9 lessons travel taught me about life, death, and grief (part 1)

Grief and loss change you. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that. If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely because you and your world have been changed by grief and loss in ways you couldn’t imagine or maybe in ways you don’t believe you can bear. I get it. I was there, and sometimes I’m still there. Or you might be reading this blog not because you want to explore grief and loss, but because you are considering therapy with me and want to get to know me. I get that, too. In either case, I hope to shed some light on how exploring our relationship with grief, loss, death, and dying can allow us to live more fulfilling lives.

When I experienced a traumatic loss, I felt overwhelmingly confused about the meaning, direction, and purpose of my life— all things that I believed I was so clear on prior to that moment in time. And in the days and weeks and months following my loss, I noticed a strong desire to flee and to retreat to the life I once had. I had constant shaking in my legs, my heart was always racing, and I was hypervigilant. For those of you in therapy with me… you guessed it: lots of sympathetic nervous system activation which is linked to the fight or flight response.

As a body-centered psychotherapist, I understood that my physical experience and this desire to flee was linked to what I was unable to do, what was thwarted during the traumatic loss— which was to escape. Through my personal therapy work, I came to the understanding that I needed to allow my body to experience the fullness of its capacity, to expand in ways it didn’t feel safe to do so in the moment, and to confront my fears of dying by feeling alive inside my body again. So, I decided to take a two month backpacking trip throughout Southeast Asia—a place that had been calling me for years. This is what I learned…

  1. ” You can’t plan for everything—not in matters of life or death.”

About 5 years ago I developed an interest in solo travel, and coincidentally this was around the same time my Amazon book-buying obsession was beginning. As it typically goes, my search for one particular book led to another, which led to another, which led to Lonely Planet’s travel guide of Myanmar. The cover at the time featured a picture of a hot air balloon flying over an ornate pagoda against a beautiful grassy field. I was immediately captivated and knew I had to make my way there at some point in my life.

Flash forward to Summer 2018—I decided to book a one-way ticket to Myanmar to fly in that very balloon in an attempt to release all the grief I was carrying inside. I should tell you, this experience books rather quickly and you must prepare months in advance to secure your flight. So, my perfectionist part jumped into gear, and I organized my trip around this dream that was soon to become a reality… or so I thought.

I arrived in Bagan, Myanmar around 6am after a dreadful 10 hour overnight bus from the southern region of the country (where I had spent several days), just in time to see the sun rising and the balloons launching from the rooftop restaurant of the guesthouse I was staying in. I can’t explain how excited I was to see them fill the sky and know that I was scheduled to take flight the next day. As much as I was looking forward to taking flight, I also firmly believed that this balloon is what would “solve” all my grief and pain.

As I write this, I’m reminded of the poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams. It’s a seemingly simple poem, but one I’ve reflected on at various stages of my life. The portion of the poem that I often repeat in my head is this: “so much depends upon a red wheel barrow.” In my mind, so much depended upon this red hot air balloon—all of my healing and all of my hope were riding on this balloon.

Even though we were projected to have gray skies, lots of wind, and rain, the balloon company was right on time to pick me up from my guesthouse the following morning. We arrived on site to see rows of balloons lying on the ground just waiting to be inflated, just waiting to heal my grief. That is until our pilot told us that it was not safe to fly, and we would have to make arrangements for another day. Another day?! I held back tears. I traveled across the world because of a loss that I did not ask for only to be told that I wouldn’t get the thing I planned and prepared for! If you work with me in therapy, I use Terry Real’s Relational Life Therapy model to refer to this as the Wounded Child part. I have one, too, and my part requires things to feel fair in order to feel safe.

I allowed myself to attend to my sadness—to feel it, to acknowledge it. Then my Functional Adult Self came forward and knew there was something that could be done, something the Wounded Child would have seen as being futile (the ‘What’s the point? That will never work!’ voice). I rode my e-bike over to the office and waited 2 hours for them to open. I was determined to be the first in line to attempt to reschedule my flight for the next day. There were about 15 other people behind me wanting to reschedule, but I got the one and only spot open.

The weather was supposed to be the same the next day, so when I was picked up from my guesthouse that morning, I didn’t have high expectations that the flight was going to happen, and I tried to convince myself that maybe so much didn’t depend upon a red hot air balloon after all.

On site, I met a woman named Kareen, a fellow solo traveler from Germany. I told her about the previous day and how disappointed I was that I didn’t get to fly. I shared how I came all this way for this moment—I planned, organized, and prepared my whole trip around this point in time. And she said something that touched me in ways I haven’t yet fully grasped: “You can’t plan for everything—not in matters of life or death.”

I was instantly overcome with deep understanding which quickly transformed into peace, like a wave crashing onto the shore only to return safely back to the ocean.

Planning is not inherently a bad thing, but the over-reliance on planning and perfection is an adaptive strategy the Wounded Child uses to prevent the Self from feeling pain—this is called the Adaptive Child. Yet pain and the unexpected are part of the human experience. And the truth is that the Self is fully capable of navigating whatever comes its way, even traumatic loss.

I didn’t plan to experience a traumatic loss, and the thing I did plan for… well, I couldn’t completely control that either. Shit is going to happen in life. Terrible shit. Let me say that a few more times: shit, shit, SHIT! But when I focus all of my energy, time, and hope on things going according to plan, all I do is set myself up for pain, and oddly enough, that’s the very thing I had been trying to prevent. Weird how that works, huh?

Kareen didn’t know what she just handed me, but it was truly a gift. My eyes swelled with tears because I just received the actual thing I was seeking this whole time: understanding that life is unfolding the way it needs to in order for you to learn the lessons you need to learn.

I ended up taking flight that day with Kareen—she was my basket-mate. Kareen and I had breakfast afterwards with the rest of the passengers on board. We sat next to each other and she was just as excited as I was about having seconds and thirds of food and champagne and taking selfies following our awesome adventure. She encouraged me to allow my trip to unfold and throw out all the plans. And I did.

I want to wish a happy International Women’s Day to all the incredible female solo travelers I met on my journey and all the women who paved the way for us to explore this world on our own!

This was just part 1 of my series. There are 8 more pearls of wisdom to go. They won’t be as long—this story just meant a lot to me. Check back soon!