I’m always deeply touched by a well-written grief memoir. Traveling With Ghosts is definitely one of them.
The year is 2002. 28-year-old Shannon Leone Fowler, a marine biologist, is backpacking through Asia with her fiancé Sean–when the unthinkable happens. Its evening and the two are kissing on a beach in Thailand when a box jellyfish–the most venomous animal in the world–wraps around Sean’s leg, stinging and killing him in three minutes.
From discussing dinner plans to staring at her dead fiancé’s body in a matter of minutes, Shannon’s world is shattered. Her deep love of the ocean and its creatures since she was eight years old turns into fear.
Unable to return to the work that filled her soul, Shannon embarks on a long season of travel. Travel was, after all, what bonded her and Sean. Her journeys take her to Eastern Europe and countries with visible scars: Poland, Israel, Bosnia, Romania, and ultimately Barcelona where she and Sean met years ago.
Why Eastern Europe? She says her chief considerations were that her destinations be cheap, inland, and places where no one spoke her native language, English. For the first time, she feels like a stranger in her own country, speaking a language no one understands–the language of grief. Getting away to countries where there are no expectations of her and where she can exist in relative anonymity seem like compelling reasons to get away.
Grief plops you in uncertainty. It’s impressive that the author dove deeper into uncertainty by voyaging through cultures where she had zero context and familiarity.
What I love about grief memoirs are the themes that are common to all stories of loss: hopelessness, terror, isolation, courage, and redemption. What sets this book apart is the metaphor of journeys, inner and outer, through which Shannon repairs and redeems her broken heart.
Poland teaches her that “real tragedies don’t have to be redeemed, they need to be remembered.” Israel teaches her that “as much as grief needs solitude, memories need to be shared, and mourning needs to be recognized. Grief needs time and space, but it also needs company.”
Sarajevo teaches her resilience, and Bosnia is proof that “grief can be met with creativity, power, and beauty.” As she travels through Auschwitz she connects with the loss of an entire generation; and poverty-stricken Romania alerts her to appreciate the riches in her own life “…here I was one of the lucky ones.” The debris and rubble of what she encounters everywhere is only one side of the story. People continue to live, eat, work, and sleep. In other words, life must go on.
The book was, for me, a reminder that no matter how far you’ve traveled from your true love, healing can and does return you to it. In the author’s case, her reunion with the ocean.
Have you read a great memoir recently? Share its title and tell me what you loved about it.