I know traveling through grief sounds cliche. What a perfect way to escape pain, right?
Maybe you’re thinking this. Or you hear others suggest that traveling after a major life issues is an escape. But is it?
I’ve found my travel experiences to be profoundly helpful in coping with loss.
But it might not be in the way you think.
Let me explain…
I have traveled solo quite a bit over the last decade, sometimes for weeks and sometimes for years.
In the last nine years, I’ve experienced the loss of my mom, stepdad, stepmom, grandma, and grandpa. About a year ago, my grandma started experiencing symptoms of the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
My stepmom had been successfully battling cancer for six years. But in September 2016, just as I was leaving for Colombia, we received news that she has very little time to live.
Pain hit hard.
I felt guilty for leaving. All the thoughts ran through my head… “My family needs me. I can’t go”, “Why am I even bothering with these retreats?”, “How silly this trip feels…”, etc.
Then I thought, no, I need this. And yeah, that thought crosses the minds of many when we recognize a need for reflection and self-care. Those are all real and valid needs. I’m not dismissing them. But this is not about a cushy vacation in the sun with warm waves that melt away problems.
My travel journey has been about coping and learning to die while I’m alive.
Here me out…
It’s a need that started in my teens… a need for preparation.
You see, I’m an empath. When someone close to me is experiencing pain, I feel it. I’m not talking standard empathy. I tend to take it on and I have to work to come out of it. My mind goes to the suffering of the other, frequently much more than my own.
Sometimes the pain feels like it’s too much. Like I’m going to break. I don’t want to see my loved ones suffer. I’m tired of loss. Of cancer. Of addiction. Of death. I start thinking of losing the other people in my life. I think of dying alone with dementia with no children or grandchildren to be there for me.
And I freak the eff out. Anxiety kicks in and knocks me out. The future feels unbearable and I forget my own strength completely for a time.
This is where travel enters.
Travel is not an escape. It’s my resilience training.
That week in Colombia, I posted photos on social media of idyllic landscapes, vibrant villages, and even a few of me sporting a sincere smile. But my week entailed a lot more.
As an adventure traveler, I often choose the path laden with obstacles. For this trip that meant food poisoning, nauseating bus rides, getting caught in torrential downpours, an Airbnb host who wouldn’t give me a pillowcase, and relentless quests to catch a bus, obtain wifi, or find a house to host a retreat…a couple of times to find no one there to greet me.
At times these challenges were met with a steady mind, but others with tears and frustration.
But then there were moments of great beauty and wonder as I greeted a small box fish under the sea during a dive or gazed up at the Dr. Seuss-esque towering wax palms of the Valle de Cocora. These moments of awe made me feel connected to those I’ve lost.
And then those moments pass and I need to reconnect.
I started the practice of Kriya Yoga at age 16 with my mom. I remember my then guru saying we should pray to live 100 years. I thought about what 100 years would look like. My friends and family would be gone. My youth and mobility would be gone.
It was then that I knew I would need to cultivate peace inside me in a way that keeps me in touch with impermanence.
I have made it my life’s path to stay in touch with the essence of death. Denying or escaping it only brings us greater anxiety later because it eventually smacks us in the face.
Instead I lean into the discomfort.
So, I choose the path that allows me to hold death in what one might call a liminal space of the mind, the intermediate place in between two states.
It’s a challenge to express into words. But what I can say is that sometimes when I am positioned within a room with four walls, pain hits me in a way that it is hard to move past. It’s too much. On the other side of coping, I could seemingly escape pain by taking up any number of addictions, attach myself to material possessions, or overachieve on everything.
Where I find balance is the space between… It’s the place where I can hold death and fear right in the forefront of my mind and allow it to sit there in a way that moves me toward living. I find I can do this best while doing things like hiking… in those moments when I am surrounded by obstacles or environments that place me outside of comfort.
The obstacles prepare me and grow me into a more resilient human being. And the vast perspective these experiences bring is what keeps me knocking on the door of life… all while recognizing someday the door won’t open.
I know it sounds morose, but I swear there’s freedom in this path.