Learn how to create a pilgrimage to help you process the grief that follows the trauma of war.
In this episode I share my own story of traveling to Normandy to retrace my father’s footsteps during World War II. This was part of a grief pilgrimage I took to help me understand the factors that led to my father’s suicide many years later.
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One year ago I featured a special 8-part series titled Suicide: Surviving the Aftermath about my own journey of healing following my father’s suicide death. This week is the anniversary of his death and I’m focusing in today on part of my journey.
In order to learn more about the impact of World War II on Dad’s emotional health I took a grief pilgrimage to Normandy to explore the location of some of his traumatic experiences. That trip was a powerful experience that helped me understand Dad better and grasp the burden of grief and guilt that he had carried with him since the war.
Here are my tips for anyone who wants to plan a similar pilgrimage (listen to the episode for more of the details and to hear how my own journey unfolded):
Do your homework before you go: Learn all you can about your loved one’s wartime travels so you can choose the places you’ll visit carefully. Check the National Archives for information and military records for your loved one.
Visit a museum: You’ll learn a lot of history in a short time by starting your journey at a war memorial museum. You’ll find some of the recommended World War II museums in Europe listed here.
Enlist a guide: A local guide with a solid knowledge of history and the area can save you time and show you places you wouldn’t have discovered on your own. Find a guide that speaks your language fluently and is willing to go to the places on your list.
Meet a local: One of the benefits of traveling to the location of the war is the opportunity to meet people who personally experienced the war and its aftermath (or their offspring.) Local citizens will have stories to share that will help broaden your perspective.
Take your time: The emotions that arise on grief pilgrimage are intense so allow time for reflection and processing. Don’t rush through the sites but stop and take it all in. Let your feelings rise to the surface so that they can be witnessed.
Participate in a ritual: Rituals provide a powerful opportunity for healing during grief travel experiences so plan ahead to create your own special ceremony. Or you may have a chance to take part in a scheduled ceremony with other travelers as I did when I visited the Normandy American Cemetery.
Learn more about how travel helped my grief by listening here.
Learn how travel can provide a “safe container” for healing grief and loss.
In this episode I’ll share my own insights into how the experience of travel can help with the process of grief. This is also the subject of the new book I’m writing (I did research for it on my recent trip to Italy) … I’ll share a brief overview here!
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During several of my travel experiences in the past I have been dealing with grief and have found the process of travel to be helpful. On one trip to Italy, my husband and I learned of the death of our brother-in-law on the day we arrived in Venice. Unable to cancel the rest of our trip and return home immediately, which we wanted to do, we stumbled through the remainder of the vacation and managed to make peace with our pain.
Here are some of my “takeaways” about how travel can help with grief:
Permission to wander aimlessly. On our Venice trip we canceled all of our sightseeing plans and activities. We started each day with a totally clean slate and just wandered the streets and canals of the city all day long. By following our intuition and our broken hearts we were able to enter into our grief without distraction or attachment. Had we been at home with family we would have felt obligated to “do something” and “be somewhere” but because we were traveling we were free of all expectations.
Seeing the big picture. Because we were freed up from the details of our daily life at home, we found more space to explore grief from a “trans-personal” perspective, as something bigger than just our own individual lives. Experiencing grief in another country allowed us to:
Recognize that all people, everywhere, experience the death of loved ones. Our mortality and the grief it causes us is the interconnecting thread that binds us to all of humanity.
Go deep into history. By visiting ancient ruins we can see that all of humankind, throughout history has dealt with the pain of loss and struggled to make peace with death. Our experience of grief is just one part of a vast “whole” picture of human loss.
Surrendering to grief to find joy within. As travelers “stuck” in another country even though we wanted to be home, we had no choice but to surrender to the pain that engulfed us. When we allowed grief to find a home within (and even “became” a living embodiment of grief) we also discovered a startling capacity for simple joy over the beauty of being alive. I’ve written this before: suffering hollows us out so that we can contain an even greater measure of joy … and also love.
Understanding impermanence. Strolling through cemeteries, relics and ruined structures of the past illustrated to me perfectly that everything that exists in the physical realm is impermanent and will one day dissolve away. Only love and the energy of life persist eternally. And it is the depth of the love we experience for others that causes the magnitude of pain we feel upon their deaths. Grief is one of the visible manifestations of love in the physical realm.
Learning how to navigate in unfamiliar territory. On our “grief trip” in Venice we simply wandered every day until we were hopelessly lost. We took in everything around us along the way–noticing all the colors and sounds and fragrances of life. And when we felt ready to return “home” we studied our maps to figure out where we were and to slowly find our way back to more familiar territory. This skill of navigating in the unknown will prove to be very helpful to us throughout life and especially during our own dying process as we struggle to get back to a home we can’t remember.
I hope you will take the opportunity to travel some day, even when you are experiencing grief, to experience the profound benefits it can offer!
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