Grieving the death of someone you love is one of life’s most lasting agonies. I’ve broken my spine, put my favorite dog down, and broken up with “the love of my life” — nothing compared to losing my dad. I’d known him my entire life; looked up to him and sought his counsel on everything. He gave me endless support and loved me no matter what mistakes I made. How do you recover from that?
My dad died in April. Prior to that, I moved back to my hometown to help care for him. For nine months, I never missed a chemo session. I was with him every step of the way, right until his passing. He was bed-bound so I lay next to him for hours upon hours — talking about life or watching Counting Cars on The History Channel. My dad loved cars.
It’s hard to explain what happened to me after the funeral. My body and mind went into a sort of shock. I found myself forgetting to breathe and eat. I couldn’t remember anything. Life, as I knew it before, had changed irrevocably.
The months that followed were are all about readjusting. Any time I saw a rare car on the road, I would completely lose it. Other days, I felt numb. Worse still, I couldn’t connect to anything or anyone. I wasn’t ready to make a new reality without him but I also knew — or sensed — that the right move was to get back to living. Not to slide into my old routine; that was too painful. Instead, I needed something big. Something iconic. Something like the American Southwest.
After a few weeks of planning, I set off on an epic Southwest road trip with my best friend, Laurie. Along the way — somewhere between the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Burning Man — I did indeed regain some sense of myself. I saw a way forward. Here’s my advice for healing on the road:
BLOW YOUR MIND
Visit an environment or culture that you’ve never seen or experienced before. I’ve always bookmarked photos of the desert so I chose a few locations in the same area — all close enough that I wouldn’t be in the car for more than four hours per day. I finally got to see the massive trees of life in the Joshua Tree Desert in California, looking like something out of Dr. Suess. The cliffs of Lake Powell in Arizona had me feeling like I’d just landed on Mars (but with more water!). In Zion National Park in Utah, we hiked the Observation Point trail and the terrain changed the entire way up the mountain. Parts of the trail were nothing but rocks then the scenery would suddenly warp to a dark, musky forest. As you got closer to the top, it smelled and looked like white beach sand. After the beach, solid red soil. Zion is the most beautiful natural scenery I’ve ever witnessed and the colossal, colorful peaks are forever engrained in my mind.
PICK THE PERFECT CO-PILOT
Choose someone who shares your sense of humor. It’s more important than having the same taste in music. Take the person who makes you laugh the most in the whole world, if it’s at all possible. My friend Laurie is a walking comedy fiasco. Without hesitation or shame, she dramatically sang “A Whole New World” from Aladdin while standing on top of a platform, in the middle of Center Camp at Burning Man. It wasn’t just because she loves the song (although who doesn’t?), it was all just to make me laugh and to get my mind off of the hour I’d just spent sobbing.
If you’re taking a trip to heal, you need to laugh. A lot. With someone who truly wants to see you happy. That’s my only rule about who to bring.
FEED YOURSELF WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT
On a healing journey, there should be no restrictions on what your body is telling you to eat. I consider myself to be a foodie but did not expect to find delicious food on our trip. We found it in what I believed was the least likely of places: Vegas. I’ve since discovered through my editor that Vegas’s food scene is booming, and I believe it.
The team at Carson Kitchen combines unique flavors with great success, especially in dishes like the Wild Mushroom Flatbread with tikka masala and mozzarella. I’ve unsuccessfully tried to recreate this one at home because just the thought of it absolutely makes me salivate. There was also a Red Radish dish that Laurie and I found other-worldly. The radishes were cooked well done with baby bok-choy in a miso honey butter and topped with cashews. The restaurant perfected crafted hearty meals for vegetarians/vegans while still being able to satisfy the stomach of a meat eater.
Public School 702 also offers great picks for vegetarian/vegans — like the unforgettable Roasted Beet Salad. The portions are huge and perfect to share! I also loved the brussels sprouts with kimchi in a citrus gremolata (without the bacon, because I’m veg). They arrived at the table, smelled so delicious and were gone before I could remember to take a photo of them.
Point being: Indulge. Eat what you like. Grieving isn’t the time for a diet. Road trips aren’t either, for that matter.
Look, don’t think I’m too hippie-ish (just the right amount) when I say: The universe puts majestic people in our paths.
I never speak to anyone on an airplane but something about the woman next to me on my flight to Las Vegas to start the trip was completely magnetic. Our conversation went on for hours before she disclosed to me that she was married to the infamous custom painter of Counting Cars, Ryan Evans. As soon as I told her about my dad’s love for the show, she invited me to the showroom at Count’s Kustoms. An hour before the flight, milling around the airport, I told my mom that I was tempted to visit the showroom — but I didn’t want to be the crazy lady crying next to all of the beautiful, classic cars.
But life is strange and, sure enough, a few days later there I stood: Crying next to all of the beautiful cars because, of course, all of dad’s favorites were there… The Porsche 911, Ford Mustang GT, and a glittering gold Cadillac.
SEE THE SUNRISE
The sunrise is the beginning of a new day and another chance to evolve. For me, it was a gift — a chance to reflect on loss while also trying to grow through it. There is more anticipation in the sunrise than in the closure of a sunset. Many mornings I was awake before the sun and it filled me with hope for another chance to chase joy.
Horseshoe Bend is pink and so tranquil at first light, it almost doesn’t look real. It was so quiet and serene. A perfect place for me to sit with my thoughts and listen to my breath and remind myself: “You’re exactly where you need to be.”
BE AS EMOTIONAL AS YOU NEED TO BE
I cried for a couple of hours in the heavenly bed at our hotel in Hollywood. It was the most comforting cry of the entire trip. I was alone and I let open the floodgates. Being in that bed felt like I was safe inside of a cloud. After the previous days of being non-stop in the car and the destinations changing all of the time, I was so happy to lay in that bed and not explore the city of Los Angeles.
I left hoping that with time and tears, my pain might slowly be washed away and I could be left with something beautiful — like those desert wonders that I had the privilege to visit.
FACE A FEAR
“You’re not going to be a dumb ass, do something stupid and fall off of a mountain in Zion! Just keep breathing and moving!” Laurie assured me as I made my descent down Angel’s Landing. I kept one hand on the mountain and my eyes at my feet. This seems like the place to mention I have a serious fear of heights. When I made it back down to the bottom, I stared up at the peak. I’d done it. I’d felt like I was about to die and then… I hadn’t. Instead, I’d breathed and moved through the discomfort, which is really what life is all about. Learning to get comfortable with the uncomfortable.
So here’s my last piece of healing advice: Take a risk on your journey! Swim with sharks or jump out of a plane! Nothing takes your mind off of your heartache like inducing the fear of almost dying. After you’re done, you’ll love your life a little bit more than you did before. The urgency of life will be thrumming in your ears.
There is no easy fix, of course, for handling loss. This trip — awesome as it was — didn’t magically fix everything. But it did help far more than staying home would have and maybe that’s the point. You won’t heal all at once, but the right adventure can help you heal better.