Travel After Loss: Beauty in the Shadow of Grief

A few years ago, I rode the historic “Jacobite” steam train in Scotland. My husband and I shared a cozy, first-class compartment with a woman who was taking her two college-aged grandsons on a tour of Europe.  The mutual respect and admiration between grandmother and grandchildren was obvious and lovely.

As we journeyed through Scotland, the five of us talked for hours about life, travel, hopes and dreams. I never told them that my own beloved grandma had died only days before. This picture-perfect grandmother on a train in Scotland still has no idea that she was a powerful balm to my broken heart.

Travel often presents interesting challenges, but none have been as poignant for me as experiencing the death of a loved-one while away from home. Perhaps someone who does not enjoy travel would wonder why I didn’t give up on this trip to Ireland and Scotland.  Why didn’t I jump on the first plane back to the United States when my grandmother died?  As awful as it was to experience such a loss, going home would have made it so much worse.

The most terrible part of grieving, I think, is that the rest of the world keeps on going even though you feel shattered. There are bills to pay; groceries to buy; and jobs that need attention.  In Ireland and Scotland, I was exempt from normal life.  There were no routines.  Chores did not exist.  Work had planned for me to be away, so there were no tasks I had to “wrap up” before I could mourn. Most helpfully, there were no well-meaning people trying to convince me that I shouldn’t be upset, because my grandma was old and had “lived a full life.”

Image of a person grieving

Credit: Christine Friesz

I did manage to leave my hotel room every day.  My version of putting one-foot-in-front-of-the-other was hiking through the Killarney National Forest in Ireland.  We spent long days aimlessly exploring Irish country roads and towns, and ended our trip by driving through the wildness of the Scottish Highlands.  These were days where nothing was expected of me.  I simply absorbed the beauty around me in silence.

My sparse interaction with other humans came in the form of conversations on Scottish trains or in Dublin pubs.  Talking to the friendly Irish felt like being enveloped in a big hug.  One day I linked arms with an Irish man I accidentally thought was my husband.  This delightful stranger didn’t skip a beat.  He tucked my arm into his and effortlessly started up a hilarious conversation.  When smiling seems impossible, and joy feels far away, send in the Irish.

The trip was not the one I had planned.  I could not visit the places where my Irish relatives had lived and died, because it would have been too emotionally difficult.  I had wanted to try the expensive champagnes that Ireland sells by the glass, but it wasn’t the right time for champagne.  I normally can’t get enough live music, but by evening, I could only muster the strength to fall into bed.  Instead, my husband went out alone at night to experience the legendary music of Ireland.

I am going to make my second visit to Ireland this year.   We will go to the lands of my ancestors.  We will drink champagne.  We will laugh and smile and listen to music.  This trip should be happier, but I forever  will be grateful for the solace of that first journey.

A few people who have suffered a loss have asked me, “Should I still go on my trip?”   My answer is that if travel brings you joy in the good times, it might sustain and comfort you through the difficult days.

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