Lounging on a floating dock off a hush-hush side road of Whitewater Lake in Walworth County, Wisconsin; sipping on cheap beer and watching rowdy, shirtless guys dive after a miniaturized foam football. I was approximately 900 miles away from home and 20 days out from burying my grandfather, a loss that reverberated through my entire body. Up until that point I wasn’t sure I’d ever be whole once I had to accept a world without him in it. Even so, I was in the middle of Wisconsin minnow-spotting and finally able to breathe in the wake of this sizable loss.
Prior to my long-weekend traipse to the Midwest, I was surrounded by desultory outbursts and sleepless nights while texts poured in from family asking if I was doing alright in the days after. And while I messaged back “Yes, I’m OK,” I truly wasn’t. I was caught in this dreary world filled with constant reminders of the man who raised me when my parents couldn’t. I floated there; just shy of three weeks from his death, I moved through the starting points of grief in a perpetual state of feeling as if parts of my nervous system were severed.
A friend slid an opportunity in front of me to join her for a long weekend away to her family home in Whitewater, Wisconsin — not particularly on my list of remote vacation locales, but it was a plane ride away and brimming with promises of a comfortable bed, swimming, and all the cheddar sausage gravy I could ever dream of. So, I booked my roundtrip ticket to Diversion Island in the hopes that I would return that Monday with some semblance of an understanding of how to continue in this brand new world...and it worked.
In an effort to really come to terms with why, I spoke to clinical psychologist Dr. Robert Gangi, PhD of The Greenwich Village Center for Separation and Loss to pinpoint, unbeknownst to me, how I was able to fritter away in the Land of Every Brewery Ever in the aftermath of losing the man I considered my dad: “Distractions are a necessary part of coping with any traumatic loss. No one can live in either sadness or escape all of the time," he said. "Adapting to this new world is a large-scale project that requires both. The process of grief is one of navigating these extremes and the range of everything in between.”
Basically, my weekender trip was long enough for me to break away from my depression but short enough to gain some perspective when I got back to my reality.
He continued: “One of the things that, I think, makes travel enjoyable is that the removal of the cues and details of everyday life, in effect, creates a new and different self. This can be quite tempting for someone whose self has just been changed for the worse.”
Not that my short-lived stint in Wisconsin revived my personality or self, but it did reset my priorities, upending the bouts of forgetful high followed by overwhelming lows.
Prior to my grandfather's death, my morning went as follows: wake up, take a shower, eat toast, get dressed, call or see him, leave for work. Every single day for my entire life. In fact, I don’t remember a moment when he wasn’t there. Those 20 days were brutal and relentless; caught in a mean "Groundhog Day" of sort. The last part was me sitting on my bed staring at my phone wishing he would be on the other end.
The new surroundings made it easier to relax and accept this truth instead of cycling through memories. I just couldn’t keep seething over how unfair it all was. “There's nothing like the ocean, some mountains or a change of scenery to contemplate your one precious life,” says life coach, writer, and advisor Susie Moore. “We need to feel our feelings. We can't just skip over them. Give time time.”
There I was giving time time in Wisconsin eating cheese curds and drinking PBR; coping away and feeling guilty for having fun. Was it inappropriate of me to be living out this bikini-clad long weekend away while the rest of my family was back in New York still navigating this death?
“Guilt is a very common product of loss — frequently manifesting in various kinds of self-persecution, destructiveness, or at the very least, self-denial," Gangi said. “Laughing, play, or comfort of almost any sort can feel like a betrayal of the lost loved one, who was cheated out of these fruits of life, or even a sign that our grief is an inadequate insult to someone to whom we still owe a duty of affection.”
This all works a lot better with a friend at your side, as I can’t imagine that I would have faired well in a new place alone with just my thoughts to keep me company. Also (and this is something to really consider): I’ve been an active traveler for the last few years and can’t deny the adrenaline-fueled, devil-may-care quality to it and the ability to be a new person in new surroundings making new decisions based on this new perspective. Losing someone so close to me enlisted a fearless, come-what-may vibe like I had never felt before. I was living a life where my biggest fear had come true and nothing after could phase me.
“The 'nothing left to be afraid of' attitude is, more often than not, a brittle sort of bravado that ultimately crumbles — leaving the bereaved particularly vulnerable to pain for which they are starkly unprepared,” Gangi said. This is definitely a red flag to be aware of if you make a bereavement break for it, but having a friend with me curbed any spontaneous decision-making and alcohol escapism that was nudging me in the back of my mind. This is not to say you shouldn't take risks. You should, but having a buddy to gut-check a decision is beyond beneficial when you’ve expended so much emotional energy and just want to feel something other than 24/7 sadness.
As I was exploring this new world, I kept coming back to judgment and how to make good decisions when your universe is cloudy. I’m very lucky to be the kind of person who has actively worked on my confidence and emotional maturity in order to be able to face bereavement with an air of practicality. Nonetheless, there is a level of tenacity needed before embarking on an escapist trip to find solace.
Moore elaborated on this: “Confident people focus on what they want. Unlike a lot of people who have low self-esteem and who are afraid to take risks, self assured types are more open to opportunities. They believe that they have a certain degree of control over outcomes and possess the power of positive expectation.”
You’re never going to be fully prepared to lose someone, regardless of the state of your self-esteem, but telling yourself you want to be OK is a big part of feeling better. A healthy dose of escapism works wonders. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to "Eat Pray Love" my feelings away, but escaping on my own personal version of a multi-country, divorcee sabbatical was enough to prepare me for the real healing work that was coming my way.
“When something like travel exists alongside the recognition that you're at the beginning of a new and demanding project, it has the potential to create an invaluable space, protected from the more complicated world, where preparation for the pending journey can begin with the luxury of properly-paced reflection,” said Gangi.
Travel is really an effective tool when you’re trying to heal: it changes your routine, pushes you out of your comfort zone, forces you to see some light when you're surrounded by so much dark, and allows you to take a break from it all. For me, it helped put me in a place to revive, making sure I would continually take time for myself and not apologize for it. All I had to do was throw clothes in a backpack, jump on a plane to the Midwest, spending some cash on Wisco-trinkets, belly-flop into a lake full of fish (I’m terrified of fish), wear a very revealing bikini without caring, turn off my cell phone, show up late to work that Monday for a little self-care, and proceed to text the worried, “No, I’m not OK, but it will all eventually be OK.”