Photo: Milkovasa/Shutterstock

When Travel Can't Cure Grief

Narrative Lifestyle
by Nikki Hodgson Sep 4, 2014

“It’s all coming together.”

Those were his last words to me. I never knew about the cancer. He never said a thing. I took the call in a parking lot on the California coast, dropped everything, flew to the side of his hospital bed. Boston will always be the place where he left me, where his last words settled into a rasping breath. I grabbed his hand and straightened the covers so no one would see that a piece of me was dying, too. But I didn’t cry. I never do.

Crying is something I do alone, until I can pull myself together long enough to get out the word “fine.” My grandfather poured himself into his music; no one played Beethoven quite like he could. When he died, I tumbled headfirst into the hole he left. I never learned to grieve; I didn’t realize it was necessary.

* * *
I believed that motion was the cure for everything. We scattered his ashes in England. I listened to Elgar. “A little known English composer,” he always said with the bemused sarcasm Americans never quite understood. When he died, there were no mementos, only ashes and wind. I moved to Bethlehem, to Geneva, to Grenoble, to Jerusalem. I scattered myself, searching for him.

After two years of running, my job fell through, my visa in Switzerland wasn’t renewed, my boyfriend looked at me and said, “I don’t love you.” I moved to France. But there was nothing left to run to. I collapsed into myself, shut the doors against the world. I memorized the cracks in the ceiling, the discolored patches, the sound of the faucet dripping. There was no distinction between 10am and 10pm. Eating became a chore. My life unraveled. Every plan came undone. There were no crossroads. Just an empty apartment and the cat throwing up on the rug.

My neighbors smiled in the foyer, but they never knocked on my door, never said anything other than “Bonjour.” I needed to be home, to be surrounded by people who knew me well enough to know something was wrong. But I didn’t go home. I couldn’t face home.

I went back to Bethlehem, to Jerusalem, to Tel Aviv, to a place where closed doors mean nothing at all. I limped my way back across the Mediterranean, to dusty streets and crumbling buildings. Strangers stopped me in the street. Neighbors invited me over for breakfast, for lunch, for coffee, for dinner. No one said, “it’s going to be okay.” No one tried to fill the emptiness with words. At parties, I bumped past people until I found the balcony or the roof. Sometimes I fell asleep, sometimes I sat quietly. I liked it when the clouds were low and heavy. I liked it when it rained.

* * *
Amal asked if I was depressed. I shrugged. “You seem depressed,” he said. I didn’t know what to say. My depression was no longer tied to the loss of someone I loved. I had spiraled so far beyond grief that I could no longer articulate what was wrong or why.

I have always been headstrong, independent, and proud. I am so good at pretending I’m okay. But I had lost the motivation to live. I was a brittle, stoic mess, tossing and turning against a damp mattress, kicking sheets to a dusty floor.

I cut myself off from everything, I ran so hard I couldn’t see the way it made everything worse. But it wasn’t depression that nearly killed me. It was my inability to ask for help.

I found moments of solace, the hush of Shabbat blanketing Jerusalem, dancing dabka in the desert, sitting on rooftops, leaning from balconies, watching the stars and the people, the trees and the wind. I was enveloped in the mess, adoration, and chaos of too many people, too close together, in a place where there was always someone knocking as they pushed open the door. I was allowed to be silent, but never alone.

“This won’t go away,” Amal told me one night. He thought my depression was grief untreated, that my heart was no different than a sprained ankle and my incessant running had exacerbated everything, turning a common injury into a serious condition.

“Most religions and cultures have traditions around mourning. We need a dedicated time to grieve,” he explained. “But you, you just keep running, you just keep pushing everything away. You need to sit still, let others help.”

“I’m not very good at that,” I told him.

“I know,” he said.

I didn’t know how to reach out. There were people who told me that my life was amazing, that I just needed to pull myself together. As if I hadn’t tried to tell myself that a thousand times a day. It was hard to disagree with them, hard to understand that depression is a disease, a parasite that rots you from the inside out. I was so ashamed of the way I fell apart. It takes so much strength to ask for help.

Amal made me ask for things. It was a joke at first. A glass of water, a cup of tea. “I can’t hear you,” he’d say. “What is it you need?”

“I need help,” I told him one day. And then I couldn’t stop. I said it over and over again with my head in my hands. “There is help,” he said and handed me a cup of coffee. Crouched over a camping stove, he looked out at the Negev and then at me. I stayed until I was ready to pack my bags, until I could stomach the thought of getting up.

And then I went back to the apartment in France, gathered my things, booked a flight home. “I need help,” were the words on the tip of my tongue. “Just get home,” my mom said. “Just get home and we’ll figure it all out.” But it was another year before I began to feel like my old self, and even then there were moments where it all came back. Depression isn’t something you cure. It’s something you learn to manage.

* * *
Now there is only a small sliver of emptiness, a kind of scar and a yearning for the Levant, the way it steadied my hands, centered me. I will never stop going back, tracing my fingers in the dust, remembering the people who pushed me back to myself.

I should have gone home immediately. But I didn’t. I don’t want to underscore the importance of seeking professional support, medication, therapy, whatever it is you need to get yourself out of the bleakest and greyest corners of your head. I know these spaces. I cut myself off from everything, I ran so hard I couldn’t see the way it made everything worse. But it wasn’t depression that nearly killed me. It was my inability to ask for help. I thought I could swallow my grief and soldier on. But I couldn’t. I can’t. I needed to learn that.

And I did. In a place where no one locks the doors, where a stranger took one look at my stricken face and instinctively reached out a hand, how he said something in Hebrew I didn’t understand. “Lo hevanti,” I said, shaking my head, and he smiled, patting my shoulder, foreshadowing a lesson that took so long to learn. I pushed my heart as hard as it would go, sprinting across countries, up mountains, through train stations, down rivers, but eventually it collapsed, whispering the truth of a stranger’s hand against my arm.

Travel isn’t the cure for grief.

We are.

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