Healthy Living

Is It OK To Stay On Vacation When A Loved One Dies?

08/20/2016 10:04am ET | Updated October 25, 2016

I’ve always wanted to see South Africa’s majestic wildlife and to truly be one with nature. Shortly after I started freelancing for a safari tour operator, I seized the opportunity and asked my husband if we should go to South Africa next summer. His answer? “Why not?” I quickly booked the flight before he changed his mind and soon heard the African drum beats in my head.

The first person I told was my Mom since we both shared a love of animals. In fact, she was preparing to go on her own dream vacation: six weeks in Australia and New Zealand.

Two weeks after I booked my flight, my Mom told me that she had a tumor near the optic nerve of her left eye. She got approvals from two doctors to go on her trip before the surgery. Her priorities were set! So she went and had an incredible time.

I flew from Germany where I live to visit my Mom in Florida for 10 days. We wanted to see each other before her surgery, just in case.

Her surgery was then scheduled a week before my trip. Not the timing of my choice, but this wasn’t about me. I couldn’t blame her for wanting the tumor out immediately. I probably would have done the same thing.

The night before her surgery, she told me that if anything happened, to have an incredible time in Africa. I just laughed it off and said, “I’m sure nothing will happen, Mom, you’ll do just fine.” But I wasn’t sure. I was scared.

We all held our breath that day. She pulled through and was released from the hospital three days later. However, I thought her discharge was too soon. It didn’t feel right, so I questioned it, but my Mom was an RN and she assured me she’d be OK.

I talked to my Mom twice after her surgery. She had a very deep voice and sounded exhausted, but was OK. She mentioned that Gigi, their sweet dog, lied by her side and didn’t move an inch since she got home.

She also told me to have a great time in Africa and to send her photos. We both said “I love you” and “Goodbye.”

My family and I arrived in Johannesburg on July 20. At around midnight that same night, the phone rang. My heart stopped when I saw that it was my mother’s husband. I knew he wasn’t calling to say hi. My Mom passed away two hours prior from a starburst blood clot which caused both a pulmonary embolism and a massive heart attack.

Reality didn’t set in that night, not even after Skyping with my sister. We were both in shock, but I had to make a decision.

What should I do? I had two choices: Cancel our vacation and fly to Florida or continue with our trip as planned.

I remembered that my Mom told me to enjoy my trip, no matter what, but still, it didn’t feel right. How could I enjoy a vacation right after losing her? That’s impossible and just plain wrong! Right? On the other hand, I know how negatively she would react if I were to ignore her last wish.

I discussed it with my family and we decided that I should stay in Africa and fly to Florida later.

I felt guilty though. I felt guilty for not personally being there for my Mom’s husband. I felt guilty for not being with my sister. I felt guilty for not crying much. But I also feel that everyone has the right to mourn in his or her own way. I apparently don’t need tears. I need hugs. I need to write. I need comfort food. I need nature, animals and music. So maybe the best place for me to be was in Africa.

And guess what? My Mom was with me the entire time.

The first time I felt my Mom’s presence was in Balule Game Reserve near Kruger National Park on our sunset game drive. It was pitch black and then bam! There they were, a family of elephants, right in the middle of the rugged path. My heart stopped again. It was exactly 24 hours after Mom passed.

There was one female and four younger elephants of all different stages of life. Our guide said that the female adult was about to give birth any minute/day. I just kept whispering, “oh my God, oh my God” as tears swelled up in my eyes. It was one of the most magical moments I’ve ever experienced.

You never forget your first elephant sighting and I’m so glad Mom was with me for it.

Every time I saw something amazing, I thought ‘Wow, I can’t wait to tell Mom about this!’ Then I remembered and whispered, “damn.” This happened several times a day.

I’m still in denial.

I’ve realized though that it was a good thing that I stayed. It gave me the much needed peace and quiet time to think about my Mom, to feel numb, to stare off into space, and to lose a lot of sleep. I was also distracted by the wonders of nature and that, right there, brought me closer to her and I’m very grateful for that.

Now, here I sit, in a small, uncomfortable seat on the airplane taking me home. I’m a bit scared though. What if I don’t feel her presence anymore? How do I face reality and move on to the anger phase? Can I even skip the anger phase? How can I start working again tomorrow?

The fact is, death is a part of life and I have to deal with it, whether I want to or not, just like everyone else who has lost someone very special.

Being on vacation has helped me to begin the grieving process and I realized that’s exactly what I needed.

ps. Thank you, Mom, for accompanying me in Africa. I hope you too enjoyed our time together. I love you. God speed.
Mom and I in 1972. She was just a kid when she had me.
She was just a kid when she passed away at 66 in 2016.

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Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grievedifferently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at strongertogether@huffingtonpost.com.