Howe to: dealing with grief when travelling
While you’re away travelling, you might experience dealing with grief at some point. It might be from a good friend breaking up with a long term boyfriend you were close to. Or your friend at home didn’t get the job they worked hard for. You might have to say goodbye to a great travel buddy because they have a different path to you. Leaving your favourite place on your travels because you need to move on to the next country. The worse case scenario, a family member or friend has passed away.
I truly believe that grief is not always felt when something so terrible happens. It can be felt with any loss or pain, no matter how big or small it might be. And I think we experience this a lot when travelling. As well as a lot of joy and excitement of course.
During your time away your friends and family may think you’re having an amazing time. They might say that you’re so lucky to be having such incredible experiences. Don’t get me wrong, 9 out of 10 times they are right.
However, even when travelling to the most beautiful places, earth-shattering and traumatic events can still reach you. It brings you very quickly back to reality and makes you realise life is not always this fairytale dream we call travelling.
My experience with grief while travelling
At the end of last year I went through a series of heartbreaking and extremely upsetting experiences. All in the space of a month my amazing time in Mexico turned into a complete nightmare. The only thing I could do was to go home and be with my family.
It started with a heart-attack in the family just after my birthday. Thankfully this was just a very big scare! The first contact with death on this trip was finding out that someone I had been out with the night before was killed in a car accident that very next day. It happened along the road I travelled on later that evening. I didn’t find out the horrible news until I arrived 12 hours later into San Cristobal de las Casas. I didn’t know the guy that much, but to have seen someone so full of life and as the soul of the party only the night before, sent shivers down my spine.
A week or so later I found out that my Grandma was extremely sick and hospitalised while I was staying with a friend in Cancun. My family were due to come out to Mexico to visit me for a 3 week Christmas holiday in 10 days time. When I realised my Grandma was not going to get any better, I rushed to Cancun airport and was on a flight home within the hour.
I want to express to any of you who may be dealing with grief or going through a similar experience that going home is not a defeat. I struggled with this idea the most. Leaving Mexico and the wonderful people I had met was devastating. I was leaving some amazing friends, the best food I have ever tasted, a gorgeous crush and best friend behind, not knowing if I would come back. But home was where I needed to be. Travelling will always be there for me but it was my turn to be there for my family.
I have had a lot of time to think since I came back to travelling. I have found certain ways in dealing with grief that I wanted to share with you. They aren’t guaranteed to help but so far since back in Latin America, they have really benefited me.
How I am dealing with grief while travelling
It might sound like a travelling cliché but I really found yoga to help with clearing my mind. With each deep exhalation, you leave behind any negative thoughts that have been consuming you.
Yoga lets you try new things and challenges your body mentally and physically. You celebrate each mistake as you try again and again, not allowing yourself to give up or care what other people think. It can empower you by making you feel stronger and taller as you’re more rooted to the earth during your practise, like a tree. Everything has a positive outlook and celebrates you being there and for the day ahead. It’s such a refreshing and soothing feeling, especially when you are dealing with grief. It lets you see everything in a bigger picture and that everything is falling into place.
With the practise of yoga, you also learn the benefits of breathing. Concentrating on your breath allows you to appreciate the quality of your air and therefore enriches your quality of life as you learn to appreciate the things around you. I learned that to calm your heart rate and nervous system, you exhale out longer than your inhale. I really have found this to relax me if I am feeling overwhelmed or can’t sleep.
Rid yourself of all negativity
When travelling you can meet certain people who have a negative attitude towards things. They may moan and pick faults with everything. This can be exhausting and can drain all of your positive energy away. When you are already feeling down, it is so important to try and keep your energy high. It bounces of those who are also at this level and you attract each other.
Being with fun and exciting people can help keep your spirits up. But don’t get me wrong, you can still have your moments when your spirits may come tumbling down. When this happens just let it out. Don’t be scared to express how you are feeling. I was so worried about people thinking I was miserable because I didn’t want to get drunk and go out. I didn’t think I deserved to have fun because those I cared about no longer could. This is a highly negative thought I have seriously battled with and still am.
If you try and explain your feelings with someone you trust or have become close to, they will be able to get a better understanding of what you are going through. I’m sure they will not think you are boring and miserable, but instead be able to feel your emotions. When you travel you become so close to people very quickly. When you talk about your situations you soon realise that other people may be dealing with grief too. Let them help you, let them listen to you and return the favour.
It might be exhausting to rid yourself of negative people. Give them a chance, let them in and see if all they need is to try something new. If this doesn’t work, be honest with them. You also need to spend some quality time with yourself to heal and you might have to do this alone.
Let positivity find you
Fortunately when you travel, you do have the luxury to select the people you want to be with. If you are drawn towards like-minded people, make the push and join them. One of the best things I did on this trip was to invite myself to a wine bar with 3 Australian girls I had only just met. They turned out to be the most inspiring, positive and motivated chicks I have ever travelled with. I am so grateful to have met them and to be able to have them there for me during this heartbreaking time.
When I came back to Mexico with my family for Christmas after my Grandma’s funeral, I had a friend I met 3 years ago contact me. I was ready to catch the same flight home as my family when they were to return to the UK and just end my travels. But I kept myself open to meeting up with Emily once my parents left and I was ready to see where it would take me. For 3 amazing months, I travelled with Emily to Belize and Guatemala. I couldn’t be any more grateful to her for completely saving my travels and myself. It goes to show that being around such a positive and optimistic person, constantly smiling, it really allows you to share this same attitude and outlook.
Let it all out
One important thing I must stress is don’t be afraid to cry your eyes out. It’s not weakness, it’s emotion. Emotions need to be let go of otherwise bottling them up can just make things worse. On my flight back home, I cried every second. I was absolutely devastated I was leaving Mexico and that I was leaving good friends behind. The thought of returning to miserable England and the possibility of my Grandma not being there by the time I got back was heartbreaking.
People may not ask if you are ok (for the entire 10 hour flight) and maybe that would be more comforting. But such is life, you can’t always rely on other people to make you feel better. It’s only you who can.
When I got back to Mexico, I was so excited to see this Australian guy I had the biggest crush on. I planned to visit Valladolid on the family road trip to be able to see his work-in-progress hostel. On Christmas Eve I thought I would get in touch with him. I instead found out that Gus had been hit by a bus on the day of my Grandma’s funeral. I’ve never felt pain like this and I can’t even begin to imagine what his family and friends have had to go through.
I have fought so hard not to cry whenever something reminds me of Gus. Even writing this, I’m hiding in the back of a café a complete mess. It can be from someone who is practising a magic trick, a particular song that comes on during a yoga practise, an Australian accent, silly pineapple shorts or anyone who walks past with brown, curly, floppy hair. It’s so difficult because you don’t want to break down and cry in the middle of a bar or go home early every time something sets you off. So what can you do?
You must turn it around and think how fortunate you are to still be here and how lucky you were to have this person in your life. The people you have lost would not want you spending your time sad and grieving, but instead to celebrate their life and your future.
Learn about different cultures and their way of dealing with grief
My whole perspective of death changed when I experienced el dia de los muertos in Oaxaca last November. It was so strange for me to think of celebrating someones life rather than mourn their death. Looking back, I think being in Mexico for this festival, before everything turned to shit, was to prepare me for all of what was to come.
Learning about a new way of dealing with grief and death by the Mexicans has really let me approach everything with a little more positivity. I am not saying that it makes everything alright. But that I can now celebrate my Grandma’s amazing life and her love for her family, food and jazz music and feel happiness about it. I can now take those amazing few days with Gus as something exciting as I get to hopefully one day feel the same way about someone. Turning to a more happy and positive outlook is a lot better for your being and soul. Feeding off the negativity of the situation can turn ugly and eat away at you.
Something that really touched me was witnessing numerous spiritual ceremonies in the Iglesia San Juan Chamula in Chiapas, Mexico. The Tzotzil people come to the church, which is like no other, to be healed of any badness and evil. The families group together on the floor covered with pine needles and burn hundreds of candles. Each coloured one having its own significance. For example, yellow is to rid of any jealousy. They pray and weep aloud with a healer, drinking coca-cola to burp out any remaining negative spirits. You can see in their praying how desperate they are for this healing process.
I am not a religious person but seeing this faith the local people have in their beliefs and traditions makes me think is this an important aspect of dealing with grief? I’ll leave this up to you to decide.
This might not be the case for everyone who is dealing with grief but for me, music with lyrics was only making things worse. I focused on every single word and felt like I could relate to the sadness they might be expressing or felt sorry for myself when they were celebrating the love they have. Consequently sending me further into the depths of depression.
For a long time now I have had a passion for electronic music. It’s rhythms and layered build ups give me such euphoria that sends me to a place no other genre can. It takes me away from all the bullshit we are fed in mainstream pop and my thoughts just start to disappear. It’s my own type of meditation and it is perfect for long bus journeys. You could call this technique of mine a distraction, but we need these sometimes to calm ourselves.
Don’t believe in failure
When my family left me in Mexico, I was so lucky to have a friend who I met in Australia to be there and wanting to do a similar path as I did. I wanted to leave Mexico, leave the streets I knew Gus had walked down and be away from where we would have seen each other once again. I practically invited myself on Emily’s trip and we had 3 amazing months travelling together. She hands down saved me and my travels.
It wouldn’t have been a failure if I had gone home in January. I would have been disappointed to cut my trip short but Mexico will always be there. I would have been with my family, who needs my support as much as I need theirs. If everything gets too much, maybe considering going home is the best thing for you.
I was still motivated to travel, especially once I had left Mexico and going to new countries. I was worried that when I came back that desire to constantly be on the move and meeting new people would fade away. There were times when this happened but this allowed me to appreciate time to myself and also stay in places for longer, getting to know the local people and their way of life much better.
You have to listen to yourself, don’t force anything and do what is only good for you and no one else. I know travelling is good for me and makes me happy so I didn’t want to give up on that.
Meeting new people is not always easy
In the weeks after my family left, I knew I was not being myself. I had moments where I felt like I was going back to my bubbly and constantly laughing self but they were rare at first. It did make it difficult to connect with other backpackers as I felt any new relationship would be fake. I didn’t see this as a failure as I knew I wasn’t ready to completely be myself and I wasn’t meeting the right people to relax with. It was also amazing just being with Emily.
I could feel my conversations had no real substance and it was hard to hold any interest in other people’s we had just met. Maybe it was because I’ve been on the road for over a year now and the same small talk is getting tiring. My mind was always wandering and would take me back to traumatic thoughts, which were so hard to switch off. It’s not a failure to wait as long as you need for these to go away, it’s a way of dealing with grief.
Try new things
If you open yourself up to new experiences, it’s a great way of clearing your bad thoughts away. They are replaced with new memories that you cannot relate back to previous ones that may upset you.
So far this year I have tried…
- yoga and meditation
- meeting and immersing myself in new cultures, such as the Mennonites in Belize and the Zapatistas in Mexico.
- hitchhiking in Belize
- being secluded from wifi
- scuba diving to a new depth of 40 metres in the Great Blue Hole
- cacao making and drinking cacao as a ceremony
- road trips
- a new tattoo
- falling in love with Lake Atitlan
- saying no to things I don’t want to do, like jumping off a cliff!
- making some amazing friends and going on incredible journeys with them
- travel off the beaten track and being the only tourists at a Reggaeton festival in Mazatenango
- see an active volcano erupt at a rave
- eat as much local food as possible
- start my website, Howe to roam the world
All of these amazing things are what travelling is all about and even when we are dealing with grief we should still let ourselves be open to them. It is what makes us feel alive and appreciate the life we have chosen to live. I believe the incredible people I have lost are so proud of me for what I wake up and decide to do each day, as long as I am living the day to the fullest. They can live through us and what an adventure we can take them on!
If you want to share any of your personal ways of dealing with grief while travelling, please feel free to contact me or leave a comment below. I’d love to hear how others