Sprinkles In The Storm

This post is really outside of my comfort zone of things I am willing to publicize online. But it feels necessary and slightly overdue. I know this is too long for most of you to read entirely, but I’ve said what I needed to say. I genuinely hope this is all completely irrelevant to my readers.  But if it’s not, and you are wanderlusting with grief, this one’s for you.

Traveling the world is a long journey. Grieving is also a long journey. So why not navigate through them together? Unfortunately, I have experience traveling with grief.  And that is what this post is all about.

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I’ve been thinking about writing this for a while. It’s been about 2.5 years since I last wrote about my loss. That post came on the 1 year anniversary of losing my mom.  I was at the very beginning of progress in my grieving process at the time I wrote “Surviving Hell”.  At that time, I still had a lot of intense and overwhelming emotions. (If you are interested you can read that post by clicking here: Surviving Hell – it is an emotional post about the experience of losing my mom and surviving a year without her).
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Grief By Itself

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First of all, I want to quickly address anyone who is in their own early stages of grief.  Go easy on yourself.  What you are confronting just plain sucks. It is going to suck wherever you are. I am sure you have already heard this, but it does get easier. The best way to honor your loved one is to move forward (at your own pace) and eventually feel joy again. You may feel like the exact opposite is true, but don’t worry, you will get there. Just hold on and feel every shitty thing you need to feel. Give yourself as much or as little time as you need. Stay in bed for months if you have to. Drown yourself in work if you have to. Seek Xantax if you have to. Join a support group if you have to. Reject support groups and hide out on your own, if you have to. Don’t listen to anyone who suggests that there is a right or wrong way to get through this. They may mean well, but just do the best you can right now.
If you need to stay in bed for 4 months, and gain 15 pounds by comfort eating nothing but chocolate smily-face cookies and mail-ordering more underwear because it’s easier than facing the world at the corner laundry-mat, it is ok. You are allowed. You are allowed to find everyone unbearable to be around, especially if it’s more than one-on-one. You are allowed to find their daily lives irritating and frivolous, and you are allowed to hate yourself for it. It all gets better. Eventually you will do your laundry, even if you discover you now own 98 pairs of underwear (yes, I had some dark days). Eventually you will find your way to enjoy life again. And yes, I may in some twisted way be trying to send my past-self a message here.
The first year of suffering the loss of a close loved one can be almost too much to bear. For me it was an impossible time that I just barely pushed my way through. The second year was equally difficult and miserable, but in a different way. The panic attacks stopped and I was able to function in the world again. But that was the year I had to actually start dealing with the business of losing a loved one. And it is as ugly as it sounds. If you are the person responsible for settling a loved ones affairs after they die, you have your work cut out for you. It’s work you don’t sign up for, and don’t want. And that work is bound to bring up even more emotions and profound life-changing perspectives. As if the loss itself didn’t do enough of that, right? None of it is pleasant.
But for me, thankfully, year 3 of my grief has been easier. The most extreme thoughts and emotions have melted away. The constant reminders of how my life fell apart are no longer present in my daily endeavors. And when they do show up, I don’t fall apart anymore, because I have begun rebuilding. Today, my life doesn’t feel broken. I’ve found my way back to things I enjoy. Grief isn’t something that goes away, but it is something you eventually learn to live with, and even sort of be ok with. Though I’m sure I will always be a little angry at the world for the cruel way in which my mother was taken from me. And there may always be days I just don’t really believe it all. I still have moments where it feels like the last few years have been a dream that didn’t really happen.
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The Decision To Travel

Everyone manages their grief in their own very personal way. I managed much of mine while traveling.
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I want to make it very clear that traveling is not a cure for grief. Nor did I ever believe it would be. I know many people believed I was “running away” from everything by traveling. But that is honestly absurd. I emphasize the word absurd because the more time I have to think about it, the more ridiculous this idea of “running away” seems to me. Along my travels, I grieved, I cried, I felt sorry for myself, I got angry, I fought with my brother, I made life altering decisions, I had moments of joy in between, I questioned the meaning of life… the whole 9 yards. Could I have done that at home from the comfort of my own bed? Absolutely. But that’s not where I chose to go through my process. You can run away in your own home just as much as you can run away on another continent.
So why did I take off? Because I wanted to. Because it felt right. Because when I decided to pick my head up off the pillow, the only thing I wanted was to see the world. Because wanderlust was a seed planted in me at birth, and I had felt like a caged bird for too long. Because every time anyone ever asked the question, “if you came into a million dollars what would you do with it?”, my answer always started with, “first I would take some time to travel the world, then I would…”. You’ve all had a conversation like that at some point, right? Or at least thought about it? The only positive thing about losing my mom was being handed the opportunity to see the world. It is a bittersweet thing. I would have chosen to save my mom over traveling, without ever thinking twice. But that was not my choice to make. What was my choice is how I would begin to move forward.  So I chose to squeeze out a little bit of positivity from my shattered world.

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1923955_526197249685_5419_nInheritance

Inheritance is a very complicated animal. It is technically complicated. But more importantly, it’s emotionally complicated. An important piece of advice I could give a griever with wanderlust (or without, actually) is to be careful with your inheritance.
A lot of people spend stupidly when they lose a loved one because it feels like none of it matters. Having money that belonged to a lost loved one can feel wrong. Like it isn’t yours, so you shouldn’t have it. I had those feelings at some point. But I knew that the biggest disrespect I could do my mother was being careless and irresponsible with the gift she left behind to help my future. I took a lot of time to learn and research before I made any moves at all. Now, I work with advisors who are helping me plan for my future, and have helped me work out a budget that will allow me to travel without depleting my funds. I also stay in hostels or budget hotels, take long buses over short flights, and do what I can to travel as cheaply as possible.
I almost never speak of these things, and honestly I am very uncomfortable writing about money at all in my blog. But money can play a role in how, and in my case, where you grieve.  I think it is important to bring up inheritance in this post for a few reasons.
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One reason is that backpackers find other travelers. And people innocently ask, quite frequently, how you manage to financially pull off your travels. If you are a traveler reading this – please stop asking that question. It’s rude. I always know you mean well, and I don’t think you are a bad person for asking. But unless we get to know each other well and it naturally comes up, it is never appropriate to ask people about their finances.
I know with that question you are hoping to hear that I have found “the secret”. You want to hear about my online marketing business and how my blog and google adds afford me to be anywhere and work remotely. Once and a while I stumble upon a true “digital nomad”. And good for them! Most aren’t so lucky.
Usually I answer by saying “I sold my house”. It’s not really a lie, but it’s not really the truth either. What you don’t know is how my stomach turns in knots when I have to answer that question. Or that I then need to silently recover. If I come right out and say “my mom died and I sold her house, her business, and cashed in a life insurance check” we are all going to feel rather uncomfortable on our otherwise pleasant boat tour, or wherever we are. So instead I tell a semi-lie so that only I have to feel uncomfortable. You’re welcome. Please never ask anyone that again.29242_586780744875_2573629_n
If you are the one grieving and traveling, prepare yourself for that question. Know that it is going to happen, and probably a surprising amount. It is the worst. Moments you may be enjoying, in new beautiful places with new interesting people, when you aren’t thinking about your loss, someone will unknowingly and innocently remind you. How you answer the question is completely up to you. But I recommend preparing yourself for it so it’s not a surprise.

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The Judgements

Another reason I feel compelled to talk about money is because another difficult part of traveling with grief is handling the newfound judgements that you will inevitably face from your loved ones.  One of those judgements, right or wrong, is usually about money.

I don’t talk to most of my friends or family at all about my retirement accounts or my investments. It would be nice if people could just have faith that I am not running around the world like a flashy idiot who doesn’t care about anything. But for some reason people have a fear that I am mindlessly blowing through my inheritance. This is completely false. But it’s one of the judgements. I choose not to set people straight, because it’s nobody’s business (even if I was being careless).1910391_519985478125_290_n

A lot of travel bloggers write about how their loved ones do not understand their decisions to travel. Their friends and families often believe it is “irresponsible”, “throwing your future away”, or just “sad” because you are “running away” from reality.

It’s actually very rare I ever meet a long-term traveler that any of those things are true about. But it’s a common theme that we face, and many of us commiserate together about it. For someone grieving that is intensified tenfold.

Loved ones do not do this on purpose. They honestly don’t even know they are doing it. And I believe that it actually comes from a place of love. But they are judging. The way we grieve gets judged. People noticed that I gained 15 pounds in the first several months.  People noticed I hadn’t started going through and clearing out my moms house. People noticed that I would rather be in a foreign country on certain calendar dates. And the gentle suggestions began. “Maybe it’s time to do… x.”, “Have you thought about… z?” They become less gentle later on. “I’ve noticed that you seem to… q”, and “why haven’t you… r”. Occasionally even, “this isn’t what your mother would have wanted”. Thankfully, the voices have quieted and now people just leave me alone. It’s better this way, but it would be a lie to say I wasn’t effected by those judgements. And I am aware they are still floating around. Those are the judgements people make about how anyone grieves. That doesn’t even cover the added fears people have if you decide to start traveling and completely change your life.
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If you are now where I was a couple years ago, you can take comfort in knowing that other travelers will understand you. Even if the people who love you most do not.  And that’s ok. They don’t have to understand us. They just have to love us and hopefully, in time, accept us as we are.34861_589585309505_4851773_n
I want to repeat for emphasis that I have never met anyone in my travels who is “running away” from anything. The famous quote, “not all those who wander are lost”, from a poem by J. R. R. Tolkien is a good one. But I want to take a step further and say that nearly nobody who travels is lost. Sure, people travel to gain perspective and maybe distance. But more importantly, people start to travel because they want to experience something. They know exactly where they are and why they are there. They feel a deep sense of purpose in their choices. Travelers are among the most thoughtful and self-aware people in the world. While we look like a rag-tag group of vagabond hippies who don’t have life figured out, for us it actually feels like the exact opposite. We feel like we have something figured out that our communities “back home” don’t. We are comfortable with the unknown. Most people never are. Many of us have learned the value in listening over speaking. We see the richness in the poorest of places, and we don’t pass judgements on people of extremely different backgrounds. We have a particular calm about us.

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When you are already in a vulnerable place, and need nothing but understanding and support, the world can be a bit of a slap in the face. Grief is not only about learning to live without your loved one. It is also about getting to know the world again. And as it turns out, the world may look very different when someone you are close to exits it.
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*Please note that I am not referring to any single person, but am talking about an overall sentiment that was very painful for me to come to terms with.  This is not meant in any way to point fingers at anyone in particular.  And I strongly believe that even the painful judgements always came from a place of love and caring.
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Traveling With Grief – My Stages

Europe
The first time I took off on my own was 3-4 months after my mom passed away. I booked a direct flight from New York to Dublin with a return flight home 4 weeks later out of Budapest. Beyond that, I had no plan. I wasn’t nervous about being lonely, and I wasn’t nervous about not knowing how or where I would stay. I was, however, extremely nervous that I was going to have a complete melt-down while I was away. There was the distinct possibility that I would have a serious panic attack that I wouldn’t be able to recover from… while in a foreign country… surrounded by strangers. Having had regular panic attacks for months, I started to consider cancelling the trip and waiting until I had my shit more together. But with the encouragement of a wonderful therapist, I decided to push myself and try.
Looking back at that month hopping around Europe, I was honestly a bit pathetic. But that was all on the inside. I managed to hold myself together for the full month. I had no panic attacks while I was away. Travel generally felt good (at least compared to what I had been feeling for a while).

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But I recognize that I was looking for my mom on that trip.

It’s not something logical or even explainable with words. But I had this distinct feeling while hiking around the curves of a mountain in the Alps that she would be there, behind the next turn, simply because it was beautiful. And when she wasn’t there, I saw a beautiful glacier in the distance. “That’s where she is. I just have to get closer to it…”. Then I would mentally smack myself back to reality. “Why the fuck would she be at a glacier in Switzerland? She’s dead. She’s nowhere. She said herself ‘when you’re dead, you’re dead’. And if she is anywhere it would be at the beach, anyways…”.
I pushed myself to do things that were scary. I went canyoning. At one point we had to jump off a cliff inside a narrow canyon into the glacial river below. I couldn’t do it. Surely I would hit my head on the treacherous layers of orange rock which were snugly surrounding me. Even with my helmet, it would be seriously bad news. The other 4 people in the group all jumped safely, but I would undoubtedly be the unlucky one. They all waited at the bottom watching me. The guide insisted I could do it. But I knew I could not. I stood there, frozen, staring down at the water below me that seemed miles away from where my toes anxiously rested. And as she often does, for no reason at all, my mom popped into my mind. I was momentarily transported back to that cold March day when she took her final breaths. I had asked her if she was scared, and she said “no”. She meant it, too. I heard the guide start counting to three in an act of encouragement, pulling me out of my trance. I knew in that moment that if my mom had the courage to die, I could jump off a stupid rock. I jumped on one. I felt a complete rush of energy combined with a true sense of accomplishment as the water splashed every which way and engulfed me into its cold embrace. I can still sort of taste the discomfort of icy water in my nostrils that I felt as I looked up at the leap I had taken. Then I went back to my hostel and cried myself to sleep.

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When I returned to the states, I knew that a month was not enough time. Traveling had been like medicine for my broken soul. I had proven that I could do it completely on my own, and that I could stay strong. It was in the comfort of my own home where life felt unbearable. I was in better shape being off in the unknown where I was forced to communicate with people, keep moving, and face the world each day.
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South America
I knew I needed more. And now I was ready for something a bit more extreme than Europe. I had my sights on South America. Beforehand, traveling SA solo sounded scary. But after Europe, I was certain I could handle it.

35021_589590379345_7330360_nPatagonia’s chilly beaches where I could surround myself with penguins in tuxedos, Iguazú waterfalls in the middle of lush jungle landscapes, and the high altitude sunrise behind the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu were all calling my name. Something about the Latin cultures were pulling me in like a fish caught on a line.

In a time when I couldn’t find joy in anything, I found positivity in this fantasy that I was going to embark on.

South America did not disappoint.

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I think anywhere you travel to in a time when you are re-learning who you are and what life is all about, will be a place that ends up being very special to you. If I had started my journey in Africa or Asia, I am sure I would feel a similar sense of love and home there too.  But I chose to start my journey in South America.  So for me, that is the continent that will always have my heart.
I went straight to the southern tip to “chill” with some penguins. Over the next four months I would find myself in four countries, surrounded by some of the most breathtakingly beautiful landscapes on earth, victim to a handful of “travel blunders”, and new friends with interesting wonderful characters. I would also cry at least once a day at my painful haunting memories.
At nearly four months, my time was running out and I knew I had to return back to the states to deal with life. I had to settle my mother’s estate, even though I wasn’t ready to. I was more equipped to handle those tasks after my time away, but I dreaded going home. “Home” felt like a prison that I had to return to and serve my time. And I hadn’t even made it to Machu Picchu. Four months in South America… and no Machu Picchu? What was wrong with me? Obviously I wasn’t done.
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And that’s what got me through the next 8 months at “home”. Because, I will tell you, every minute of it was pure hell. I don’t wish that emotional bullshit on anyone. I won’t go into detail, because that’s not what this post is about. But through it, I had a light at the end of the tunnel that was guiding me and pulling me up that metaphorical Mt. Everest. And the light had a name. South America. I knew when I finished clearing out that house, dissolving the trust, and making important financial decisions that I could return to the land of goodness and natural beauty. I could walk the Incan Steps at Machu Picchu, and swim with sea lions in the Galapagos. South America, with your promise of exotic fruits, deserts and jungles, you got me through it.
South America, Part II
So despite what other people may have wanted for me, I found my way back to the continent that had given me life again. This time around I had less “baggage” in my allegorical suitcase. There were still a few grief related dramas to iron out along my travels, but the hardest parts were behind me. I spent those 6 months breathing huge sighs of relief and recovering from the horrific job I had just put behind me.

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South America, Part III + Asia
After 6 months in South America my second time around, it was time to return to the states for a little while. This time, it wasn’t because I had to. But instead, because I wanted to. One of my dearest friends on earth was having a baby. I coulnd’t possibly miss that. I was eager to see many of my loved ones. I also was due for some doctor check-ups and vaccines if I would continue this nomadic lifestyle that I knew I wasn’t finished with. It now became a lifestyle that I was choosing, filled with purpose and curiosity. I figured I had 2 countries left that still called out to me in South America, plus a growing interest in South East Asia that was tugging me to the other side of the world. The obvious signs of grief were behind me. My loved ones were still mostly displeased that I would be leaving, yet again. But there was more acceptance this time around. And now here I am in northern Thailand, writing about the journey of grief I have taken around the world.
And honestly, that is where this chapter ends. It wasn’t all sunshine and roses after that. But things started to feel ok. Life started to feel ok. I don’t know exactly when or exactly how it happened. But I know that it happened in stages. Perhaps it is still happening and in a couple more years I will be writing about this particular stage of grief that I am in now from a country I haven’t yet thought to visit. Who knows?
I know that I am grateful to be able to feel joy again. And I know that I am eternally grateful that I had the opportunity to travel through my pain. Travel helped me soldier forward until it no longer felt like “soldiering” anymore. Travel became a passion and a calling at a time when I needed just those things. Travel meant fulfilling my goals. Writing about my experiences abroad, and taking beautiful photos became a mission and gave me purpose.
I gently suggest looking for a “mission and purpose” to anyone living in the shadows of grief. It gives you sprinkles of light to focus on through the darkness. In time, the light will snuff out the dark. Travel was my sprinkles in the storm.
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I would sure like to call you up on the telephone, Mom, and talk like we used to every night. We have a hell of a lot to catch up on, no? Thanks for raising me with the courage and stubbornness to do it all my way. I know you would have done it all very differently than I did. But you are the one who gave me the tools and the confidence to overcome these crappy obstacles. And apparently, the tools and confidence to travel the world. Throughout my life, you always helped me to encounter the unconventional path on the left that would work for me alone, even when all the other kids turned right. You gave me the skills to live without you. And I suppose that’s the most important thing a mother could ever do. At that, and at so many other things, you will always be the most successful woman I will ever know.  Now it’s on me.
Thank you for my wings.
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8 thoughts on “Sprinkles In The Storm

  1. Rachel, thank you for sharing your most intimate thoughts. You have beautifully articulated what I know is an extremely painful part of your life. You are very brave. Love, Joanne

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  2. This is such a beautiful dedication to your mum. It is powerful and emotional. I had tears when I read your leaping into the canyon. Thanks for sharing it. I love reading your blog of all your travels, too.

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  3. Wow Rachel. You write incredibly well. I can feel your heart. Again, I’m so sorry for your loss. I haven’t experienced it yet, but it is still my worst nightmare. It is good to know it will get better with time but I don’t think it can ever be easy. thank you for cleaning for clearing up some misconceptions about long term travelers as well. I never ask people how they afford to travel because I also find it rude. Anyway, you should write a book because people can relate with you and you do a great job of conveying your honest feelings. Hope we can meet in Bali.

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  4. Wow, that was an incredible read and not too long at all. Sounds like you definitely went to hell and back. 😦 I’m happy to hear about the progress you’ve made. And I’m glad that you turned to travel for help – definitely one of the better options out there!

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  5. This gave me the goose bumps… I traveled to Austrlia in 2014 with my best friend from college (first trip abroad). The following year I left for SE Asia on my own… 3 weeks into it, I get the worst call of my life… My best friend died in a car crash. I was in Pai, Thailand at the night market when I got the call… I’ll never forget. I had the choice to fly home, and cancel my entire trip, or stay and continuing following mine and her’s dream. It was one of the hardest decision of my life. I lost a part of me when I lost her. It took me 18 months before I could come home and face the reality of it. I went and lived mine and her’s dream of living and working in Australia one day. I think her death is the reason I am living my life the way I am, and traveling the world. It brings me peace, and I feel her with me. I completely understand your position. I am deeply sorry! You seem like such a strong women, and I really enjoy reading your blogs!

    Shanna Truscott
    Wild and Free Travel

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    1. Thank you so much for sharing that story with me. That’s so intense to lose your friend so suddenly. It’s pretty incredible the effect that loss can have on us and how it changes the way we view life, and the way we choose to live. Your friend is clearly still very much a part of you and always will be. I’ve heard it said that although someone we love may die, the relationship actually lives on. And it’s really true. Death doesn’t end relationships – although it does profoundly alter them. I appreciate your support and that you took a little time out of your day to read my words ❤

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