September 16, 2018

What I Learned about Love after my Husband Died.

I took the trip of my dreams around the world, but not under the circumstances of my dreams.

My late husband, Jake, passed away from lung cancer when I was 26, and I’ve been traveling ever since as a way to honor his life—and move forward gracefully with mine.

I knew deep in my bones that I needed to embark on a journey to learn more about myself and take the time to fully be with myself, without the labels of wife, caregiver, military spouse, widow, or young widow.

I needed to free myself from the socially constructed chains of what it means and looks like to grieve and to heal.

I needed to learn to laugh again, and I wanted to take the time to cry—as a way to let go of everything I was holding onto inside to remain “strong” on the outside.

Experiencing grief so intensely transformed my view of the world and of my own life. I was not worried about my next big career move as a 20-something, but, rather, I was now asking myself the question: Was I truly living from my heart?

Slowly, grief became my teacher, and I learned not to be scared of grief, but to honor the grief that I still experience, even two years later.

Grief is not a linear journey—and I have to remind myself of this.

I began my traveling with a four-month road trip of camping, hiking, and mountain biking through the national parks out west. I slept under the stars, hiked through red rock desert canyons, did yoga in the Rocky Mountains, and drank wine along the California ocean coast. But I also cried myself to sleep many nights.

I would listen to The Lumineers, while snuggled up to Jake’s favorite, soft Patagonia red flannel sweater, and remember all the sweet moments we had together just talking in his truck. I was in love—a love so deep I’d wonder if I would find it again one day.

But I realized that to have the opportunity to love a partner so deeply, to walk with him to his death, and to know that we were both there to hold each other, was worth all the pain I was feeling from grief.

On my around-the-world journey, I knew I was becoming who I wanted to be, but I also felt like parts of me were being taken away. My identity was becoming stripped every day, and I felt naked and vulnerable to the world. Here I was, traveling the world and almost angry that I was having this experience—because I had this story in my head of the way my life should look.

I felt guilty to reclaim who I was, or who I was becoming despite my past. I wanted to find the tools to transform my broken heart, my grief, and myself—a self I no longer recognized at times.

I danced under the soft moonlight in Colombia, I wrote overlooking the sacred Ande mountains—just to remember who I had always been.

I wasn’t broken—I was healing.

During my trip to South America, I left two weeks early to head back to the United States, partly for my sister’s wedding, but also because I needed support. I thought I could do all the healing work by myself, and, while I was able to heal a lot on my own, I didn’t realize how important a community was in witnessing me through my grief, my pain, my healing, and my transformation.

A few months later, I found myself out west again, in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming and Colorado where Jake and I had planned to move prior to his terminal diagnoses.

After moving everything I owned out there, I took time to be still again before I set off on another trip.

This time it was western and eastern Europe, where I would spent the next few months exploring all the spots that Jake had wanted to take me to. It was one of the most beautiful yet challenging parts of my around-the-world journey. I was seeing these beautiful places without my partner by my side.

But maybe I was supposed to see these places without him.

Grief made me take a deeper look at the meaning of impermanence—that our greatest loves will all leave us, and we will still continue to love.

And then, I found myself in Asia, hiking through the Himalayas in Nepal, surfing the waves on the coast of Sri Lanka, riding motorcycles through the mountains of Vietnam, and basking in the green jungle nature in the Philippines, among many other heart-opening experiences.

Unexpectedly, on a bus ride from Cambodia to Vietnam, I found love again—with a man who accepted my past and stayed with me during my grief process.

But I was still healing.

The thing about grief is that it can feel so lonely and isolating, like we’re the only one experiencing this kind of deep loss and sadness. I can’t tell you how many times I felt lonely in some of the most beautiful places. I had to learn to sit with the loneliness of my grief, rather than run away from it.

But we’re never alone. We’re all grieving. We don’t have to experience death to grieve. It could be the ending of a long-term relationship or being fired from a job. Grieving is a process that, at some point in our lives, we are all going to experience.

It’s okay to feel lost while navigating our grief—this is nothing to be ashamed of. Healing is not meant to be easy or pretty. It can be painful and messy at times, and we will always be healing from grief. There is no end point, only new beginnings.

As I traveled around the world, I found myself confronting my deepest fears and joys. The thing about traveling, especially solo travel, is that you have to learn to love yourself. This is the greatest gift travel has given me: the permission to accept my life for exactly what it was becoming, and to fall in love with myself all over again.

I will always miss my first love, Jake. But if there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that we are not walking this journey alone.

Traveling showed me the beauty of life again, and it also made me face my grief every single day. It grew me in ways I never thought possible, and it challenged me every day to look at myself. And, while I wanted an escape, traveling pushed me to redefine myself. I was becoming more confident, less fixed on who I used to be or who I thought I was going to be, and more courageous, grateful, and accepting of who I am now.

Traveling empowered me to reclaim the self-confidence that I had lost.

Our grief, although painful at times, transforms us and teaches us to soften into ourselves, to hold ourselves when we feel the painful emotions or memories come up, and to cherish and be grateful for the good moments.

We may feel like we are losing a piece of our identity, but we’re actually growing and transforming.

We are not meant to remained fixed. Our experiences are here to change us, to evolve us, and to challenge us to know ourselves at our human core—to know the love and peace that always live inside of us.

Grief is a form of love, and it’s here to show us how to love deeply.

I guess it took me two years of traveling around the world to figure that out, but sometimes we have to walk our own journey to discover how we want to grow and bloom after great loss and tragedy.

Let grief be our teacher, our friend, our healer, and that sweet whisper in our ear that says, Everything will be okay, I’m here to hold you—just keep loving.

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