Grief is often described as a metaphorical journey but it can also be a physical one - setting yourself a challenge or pilgrimage in someone's memory, seeing a place they always vowed to visit or retracing a significant journey they made can be hugely healing and help you feel connected to them. I'm speaking from experience. It's been two years since I lost my favourite travel companion and the most adventurous person I've ever known, an experience which has made me seize every opportunity I get to see the world and live life to the absolute fullest. I've learnt that grief can unexpectedly spur us on to be more spontaneous, courageous and adventurous than ever.
My boyfriend, Laurens Higler, was just 26 years old when he was killed in a hit-and-run incident by a convicted drunk driver. Experiencing a sudden loss of this magnitude in your 20s is unimaginably hard. I still miss him but I'm learning to cope with the void his absence left behind. Losing someone you love is a reminder of how short and precious our time on earth is and that we shouldn't be passive participants in life.
Laurens and I met when he was on an epic two-year sailing adventure from the Netherlands to the Caribbean. We had bonded over our love of travel and I continue to be inspired by his brave decision to pursue his lifelong dream and sail across the Atlantic with his two best friends in tow. Since his death, we've all made trips in his honour - his Mother amazed and inspired us all by going to China, somewhere she told Laurens she was going to visit one day, his childhood friend Frederick went hiking through New Zealand on her own and several of us visited Puerto Rico, where he died, to retrace his final steps and see the place he talked so fondly of.
A year after his death, I found myself in India. Laurens had a particular affinity with Mumbai, having spent several months writing his University thesis on water sanitation in the slums, so it felt like the obvious place to head to. I wanted to see a part of the world he held dear and hoped I'd discover more about him by coming here. Whilst the trip was life-changing in many ways, there were pros and cons to embarking on a solo travel trip after going through a personal trauma like losing someone you love. Here are five important things to bear in mind if you're thinking of travelling as a way to cope with grief...
Not everyone will understand
Friends worried that I would struggle being so geographically detached from my support network. My family were tentatively encouraging but fretted about the dangers of being a lone girl travelling through India. Even my bereavement counsellor questioned my motivations and asked how I felt about the prospect of not having our weekly sessions, which had become part of my routine. I reassured them all that I was ready for a change of scenery and that the trip would be healing, but deep down, doubts were creeping in. I'd told myself it was just what I needed but perhaps I was running away and maybe I'd feel exactly the same in India, I'd just be 4,500 miles away from a familiar hug.
Grief Can Be A Catalyst for Change
I had tried 6 months of bereavement counselling, consumed books on coping with grief and taken advice off friends and strangers about how to readjust to this sudden loss. But grief is a journey I felt I had to travel alone and I decided a posthumous pilgrimage in his honour would be a fitting tribute to the most adventurous person I know. The more I've spoken to people about this, the more I've learnt that I'm not alone. My work colleague lost her Mother in her 20s and decided to climb Mount Kilamonjaro to raise money for a cancer charity. One of my best friends ran the London marathon not long after losing her Mother. My heartbroken Uncle made a pilgrimage to all the places in Australia and NEW Zealand my adventure-loving cousin had visited in his GAP year before he died aged just 24. Grief is a catalyst for change and tragedy often motivates us to set personal challenges in memory of those we love. I had always talked of going to India, but losing Laurens accelerated my vague intention to make this happen.
Grief Can Make the Perfect Travel Companion
Travelling alone in a strange land, you'd think I'd feel more isolated than ever. But quite the opposite, walking the streets of Mumbai's slums, a place he had spoken so fondly of, I felt a renewed connection to him and hoped he'd be proud that I had found the strength to keep going without him. I told myself that he wouldn't want me wallowing in my misery and would be angry if I'd used my grief as an excuse to lock myself away from the world.
I've also found that grief is, in some ways, the perfect travel companion. Grief doesn't judge you for wanting time alone or having a little spontaneous cry. Grief will remind you to take less risks, acting as the voice of reason when you find yourself in jeopardy. Grief will spur you to keep in touch with those you love and remind them as often as possible that you're OK. Grief gives you perspective and when you've already been to hell and back, minor mishaps seem inconsequential. You certainly won't be fazed anymore by trivial things like a missed bus or cancelled flight!
Pick The Right Time
I waited nearly a year before embarking on my trip as I felt it was important to work through the worst months with my loved ones in easy reach. But it was crucial for me to prove I could cope on my own. Grieving is exhausting but also becomes a familiar friend, one you grow attached to if you allow it to dominate your life for too long. Going travelling gave me the headspace I craved but failed to find back home and whilst there were many moments in India when I wished Laurens was there with me, I had time for deep reflection and strange encounters that made me feel he was on the trip with me. Like when I met another backpacker, Chris, who had also lost someone he knew very young - a great friend of his died in a base jumping accident at a similar age to Laurens and we bonded over our shared loss. A few weeks later, I got a Facebook message from Chris (apologies for the typos but I wanted to include the original message):
Perhaps a strange coincidence or maybe a sign that Laurens was with us in spirit.
Use The Trip To Honour That Person
A couple of months into my trip, it was the anniversary of Laurens' death. It was a difficult day and speaking to his Mother made me long to be commemorating the day with them. That night, I slept in the desert in Jaisalmer, and let myself cry for him and all he was missing out on. But as I gazed up at the stars, I was reminded that whist he'll always be the brightest star in my sky, the universe still has a lot to offer me.
Originally posted on www.backpackinginheels.com