Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pilgrimage Preparation

I am about to go on a pilgrimage to what feels like holy ground. I will be visiting Noah’s second family that he lived with in France as an exchange student, taking the same trip he planned for his last spring break and had to cancel--just three weeks before his suicide. Noah and the French family became very close during the formative year he spent with them, and my husband and I became friends with them, too, bonding over our love of Noah, hiking, and travelling. Finally, I will get to hug Noah’s other mom and dad and brothers and mourn and remember him with them. 

I felt compelled to see them after Noah’s death but couldn’t imagine making the trip until now. It may feel like grieving him again from the beginning. I visualize breaking down in the airport when I see them and when I step into their houseboat and see Noah’s old room and the view of the river that Noah saw. I think of the memorial the family had for Noah the same day we had his funeral, how they collected messages and drawings made for him and wrappers from his favorite wine and chocolate and put them all in a tiny raft and floated it away down the river to the sea. They made us a video of the gathering with the poignant song “Remembering” by Avishai Cohen, which I have grieved to ever since. 

If Noah had lived, he would have returned to that spot many times to enjoy his French family and friends. So I feel the need to make the trip for him, just as I will visit other places he always planned to go. I know when the family and I see each other, it will make us miss Noah all the more. It should have been him they pick up at the Paris airport; it should have been him I go to welcome back home at the Los Angeles airport.

As with each new milepost along the mourner’s path, I am full of doubt and trepidation. Will I make the French family miserable with my crying? Will I feel too vulnerable away from home? How will I manage without my husband and my dog, without my usual comforts, healing routines, and time and space to retreat from the world? How will my husband feel alone for two weeks? I begin to see why he is unwilling to travel far or be bound to tickets and reservations.  

It will be a bittersweet trip. As I learned on a short solo trip recently, I need to be prepared for moments not only of grief but of vulnerability, disorientation, alienation. John O’Donohue writes in  “For the Traveler,” Make sure, before you go/To take the time/To bless your going forth,/To free your heart of ballast . . . I started getting frantic thinking of how to prepare emotionally and spiritually, all the things I would need to do before I left and take with me to feel safe while away. I’m still nervous. But gradually I realized that by now, I have what I need to take care of myself within myself. If I can just remember to take things slow and mindfully, to not overschedule and to take time alone, I can always close my eyes, breathe deep, summon up my healing color (lavender) and my safe space (by a stream), visualize draining my body of trauma (out through the palms and soles of the feet), meditate, write, chant, walk, pray. Knowing that refuge lies within is itself a great relief and another milestone on this path. And it lightens the baggage I will bring on this trip. 

To my fellow survivors: How have you fared when you travel far from home? Where do you find comfort these days, and how do you get there?

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