Traveling Through Grief, Traveling Through Life

Written by Dianne Gray

Each birthday, my mom asks me what I would like as a gift that year. We started this ritual somewhere  near my sixth birthday and it continues even now, some 45 years later. 

She asks. I answer. The ritual never really changes and neither does my answer.

"A trip, an experience, some new adventure," I always respond. She usually shakes her head in bewilderment thinking "how can this be my daughter" as my mom loves gifts that come in boxes.  

Not me though. While most kids my age wanted the latest toy or pretty sparkly thing, I wanted "doing gifts," intangible experiences that would allow me to taste more of what life has to offer.

Growing up as a Florida girl, I was the kid who plunged off of low bridges into a crystal clear blue-green ocean, waterskied at sunset night after night, and during Sunday afternoon cookouts with my family, played Bacci ball on deserted islands located miles from shore.

One birthday, I even dangled from the ropes of a catamaran, giggling while skimming along the Atlantic Ocean at a dizzying pace… all to feel the salt in my face and the wind in my hair. My goal in all of these adventures was to feel alive and connected to this earth and the people living on it, which I saw as the best gift of all.

However, there were to be no requests for adventure on my 33rd birthday, as I had just been dealt a brutal emotional blow: my beautiful four-year-old son Austin had an inherited neurodegenerative brain disorder that would end his life in a few short years.   

Where once my scope of vision included potential from every  map I looked at and every culture I read about, my life had become condensed in a way that is difficult to explain.  Everything that mattered in my world functioned
in a 12x12 foot room, in a 2200 square foot house, in a small Florida town. The last year of his 14-year life, I seldom saw the geographical borders of our little community…and that was fine by me.
I was intent on soaking up every second of life we had together-- and I did, until he died in February 2005.

Feeling incredibly alone and pounded by grief, I set out to immerse my daughter and myself in life again… and I looked toward "adventures" as a way to cope with a life we neither wanted nor welcomed -- a life without our Austin.

By traveling for the first time to New York City, weeks after Austin's passing, we were beautifully anonymous in a city of millions. Strangers did not care who we were and they hardly glanced at us as we peered into garden walls and gazed at museum exhibits. We walked until we could go no further due to exhaustion. We tried to get comfortable being around masses of people again. By breathing in the grit of the city, it felt as though we were inhaling "life" in its most expansive form. The intensity of the travel experience had helped to push grief to the recesses of my mind,
at least temporarily.

From then on, every chance we got, we continued to travel: San Francisco, Denver, Los Angeles, Paris, Turks and Caicos, Ecuador, you name it. We went to cooking schools, vineyards, climbed rocks,
skied, snorkeled with humpback whales and worked with the indigenous. We tasted all that life had to offer in an attempt to right an imbalance created by loss. However, everywhere we went, our lives still reeked with palpable emotional pain.  

Before too long, I realized that travel had become my panacea for grief… an expensive elixir for the wounds of my heart. I then vowed that there would be "one last trip". LIttle did I know that on this particular journey, I would discover an answer to a question I didn't know I was asking: "What is the thread, the commonality of all of these experiences?"

The "aha" moment of my life occurred during my second journey to Paris. In the middle of a tiny shop I literally ran into a woman who appeared to be without a care in the world-- affluent, fashionable, worldly.
"She has it all" I thought to myself while apologizing. But lo and behold, she did not. In fact, she too, was walking the streets of Paris, pondering her grief. Though her loss was different than mine, it amazed me that we were from same state thousands of miles away, both finding our spirits reborn by sharing stories of our grief with each other while strolling the Jardin des Tuileries. We finished our conversation an hour later, gave a very French kiss on both cheeks and parted ways.  I felt better, less burdened following that conversation and I wondered why.

It suddenly dawned on me like a horizontal flash of lightening across a summer sky: In each place that I had visited I had heard a story of profound loss from someone very much like myself. We were all wandering, but certainly not lost and by sharing our stories of grief, which also included stories of joy, we were forming an international "family of man" connected through sorrow, love and compassion. This community, I discovered,
is one I would've never had access to had I not suffered, then spoken about, my loss.

It's been eight years since that fateful trip and my personal and professional journey has thus far led me to 19 countries and over 100 cities. What I could never have imagined is the feeling of peace that comes from being a part of this incredible global community of those connected through grief… because it also means we are connected through love…for each other.