Journeys With the Dead
I woke up at the outset of a vacation in the Greek Islands a couple of years ago with my mind flooded by thoughts of death. In the night, I had an AIDS dream straight out of the play Angels in America, and I dreamt of a colleague who had passed away. In the morning, I thought of a deceased friend I wished was with me admiring this glorious beach on the cobalt Aegean. At that moment, I felt strongly the stab of cosmic deprivation his grossly premature death represents to me.Believe me, such images were hardly on my fantasy itinerary-Ñdancing by moonlight with garlanded Greek goddesses would have been more like it. But as I started sorting out my feelings, I realized with some relief that my vacation was not being haunted and turned into a morbid bum trip; rather, I finally was realizing important things my subconscious had been learning in silence. My mother had died the previous year, and it was probably only natural that during a solitary sojourn my thoughts would turn to her, and the issues of mortality the death of a loved one raises.Sifnos is a lovely, lightly touristed, somewhat sleepy island six hours by ferry from Athens. Monasteries occupy her highest peaks, her hills are dotted with hundreds of whitewashed igloo-shape chapels, one for every saint's day. Along the roadsides, seemingly at random, one is always coming across deserted little orthodox shrines decorated with photographs of the deceased. A lapsed Catholic though I may be, I remain susceptible to the power of this imagery. Add to this the raw beauty of the hills, the water, the half-moon beaches and the famous luminous quality of the Aegean daylight, and spiritual feelings were all the more inevitable.My mother was a devout Catholic, but that's not all she was. In her way, she was something of an Epicurean. She saw a great deal of the world, and cultivated continental tastes. A pianist and composer, she had a deep appreciation of the fine arts and culture. She loved vacations spent reading, relaxing on the beach, and swimming in the sea. As a motor-biked around SifnosÑ-sightseeing, dipping, dining, thinkingÑ-I found myself telling her about this and that, and I had a vivid sense that she was glad I was there.Late in that Day of the Dead morning, I took a long hike uphill to one of the remote chapels waiting in patient solitude for its saint's day to come along, and lit a votive candle. I thanked my mother for blessing me with the background and sensibility to enjoy a trip like this. My 36th birthday fell a couple of days later, and my journal entry said simply: "Glad to be alive."On the ferry away from this oddly enchanted island, I met a young woman from Holland who said, "I've never prayed so much as I have in Greece." Then she told me how, while dining at a taverna overlooking a picturesque beach, she had been grief stricken by thoughts of her deceased sister."I got sad that she couldn't see this," said Caroline. "She was only 34. There was so much she never got to do."On the crowded ferry deck late that night, a cassette player belonging to one of the collegiate backpackers played R.E.M.'s poignant Everybody Hurts, a song that always gets me right there. In one of the most beautiful spots on earth, at a time of life set aside to experience complete freedom, I was by no means the only one feeling acutely in touch with a bittersweet, universal human heartache.Apparently this occurrence is not uncommon. Bereavement specialists recognize travel as a very rich time for processing thoughts and feelings associated with grieving. Anne Rosberger, executive director of the Bereavement and Loss Center of New York, attributes this in part to the "alone time" inherent in travel that allows the mind to wander and establish more intimate connections to feelings.She cautions that for the newly bereaved, travel to unfamiliar surroundings is not a good idea. "They're not in control of themselves, there are too many emotions," she says. "This can be threatening and cause anxiety attacks.Survivor's guilt often handicaps the travel experience, too, especially for parents who outlive their children. And some who lose their life partners never adjust to traveling. "They look at things in a negative light," says Rosberger. "They say, 'I never should have come here, this is not the way we planned it.' That person needs a little help."But for most clients, Rosberger recommends that as they move ahead, travel can be most therapeutic. "It provides a very positive sense of strength in their ability to adjust to new situations and enjoy life again. They rediscover their ability to meet people and adjust to life without their partner."Referring to my own experience, Rosberger noted that travelers often feel such a "spiritual sense of connectedness and continuity, that enables them to feel that person going along with us on the trip as if they were still part of us."Dr. Roberta Temes, author of Living With an Empty Chair, A Guide through Grief, also recognizes the healing power of seeing new places and experiences, of seeking out beauty. "Travel is transforming," she says. "How wonderful at a time of grieving to be transformed."The change can be a function of simply breaking out of familiar surroundings and routines associated with the departed and the daily grief cycle, and it's one that pays its highest dividends after the trip."The best part of travel for the bereaved is coming home," says Temes. "They get over the shock of not seeing their loved one every day. They're able to look at the world from a new perspective, as someone without a father or mother or sister, and resume life knowing the loved one is gone. They can come back to closure to knowing the loved one is gone They can come back to closure, a quiet acceptance travel has given them."Travel, of course is no automatic fix. "Sometimes we never really let go of someone we loved to be with," says Temes. "But sometimes in an effort to make sense of death, we get an opportunity to grow and expand our minds." Luckily, that was what happened to me so unexpectantly in Greece. I count it as one more benefit of my mother's legacy, one I'll try to take with me wherever I go.Anticipating that my travels would usually bring me in contact with water, I sprinkled my share of my mother's ashes in the ocean. Today, preparing for a scuba diving trip in the South Pacific, I know that although I may be traveling solo, I won't be traveling alone.