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Grief Has a Passport

I lost my son five years ago; I am not sure how I have endured it. One way my husband and I have tried to bear the years is to continue to do some of the things that formerly brought us joy: the activities that used to make us “us.” We have been married for thirty-four years. Prior to our marriage, I was the only one who had traveled outside the United States.

Jeff was a reluctant and terrified flyer, but a lover of food. I mean a LOVER of food. I enticed him to fly across the Atlantic with the promise of great cuisine. We had friends to visit who were living in Germany at the time, courtesy of the US military.

When we arrived, our friends drove us to the village where they lived and took us to a “gasthaus” for dinner near their flat. Jeff was delighted as he devoured Wiener schnitzel and spaetzle. He drank German beer. From that moment on, he was hooked on traveling! All it took was one amazing meal.

We feel fortunate that this “pastime” – our travel – has helped us withstand our pain. I have come to believe that whatever activities you pursue to help you on your grief journey can be helpful. It may be golf, or tennis, or skiing. It may be camping or hiking. It may be fishing or hunting. It might be Scrabble and Monopoly. But it is a gift when such leisure pursuits can be reintroduced into your life. We were lucky.

Once upon a time, we were lucky.

After our children were born, we took a hiatus from foreign travel. Family trips in those years were visiting grandparents and going to the beach. They were wonderful experiences. We had no complaints about travel limitations while we focused on parenting infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

When our children finished preschool, we began to wonder if it might be possible to go further afield. Our first adventure with them was a short trip to Canada. Planning trips with children in mind gave us a changed perspective and lead to experiences we never would have had. Jeff was grateful to have excursions to churches and museums minimized. He approved of numerous stops for ice cream. We shared our love of travel with our children and they brought immeasurable joy to each excursion.

Our son, Jordan, absorbed the joys of travel. When he was in high school, he asked if we could take him to Japan. We don’t know why Japan – and now we’ll never know – but we went to Japan with him. It was wonderful. We were in Tokyo when the cherry blossoms bloomed! How amazing is that?

The following year, Jordan’s senior year of high school, he again had a specific suggestion. Not a demand, but a suggestion. He wanted to go to Eastern Europe. So off we went to Budapest and Prague during his spring break.

He discovered strudel; he thought it was the best thing he’d ever eaten. He posed by statues of Russian leaders in Memento Park.

We could never have imagined he would be gone in little more than a year. Tragically, he died by suicide in his dorm room at the conclusion of his freshman year of college.

Traveling became the furthest thing from my mind; in fact, traveling from my bed to my bathroom seemed arduous. Walking the dog around the block was akin to climbing Everest.

Eight months after Jordon’s death, Christmas loomed. Something inside of me knew I could not stay at home that first Christmas. I had no idea where to go. I just had to leave. My husband, Jeff, came up with a plan to travel to the Atacama Desert in northern Chili. The trip was difficult but also healing. The culture was so different, Christmas festivities were subdued and it was not the wildly celebratory event it seems to have become in the U.S. This dramatic change in environment helped us.

Traveling after Jordan’s death made me realize that life was never going to be the same ever again. Travel also allowed me to immerse myself in the distraction of seeing and experiencing new things. I could be awed by spectacular scenery; I could be intrigued by unfamiliar history; I could be diverted from the intensity of my grief by surrounding myself with something completely new.

Travel became a coping mechanism for me in grief. Perhaps it’s like parents who get back on the tennis court, hike a new trail, throw a baited line into a lake, pitch a tent in a state park or plant flowers in a pot on the patio. Maybe we all try to reconnect with who we were before our child died. Maybe it’s a part of trying to figure out who we are obligated to be now.

Recently, my husband retired. We decided to take the trip that had been on his bucket list for decades. We went to Australia. It was a huge adventure for us. The city of Sydney, with the Harbor Bridge and the instantly recognizable Opera House, was stunning. The unique wildlife – kangaroos, koalas, and wombats – was captivating. We were proud that we are still fit enough to snorkel on the Great Barrier Reef and hike in the Blue Mountains.

When Jordan was a teenager, he favored a brand of clothing, Quiksilver. I’m not much of a shopper, but for years I was always on the lookout for Quiksilver items for him. Who knew it was an Australian company? I sure didn’t. But that corporate presence was all over the place.

Many of the fellow travelers we encountered were other Australians seeing their own expansive country. Others, of course, were Americans. It seemed most of the Americans were there to visit their college-aged kids who were studying abroad.

Australia is a young country. Young people are everywhere. They are eating, meeting friends, jogging, shopping, commuting. They are laughing and talking and checking their smartphones and listening to iPods through their earbuds. They are everywhere.

But my son wasn’t there. My college-aged son wasn’t there. It is so hard seeing the world without him in it.

As grateful as I am for any opportunity to travel – and it is a helpful distraction for me – I don’t really get a vacation from grief because grief has a passport. Grief travels too.  

 

Peggi Johnson

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