Wrap yourself up in your favorite sweatshirt, softest blanket, grab the box of tissues, and cry. Maybe call a friend to talk. Staying in a new place, in a foreign country, surrounded by strangers, changes the game entirely. It isolates you into the grief, it hones your focus to the act of crying. You are suddenly more aware than ever of the sounds that your body makes when it is wracked with heartbreak. You can feel yourself becoming dehydrated as each tear leaps out. It’s a challenge in self-awareness and self control, and it’s not pretty or comfortable or pleasant. It’s the kind of thing you write about in your journal and then don’t mention at breakfast. It’s lonely and that’s really perfectly okay.
I have to be honest with you that traveling while you are grieving isn’t easy in the least. I had low energy, low motivation, and during a lot of the trip I didn’t feel the “Travel glow” of excitement and wonder. Sure, I was in these new cities and surrounded by unique and beautiful things. But I wasn’t floating on a cloud as I usually am on these excursions. I found moments of delight of course, that burst forward like a sunbeam streaming over a dusty windshield. Most of my joys felt muted though, like I was experiencing things through a thick fog. I felt intensely old and worn out and run down. It was hard to find my rhythm, almost as though you are trying to dance to your favorite song but the beat is imperceptibly sped up.
Despite the challenge of being pretty stuck in my head, the trip was mostly a positive one. It wasn’t all doom and gloom and crying in abandoned corners of hostels. I danced for the first time in months. This was in an Irish bar in Belgium, to ridiculous disco music, with two delightful women who spoke hardly any English. I explored and devoured the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, something that has been on my bucket list for years and which I look back on with sincere tenderness. I made new friends over drinks in several places, friends who’s names I now can’t recall but the memory of them still brings a smile. I discovered that Brussels is a city that I could fall in love with, when it was not even initially on our itinerary but rather a last minute “why not?” add on. And don’t even get me started on the absolute hilarity of attending Bitchy Bingo in Cologne, a bingo night in a gay bar, hosted by a drag queen and entirely in German, of which I barely speak a word. Truly there were amazing memories made, and lovely experiences had. Each one of these singular memories is vivid and leaves me grinning like the Cheshire cat.
When Kiley and I reached Germany, we weren’t staying directly in Cologne. We were in fact visiting my friend Andres in Gummersbach, a small town 50km away from Cologne. Staying with Andres and his flatmates was a much needed change of pace for us, away from the larger busyness of the cities. I took some solo time to meander the town, and found my way to a walking path that ran alongside a shallow creek. Above the bank, just beyond the trees, I could see the backs of houses. So while I was certainly getting an overdue dose of nature, I was never far from civilization. Otherwise I may have become quite entirely lost, as is my general habit. As it were, in the woods of a small town in Germany, I found myself lost not in direction, but in contemplation and reflection. Have you ever felt like you opened a window into your brain and you’re airing it out? Perhaps when you’ve had an especially good venting session with a friend, or after going for a particularly good jog? That’s what this felt like. I stood against a wooden bridge’s railing, pulled out a small notebook, and started to furiously record my thoughts. This was the first time I had written about Jeremy at all, and while I had expected an emotional torrent, I instead found a steady stream of thoughts that had been just waiting to be let out.
I must have stood in that spot for near 30 minutes, just writing and unleashing all the baggage and pain and frustration. I had spent many hours walking in the woods at home, trying to process all that had been weighing me down, but somehow the pieces hadn’t clicked into place until this moment, and I felt a sense of peace settling over me. If I close my eyes, I can still see the trees and the wooden railing in front of my hands. The experience of traveling with my grief led me to finding a way to begin releasing it and moving forward. It was almost 2 months to the day since my friend had passed, and here I was an ocean away, finally letting myself acknowledge that it was okay to start feeling better now. My walk back to the flat felt like a ship with full sails, just coasting along charmingly. The sadness and loss were still there, but they were suddenly no longer debilitating or hindering. I couldn’t help but smile the entire stroll back, which garnered several “looks” from the locals, only making me laugh all the more. I am certain that at least a handful of people thought me absolutely daft.
I found that travel, that lovely passionate thing that has fueled so much joy in my life, had once again profoundly brought about positive change and growth for me. Upon returning home, my friends were quick to comment on the apparent lift in my attitude. Of course I am still heartbroken at the loss to this day. But I have since found that shouldering the weight has felt less difficult and debilitating. Grief doesn’t leave you but eventually it does let you continue moving forward. That trip to Europe was a turning point for me in my healing process.
As for now, and going forward, this new tragedy in my life, the loss of my brother, has spun me back. Grief has a way of smashing you into pieces while at the same time building up layers of brick and mortar walls around you. Thankfully I have this really amazing support network of friends, family, and community. Even with all that love, I’m not doing great right now, every single day brings a new challenge forward. I can only hope that I find a moment of peace like the one I described above, whether it comes with traveling this time around or unexpectedly in a moment of my day to day life. It’s hard to tell what path the grief will take you on, and admittedly you don’t have much say in the matter. You become a passenger to the experience. That’s where I am at currently, entirely unsure of how the next few months are going to go. If you don’t hear from me for another extended period of time, I do hope you wonderful readers will bear with me and excuse the possible absence of new content. My very best wishes to you all in the New Year!
One thought on “Traveling While Grieving”
Great words Chelsea. Great travels. God bless. So sorry. I love you.
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