Design Your Own Healing Path

Four weeks after my mom passed away, my dad, brother and I purchased one-way tickets to Bangkok, Thailand, via Maui, Hawaii, with the intention of relaxing, reflecting, working through our pain as a team, and returning home with a renewed sense of excitement about life.

I look back now and understand just how important the trip was for our family. We had been in fight-or-flight mode the entire period of Mom's illness, giving our parasympathetic nervous systems little or no rest. In addition, we had gone from being a boisterous, playful family prior to and more or less throughout the duration of her illness, to one that was lackluster and chronically depressed after her passing. What's more, being that life had not gone according to plan, I had become one angry girl -- disappointed, cynical, railing about the unfairness of it all. I felt cheated and had a chip on my shoulder.

Then came Thailand: beautiful, chaotic, perverse, pure Thailand -- a paradoxical mumbo-jumbo of the extremes of life, where so little goes according to plan that I was forced to stop planning altogether -- especially considering that we were there amidst the civil strife and neighboring war of 2009. As monsoons swelled, freeways exploded, and little boys with big guns lined the streets in front of barbed-wire fences, my family and I sailed in rickety boats ready to split at the seams, handed over our passports to sketchy-looking people in remote locations, and set afoot in Myanmar, as cannons exploded in the distance.

Repeatedly, we took risks and put our lives in the hands of complete strangers, in the process learning to trust and let go. In addition, we said to hell with looking dignified to the outside observer, and we instead embraced life to the fullest - getting into poop-flinging wars with elephant dung, smearing river mud over ourselves and anyone in our path, drenching each other with post-apocalyptic size squirt guns, and otherwise enjoying ourselves with the wild abandon of five-year old children.

By the time I returned to my Northern California home, I was a strong, happy, and sane young woman, ready to move on with my life. Then I got bombarded with the platitudes and, worse yet, accusations: Why aren't you sad; why aren't you crying; don't you need to be alone; what, you're just going to move on? What's wrong with you? It took about a nanosecond for my friends and relatives to knock me out of my healthy, happy state of mind and into a raging inferno of depression, where I was bedridden and in physical pain for weeks on end.

Are the five stages of grief really the way things have to go, or do they happen because we expect them? Our Western culture is so very scripted. Rather than follow this script, my family took a risk, made a radical change, and experienced profound and relatively quick transformation as a result. In Thailand, our expanding joy was encouraged and supported. In America, however, it was rebuffed and condemned.

Even to this day, there are people who chide me for leaving, saying how hard it was for them that my father, brother, and I set off to heal from what was primarily our loss. As an upshot, I have had to cut chords, sever relationships, or otherwise step back from people with whom I was close, in the interest of protecting my emotional wellbeing.

Given this backdrop of my own story, it was refreshing to speak with psychotherapist Claire Bidwell Smith, author of the incredible memoir The Rules of Inheritance, as she validates and has personal experience with traveling as a form of coping with grief.

At 14, Smith was faced with her father's prostate cancer diagnosis, shortly followed by her mother's colon cancer diagnosis. At 18, Smith lost her mother, and at 25, she lost her father. After her mother's passing, Smith's father encouraged her to get away and spend some time with a friend in Europe. At the time, Smith felt very untethered and feared not being able to find her way back to reality. "My mother was my anchor," Smith remembers. "Having no mom, no teacher, equates to feeling very lost."

Smith was hesitant to get on the plane to Europe at first, determined to quickly pick up the pieces of her life and "get everything back to normal," but discovered that taking herself out of her comfort zone was healing. Traveling after grief "is really great," she affirms. "It lifts you out of the present day and allows you to see the bigger picture -- how big life really is."

Now a psychotherapist specializing in grief counseling, Smith emphasizes there is no right way to grieve. "Some personality types are seekers and wanderers," she says, noting that for these individuals, traveling is one of the best ways to work the grieving process. "Others hunker down in the quiet. Both are normal, valid responses."

There is no time frame, no correct or incorrect way to grieve, Smith affirms. Everyone does it differently. However you choose to approach your own grieving, she concludes, reach out to others who understand -- namely, those who have been through it themselves -- and get support in creating your own unique healing process.