LIFESTYLE
04/11/2017 05:37 pm ET

I Learned The Hard Way That You Can't Take A Vacation From Grief

You can, however, laugh when it causes everything to go wrong.

Photo by Simon Johnson
The author outside the White House on her most recent vacation.

There are just some things you can’t take a vacation from: Grief is one of them.

In utter defiance of the advice proffered by friends and grief counselors, I have been determined to move myself and my two teenagers beyond the January death of my husband ― their dad. I’ve been especially eager to put emotional distance between us and the last year from Hell we spent as his caregivers. Because of my husband’s illness and mounting medical bills, we had not been on a vacation since forever. Which is how my son and I wound up in Washington, D.C., over spring break, trying to pretend we were unaffected by our recent loss.

The thing about grief is that it follows you. It goes where you go, even when you try to shake it off your tail. It causes you to be unfocused, forget things, not really be present in the moment. In our case, it led us to miss a flight, lose a credit card, blow up at strangers, have panic attacks in crowded places, forget valuables in the hotel, and the coup d’grace ― have no clue which airport parking lot we had left our car in. In other tell-tale signs that we packed our grief in our suitcase: We suffered claustrophobia in museums and had to leave, grew unmanageably impatient waiting in lines, overslept and missed events, had little energy to meet up with friends and pretty much never got our bearings. Was our vacation fun? No, not really. But in hindsight, it was funny. And yes, there was good that came of our trip: We recognized the toll that grief is taking on us despite our ― my ― best efforts to keep it at bay.

My greatest symptom of grieving has been an inability to focus. My days are not consumed with thoughts of my late husband. My days are not consumed with thoughts of anything. I just am, in a limbo-land where I can’t muster enough concentration to read a book, or apparently not even enough to read an airport sign or hear my name being called over the public address system announcing that the plane was about to take off.

We missed our outgoing flight because, as a good friend observed, I simply forgot why I was at the airport.

We had arrived to the gate on time. My son fell asleep in the chair next to me while I fooled around on my phone. I began texting with a friend in Philadelphia about the must-see sights of D.C. and I just never looked up from my screen. At one point, the line of people stepping around us became so annoying that we switched our seats so that the people ― in line to board the flight we were supposed to board too ― wouldn’t keep bumping me. And just like that, the plane left without us. We were there. On time. At the right gate. And grieving.

Nine hours later, we boarded the next available flight. We both had cramped center seats, but standby passengers can’t be choosy. Had I not been wedged in so tightly, I might have attempted a leap out on to the wing. The long delay plus the physical discomfort of a center seat put me squarely in the bull’s eye for a meltdown, and sure as Sherlock, I began to cry. Not ugly cry, but soft cry. The passengers on either side of me did an admirable job of giving me pretend privacy as I wept, although I think one of them assumed I had a fear of flying ― not in the Erica Jong sense ― because he put his hand over mine and assured me that we were just experiencing some temporary turbulence. I nodded in agreement, because what else is grief if not denial?

Arriving to a hotel with no one staffing the front desk at 1:15 a.m. did nothing to improve our moods. Nor did finding the night desk attendant rocking out with his headphones on in the storage area off the lobby 25 minutes later. We had called to say we’d be arriving late. Yet when I complained to the manager the next day, did I really have to go straight to nasty? I clung to righteous indignation and demanded financial recourse. I tossed around words like “incompetence,” “dangerous situation” and “customer service like this will be reported on Yelp.” I have never suffered fools graciously, but grief has armed me with a bazooka to shoot at mosquitos. Grief has cost me my understanding ― and in doing so, made me coarser.

Grief has also made me a space cadet. In my many years of marriage, I would ask my husband as we exited a restaurant whether he “got the credit card back?” The answer was always yes. The same wasn’t always true with his Tilley hat, but unlike credit cards, a Tilley can be replaced with minimal fuss.

For the first time in my life, I left my credit card at a restaurant on this trip. No alcohol was involved. I was well-rested. I just wasn’t present. My lack of focus cost me two Uber rides in traffic ― back and forth from the hotel to fetch the card. Yes, I consider myself lucky that the restaurant still had it. I profusely thanked the waiter, the manager and the bus boy who found the card where I had dropped it. But for reasons I don’t fully understand, I felt the need to blurt out to all three that I was recently widowed ― as if this was something they needed to know about me. I succeeded only in making them about as uncomfortable as a person can get when a stranger overshares. 

“You take care of yourself, ma’am,” the manager said to me, holding the door and ushering me out with his hand gently on my back. I think I hated his pity more than the fact that I left my card there. That’s grief for you.

Sadly, the vacation didn’t improve much from there. Lines were long as D.C. filled up with spring breakers, school trips and families who traveled great distances to see cherry blossoms. The crowds got to us. We couldn’t fully experience the solemnity of the U.S. Holocaust Museum with so many kids screaming, so we left. We stood in the rain for an hour to enter the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, only to be overwhelmed by the crowds inside, and so we left that too. We sniped at each other when we couldn’t agree which direction to walk to get to the White House and wound up at the Capitol instead. We carried cameras but took few photos and the ones we did take show us grimacing, not smiling.

Three days later, we were at Dulles airport for our journey home when my son realized he had left his eyeglasses back at the hotel, an hour’s drive away. I arranged to have them sent overnight so he’d have them for his much-anticipated behind-the-wheel driver’s license test (he passed!) and just swallowed hard when I heard the shipping cost. I simply ran out of the energy to be mad ― and I had lost any moral high ground by factor of the credit card left behind.

But then something wonderful happened. We both burst out laughing ― the kind of laughter that is so loud and maniacal that strangers stare. We just couldn’t stop. We listed everything that had gone awry and just cracked up. 

“Like what else bad could happen?” my son asked, gulping his words in between laugh spasms. He pointed at the TV in the airport waiting room, wanting me to read the news scroll at the bottom ― all the while laughing so hard that tears were running down his cheeks.

Delta had just canceled 3,000 flights. Thousands of travelers were having a worse vacation than ours.

“Mom, we aren’t on Delta, right?” my son asked, still laughing. 

Nope, we were not. At least on the scoreboard, we had denied grief a total shut-out. Can full recovery be far behind?

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