Cruise ship

Grief is…revisiting and reclaiming The Disney Wonder

October 30, 20238 min read

Grief is…revisiting and reclaiming

The Disney Wonder

The smoke stack of a cruise ship with the Disney logo.

In spring of 2020 we were scheduled to go on a trip to Disney World and on a Disney Cruise. That vacation was cancelled, and we had credits remaining for a stay at a Disney property we needed to use by next fall. We wanted to go somewhere that would be relatively inexpensive when we got there, which for us meant a cruise. To do a Disney Cruise without Ben was going to be complicated. We didn’t want to do an itinerary we had done before. We wanted a ship we were comfortable with so we would feel as little disorientation as possible. We picked our window to travel and booked back-to-back cruises to Mexico to use all the credit.

Going back to places we loved going to with Ben has become something we do with purpose and intention. We don’t want to avoid the places we loved to go, things we loved doing with him or even things we did because he loved them. I have named this process “Revisiting and Reclaiming”. The concept is that we go planning to reexperience the things we loved doing there with Ben and decide how, or if, this place and its activities fit in our life going forward.

One of the things I was concerned about this time was being around large groups of people, lots of (extended) families and so much happiness. It’s still hard for me to be around large groups of people and all that energy. I avoid it most of the time. I also find it hard to be around people who appear to be unreservedly and boisterously happy. While I know everyone is dealing with some sort of challenge, the appearance of unreserved happiness feels foreign to me and like something I can’t relate to. None of that was going to stop me from going but instead were things that I predicted might be challenging. Part of my contemplation, as we plan these trips, is to think about what might activate my grief. Sometimes I’m right and sometimes I’m not. My study of grief makes me curious about what might be coming and how I can mitigate any circumstances that might be activating.

We have travelled without Ben on these purposeful trips before so the packing and flying felt less odd than the first time. Travelling with just my daughter and I feels like a version of normal. I’m sure when we start traveling in a group again there will be waves of grief to navigate but for now the two of us is fine. And that is worth acknowledging. The packing and trip to the airport and navigating the airport to the gate all felt fine. As we are ready to pick up pieces of our lives again after a death, the first few times are hard. Then we adjust and our brain rewiring progresses and it feels less weird. I can miss Ben and wish he was here and manage the steps of getting somewhere without tears.

The trip to the ship went smoothly and we boarded with no trouble. It was a bit overwhelming to walk into the atrium just the two of us. We had entered so many times as part of a larger group to have just the two of us felt odd. There had been changes since we last sailed and I knew Ben would have had a full critique of them. We dropped our bags in our room and went to explore and see what had changed. Our choice to go on a ship we were familiar with was a good one. As much as it was strange not to have Ben there, the familiarity gave some comfort. We knew how to get around, find what we needed and, most importantly, where the adult only area was for when we needed quiet.

We hadn’t planned much except to take it moment by moment and day by day and have lots of time for just relaxing. That was the goal. In the past, when we’ve cruised, we’ve had full days of activities and fun and an excursion in almost every port. This time, we chose daily activities carefully so we could have fun and not get overwhelmed. It was wonderful to find moments of fun and laughter. It can be hard in grief to find those light moments and we found many this trip. In many moments, of course, I missed Ben. I know now that will be a forever thing and I will wonder often what he would think, feel and say. What he would like and dislike. I learned so much from his encyclopedic knowledge of so many things and I miss that intensely.

The first week I learned a lot about navigating groups. It was helpful that the conversations on board tend to be about which ships and itineraries you have cruised, what types of excursions you’ve done, and which Disney Parks you love best. Small talk and getting to know new people are tricky things for me to navigate as the questions often start around family and how many children you have. I know my answer to that question can suck the air out of the room. With that question off the table, I really enjoyed meeting new people and sharing experiences.

It made me understand, even more clearly, that there is an abundance of getting to know you questions that aren’t hard for so many people to answer. As I go forward as a grief educator designing and testing better ways for us to support each other, this aspect of the griever experience will continue to be a focus. When we are getting to know each other, the broader the question the better. Tell me about your family, instead of do you have children/siblings is a great place to start. I loved the experience of connecting with people around a shared interest and that will be a starting place going forward. It can be done almost everywhere you are meeting new people.

The abundant and unreserved happiness I’d been worried about navigating didn’t really materialize. There were large extended families (many with thematically matching outfits!) that really seemed to be enjoying each other. And other families that didn’t really seem to be enjoying each other. Just like in real life.

The second cruise was a whole different energy. The ship was much fuller and felt loud and busy. In places I couldn’t avoid the increased number of people, like at dinner and the evening shows, I found it quite challenging. Loud, big, busy energy overwhelms my system in a way it didn’t before. That’s great information for me to have and highlights a skill gap I have in regulating my nervous system and emotions when there are lots of people and noise. Learning on the fly, I would plan which way to face at the table to look towards less people and where to sit in the theatre to feel less surrounded. We did an amazing snorkeling excursion which we had chosen based on the likelihood that it would be a small, relatively calm group which was a great break from the busyness on the ship. By the end, we were spending some time in our cabin to find quiet and calm. It was interesting to chat with crew we had come to know who confirmed the higher intensity of the shorter cruise. It’s a pattern they have also noticed which validated our experience. We still had fun and enjoyed ourselves as we learn to navigate lots of people and the big energy they bring.

Every time we do one of these trips, I learn something new. This time it was about meeting new people and managing overwhelming high energy. I have some areas where I’ll explore and practice further and some skills to build. Each time something gets easier and I find a new challenge to stay curious about. If I want my life to be as big and adventuresome as if Ben was still here I need to do hard things. And find fun along the way.

If you’re grieving, know that your capacities will change over time. As you move beyond survival mode and early grief and venture further back into the world there will be surprises along the way. In honour of your loved one, and you, I hope you choose the biggest life possible and continue to do the things you loved doing with them. You’ll find them there even while you miss them terribly.

 If you are supporting someone who is grieving, it’s wonderful to be a sounding board before and after they try something hard. It’s so helpful to have someone to talk with beforehand to imagine what might be coming and someone when you return to debrief with and be supported.

 If you are a business leader supporting grievers, increased scaffolding as people prepare for and return from doing hard things is very helpful. We want grievers to feel supported as they reengage with life throughout the grief process and sometimes that can temporarily increase our brain fog and overwhelm. A gentle re-entry back to work can make a huge difference.

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