Grieving on planes

Grieving on Planes

I seem to do much grieving on planes.

Perhaps that’s because whenever I receive very bad news, it usually means getting on the first flight I can book in order to get home to Vermont. I’ve experienced this type of plane grieving—the kind that involves death or serious illness—three times in recent years. First I grieved for my oldest sister, who died suddenly—or perhaps not so suddenly—at the age of 52.

She was living with my elderly parents when she died, my dad struggling with his own terminal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. I cried the entire journey, all the way there and all the way back again. Not loud sobbing. No, my plane grief involves tears that just flow quietly and constantly from the corners of my eyes. It is a steady stream from a seemingly endless source—a spring flowing from my very soul.

No one wants to talk to the crying woman on the plane, so I am left to my own thoughts.

Hours in the air peering into the cottony clouds; is this where you’ve gone? Remembering who we were as kids, as young women, as adults, both mothers ourselves. Were we ever close, or was the six-year gap between us too great to overcome? Snapshots of laughter—at camp, at mom and dad’s, in California. I smile as I remember flying across country with your daughter right after she learned to read: “Fasten seat belt while seated” repeated for hours on end.

Could I have done more? A question I continue to ask every day.

Six months later, I find myself plane grieving once more, this time for my father. I knew this one was coming, yet it came sooner than expected, so I am left imagining my father’s last moments as the jet engines drone, drowning out the voices surrounding me. I am drowning in the steady stream of silent tears. So much left unsaid. Unresolved.

We never understood one another, perhaps because we were so much more alike than I would ever admit. Did we love one another? I hope so. We made it so difficult, so much harder than it had to be. When I arrive, I sleep in your room, although I never really sleep. Instead I uncover you, drawer after drawer, closet after closet, determined to know you before every trace of you is gone. I discover you owned a gun. I am stunned to find my college graduation program and photos of my kids tucked in the back of a drawer.

So much left unsaid. Could I have done more?

I leave to return home to Colorado on Mother’s Day. On the plane I am struck with the realization that now that I have left, my 76-year-old mother will be spending her first night alone—ever. The silent tears stream straight through both flights.

One year later another call. Not a death this time, but illness. My mother has been diagnosed with colon cancer, and I need to go care for her post-surgery. My body has now internalized the routine. The moment I board the plane east and hear the drone of the engines, the tears begin to fall. I cannot lose my mother—not yet—a loss too overwhelming to contemplate. I am lucky this time. Yet when I leave her to return to Colorado, she is still so weak, so small.

Could I have done more?

This morning I once again boarded a plane east. I have not received a frantic phone call, but once I step on the plane, the grieving begins, and the silent tears wind their way down my cheeks. Yet this time, I am not going to comfort anyone else. This time, I am seeking comfort from my sister, my mother, my friends. This past week I drove my twins to college in Iowa, and drove away without them. While my heart is full for all they will experience on this next part of their journey, the space they have left is silent, gaping, cavernous. It echoes when I call their names.

So I am on a plane, grieving this loss by returning to my roots, where I know my sister Donna will be waiting in the terminal with a big hug and an even bigger pile of tissues to dry these tears. And once again I will begin to heal, knowing I have done all I possibly could.

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