I met Claire in, of all places, the Grenadines about five years ago. It was a cold November back at our homes in the Midwest. We were both Americans researching travel stories and simply enjoying the country's many little islands and undeveloped beaches. During an afternoon hike she shared some of her history, which is that by the time she hit 25 years of age both of her parents were dead, had succumbed to cancer, and that she had been writing about the experience.
At last, Claire Bidwell Smith shares that brave story with thousands of other people in "The Rules of Inheritance" (Penguin/Hudson Street Press, $25.95), her memoir that arrived in bookstores last Thursday.
I asked Claire, who is now a licensed therapist with a private practice in Beverly Hills, California, specializing in grief therapy, to write a guest post not so much about grief, but instead about travel, because that was one of her coping mechanisms for dealing with her parents' deaths. You might think someone is crazy to take a trip right after a loved one dies, but if the journey is individual and spiritual, what better place than the open road to dive right in?
Some of my deepest, darkest moments of truth erupt in places that are not in my home: such as, mid-flight in an airplane, on a long bus ride to a nearby city, or sitting in a café drinking coffee halfway across the world. When you step outside of your comfort zone, it is just you and only you. That's one of the first steps in dealing with any turmoil coursing through your veins, to confront and face, and process.
And, here, Claire shares just how she did that.
Traveling Through Grief
By Claire Bidwell Smith
The first time I traveled through grief was when I was eighteen, a few months after my mother died. I went to Europe to meet my best friend who was spending her freshman year studying abroad. The trip was one forced on me by my father who thought that I was spending too much time mired in sadness and lethargy. He knew, better than I, what it means to open oneself up to the world.
Leading up to the trip I felt a discernable anxiety. I was afraid to leave my newly widowed father alone, afraid to travel so far from home when my connection to it already felt so tenuous. Despite all of that, as my plane touched down in Madrid, I felt a shift, an unlocking of some sort. For the first time since my mother died I felt a twinge of freedom.
No matter your emotional state, traveling always provides an insightful vantage point into your life, but when you're grieving, that vantage point often widens into something much more. Grief is an isolating experience. It's lonely and quiet and it's easy to sink into. Reminding yourself that there is a whole world out there still turning on its axis can be vital.
Hopping a midnight train in Madrid with my friend Liz one night that spring was a moment charged with electricity, something I hadn't felt much of since my mother had died. It was a fierce reminder that not only is life a force, but that it was one I was unwilling to relinquish.
I returned home from that trip hungry for more. Less than a week went by before I impulsively took a bus from Atlanta all the way to San Francisco. I was only eighteen years old. Staring out the tall, smudged windows I realized that there was something to be appreciated about grief. The bereaved state I existed in wasn't just a sad place, but a strangely liberated place. In some ways it made me reckless, but only in that it erased all the little fears I'd always clung to about venturing out into the world.
The worst had happened; there was nothing left to be afraid of. Canceled flights? Getting lost in a foreign city? Missing hotel reservations? In the most thrilling way possible, none of it mattered anymore. This wild freedom would be something that would come and go through my years of grief - I lost my father seven years after my mother and a friend in between the two - but it became a strange thing to look forward to in the midst of loss.
A couple of months after my father died when I was twenty-five, I found myself on a tiny island in the Philippines, traveling alone in a place more foreign than any I'd ever been. By myself in a quiet mangrove forest one afternoon I actually felt less alone than I ever had, simply because, standing there with my toes sinking into the mud, I knew that I was irrevocably connected to the world.