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This is how my European travels helped me process my grief

Friends in Rome

Finn was a six-year-old spaniel – the sweetheart of our family and came with cheekiness built in. He excelled at training, loved to run on the beach, and lit up when gifted new toys. He loved being picked up and was patient as we fussed over him daily.

When I left for Europe, after months of diligent saving, I said goodbye to Finn for what was supposed to be five weeks. I jetted off, never taking a backward glance. This is my story on coping with grief through travel…

The tour breezed through beautiful France and Spain, then entered the Italian leg of the tour. All of us excited for the marathon of carbs we were in for. Then, in Florence, at the two-week mark of my trip, I got my first call from mum. I was excited to catch her up on the highlights so far, and ask her about work. I only started to suspect that something was deeply, nauseatingly wrong, when her voice was choked off with tears. There’d been a tragic accident and Finn was gone.

Grief, solo travel and the lessons you’ll learn

Grief, solo travel and the lessons you’ll learn

Dominic Oliver
by Dominic Oliver Aug 03, 2018

There was no discussion of going home. It didn’t make sense, and it only made my mum feel worse to think of me cutting the trip short because of her decision to tell me the news. I spent that day on the coach crying intermittently, staring stubbornly out the window and tuning out the hum of the group with blaring music. No one knew what had happened, and I only told a couple of girls I trusted once we reached Sorrento.

Somehow, by the end of that sluggish day, I’d compartmentalised some of the pain. I shopped for trinkets, ate gnocchi and spent the next day swimming in the serene waters of Capri.

In general, there wasn’t a lot of time to wallow, as the group ploughed on through a busy itinerary. Occasionally, when I was alone, I let myself cry in the shower or scroll through pictures of my dog. It was also strangely empowering to give myself permission not to go out every night with the group. While I could’ve balanced the sightseeing and nightlife, it became important to me to rest and reset some nights, so I could be recharged in the morning.

One of the best things I learnt was that the right people would find me. Three girls I’d been spending some time with, despite not forming a clique on day one, became my permanent roommates from that point on, bolstering me with their positivity and shared interests. I felt like I could be myself in their company.

We slept on the floor in Prague because it was too hot, and danced in our hostel in Berlin. We were wowed by ancient artefacts, humbled by memorials, and snapped pictures on our walking tours, as we listened to the rich histories of places we visited. We ate cannoli in bed after being defeated by a full day of eating, exploring, and riding gondolas in Venice – and threw our coins into the Trevi fountain in Rome! We confided in each other on our coach rides, and laughed at ourselves a lot. As impossible at it had seemed when I’d gotten that phone call from home, those girls held me pull myself together as we coached around Europe, making memories.

My other stroke of luck was with my trip manager. I already knew that she was a dog lover; I’d seen her ask strangers in every country if she could pat their dog. She said, very wisely, that it was the first phrase she learnt wherever she travelled. Not only was she understanding, she made a vow that she stuck by, to find lots of dogs for me to pat. When I abruptly, unexpectedly, fell apart in silent sobs during a tour of Vatican City, it was my tour manager who hooked her arm through mine and told me about a game where she’d take photos of the statues and murals, and write witty captions for them. When my friends and I needed to gossip, or get something off our chests, she wholeheartedly joined in. I was glad to have her in my corner.

When the tour finished back in London, and I retreated to my empty hostel room after hugging everyone goodbye, I was instantly exhausted, and alone. I spent a few sunny days in Wales to round out my trip, blown away by the lush countryside, and the surprisingly beautiful beach vistas. Truthfully though, the last few days were hard to appreciate. I was ready for the trip to be over, and to examine the damage to my heart privately and in the comfort of my own home. I did exactly that, after the arduous trek back by train, two flights, and an Uber.

There were a lot of hard days when I did get home, and it was hard to explain to the people welcoming me back to work and commenting on my summer tan why I wasn’t euphoric about reliving the experience. I also had lingering guilt about being so far away when the accident happened. But despite the difficulty adjusting to my new reality, I knew it’d been cathartic having space to both grieve and to allow joy into my life on holiday.

When I think back, the private thoughts and feelings I was going through fade into the background of what was really happening. Europe, to me, evokes memories of close friendships, breathtaking sights, cabaret shows, shopping in Barcelona, Italian pasta and gelato, swimming in Cinque Terre, colourful Prague buildings, a farmstead meal amongst the Austrian mountains, bike riding in the Amsterdam countryside, and exploring parks and cityscapes in London until my feet were raw from walking. And that’s what I’ll always remember.

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