Traveling with grief is not fun. I have taken 4 or 5 big trips since Caleb died and I thought I would share my thoughts on 1)what its like traveling with grief and 2) how to handle traveling with grief.
Ten days after our son died we stepped onto a plane headed for Florida to "get away" to a friend's condo. I had no idea of grief at that point and I thought nothing of traveling since I had never had any real issues with traveling. Waiting in the airport for our flight made me feel anxious. Every minute there was another minute that someone with a live baby could show up. Boarding the plane I had major anxiety about who would sit next to me, would they have a baby? Or be pregnant? Or try to strike up conversation? I lived in constant fear of breaking down and back then breaking down looked very ugly and scary. Being trapped in an airport and then on the plane made me feel like the oxygen was slowly being drained and I was going to suffocate. I ended up finally breaking down once we landed and were grocery shopping. The checkout boy kept asking us if we had had a good Easter. When Nathan said "no,not really," the boy would not leave it alone and wanted to know WHY we had had such a bad Easter. I lost it at that point and ran crying out of the store. The first of many scenes grief would make me have....but at least I made it until the evening to break down!
The next trip was five weeks later and not much better because for half of it I had to travel alone. Although this time I brought my crucifix, my rosary, and a book to keep me busy. I wanted to make it clear from the beginning that conversation with me was not going to happen. I was in no state to have "small talk" so I learned how to put that vibe out there. All I remember from that trip is having a major break down once we arrived at our location and feeling panicked because the only way back to my "safe zone," my house, was getting back on another plane. It was all too much.
A year later I traveled again, but with a newborn and not in a plane but in car. This went better, but I remember how draining it felt. Making decisions and planning routes and times was a lot for my post-trauma self to handle.
And lastly I have recently taken two more trips, both with only me and my daughter. One was flying and one was driving. These went much better because I feel like I finally have the hang of traveling with grief. So here is what I do:
- Self care intensely before and after a trip. This means making things as easy as possible around the house before and after I leave. No more waiting until the last day and rushing around, instead I pack in little stages. The days leading up to the trip I either do frozen meals or we grab subway. Cooking is not a priority so it gets crossed off the list in an effort to store up my energy. I also make sure to pack things like comfort foods and comfort items (diet coke...). I usually bring something of Caleb with me when I travel-like his blanket or picture in order to feel more comfort.
-Don't think about it. Since losing Caleb, every time I travel the actual anticipation of the travel is harder than the actual travel. Thoughts of car accidents and plane crashes flood my mind and every possible terrible scenario runs through my head. I have learned to not give into those and re-direct my thoughts as soon as they come. I don't even engage in them because if I do they take me so far down the rabbit hole that I will be paralyzed by fear and have a hard time even starting the trip.
- Talk yourself through it. I didn't realize I needed this, but when I traveled a month ago on the plane it really helped me. I rehearsed in my head what would happen. "Ill show up, check my bags, get my boarding pass, get settled, eat, and wait." Just going over that in my head helped take the fear out of the what ifs that could pop up. Sure they can still happen, but going over it in my head makes me feel more prepared, like I have a plan. (and this is something that even as I write this sounds crazy but truly I have had to re-learn how to do things since grief and this is one thing that really helps takes the edge off of stressful, fast moving situations-like checking onto a plane).
- Create a "safe place" once you get to where you are going. We did this on our last trip to North Dakota last Christmas. We knew the holidays would be hard and that we would need to cry. Having a "safe place" like our bedroom or bathroom where we knew we could retreat back into when we got overwhelmed helped. I don't remember actually using it, but just having an escape place made me feel better and made things more manageable.
- Don't think once you are there. Don't think about the 4 days or 2 weeks you have left. Don't think about what could go wrong, don't think about whats going wrong at home. I try very hard to keep these thoughts away while I am on vacation. I just tell myself to get through ONE day, and worry about the rest later.
-BUT if those thoughts do come and if you have to give into them, know that its normal. This happened on my last trip when I decided to follow in my car behind my friend to drive to an apple orchard. I let Abigail stay in my friend's car and then drove myself because we were leaving from the orchard. That 20 minute drive got the best of me. All I could think was "they will all die. I'm driving behind them and I know there will be an accident and I will have to watch my friend die, her little girl, and my daughter." I started thinking of how I would get Abigail's body back to Illinois (morbid-maybe but real to me) and what the phone call home to Nathan would sound like.
My counselor would call this knowing the "fragility of decisions." I don't see decisions the same way anymore, I see them with their possible eternal consequences, even when they seem irrational. So for those 20 minutes I engaged in the terrible thinking until I pulled myself out and started saying the rosary out loud. I also told myself over and over again that I was normal for thinking those things. That helped and soon enough we arrived safely.
-Let others know that you might not be up to the same pace you once were. Be honest about your energy level and what you realistically can and cannot do.
- Expect it to be different. I really cannot say that vacation is that relaxing anymore since our loss. It truly requires a lot of effort on my part to stay sane and try to appear relaxed. But at this point I have come to see that its another side effect of our loss and there is nothing to do about it. I no longer expect it to be the same, I expect it to take work and eventually maybe it will be relaxing. Because the other option is never traveling again and I will not let that be an option.
Hoping this helps others out there who are traveling this holiday season. I know this will not be everyone's experience of traveling after grief, but it's an honest look at how hard it is for me to travel with grief. Please keep us in your prayers as we head to North Dakota this holiday season.