I Was Scared to Fly After My Dad's Plane Crash—But Travel Helped Me Overcome My Grief

I’ve probably started this article a dozen times. As a travel writer, my job has taken me out of my comfort zone on more occasions than I can count—Hawaii to jump out of a helicopter with a Navy SEAL, Rio de Janeiro for the 2016 Olympics. But I’m rarely the subject of my work. Sharing my own story often incites some personal trepidation, yet it’s travel that’s taught me how to work through those same feelings, even in the hardest of times.

Fear and anxiety are emotions everyone experiences at some point—and more so recently. For me, though, my biggest fear came true on December 22, 2010, when I received that middle-of-the-night phone call you dread: “Your father’s plane crashed,” said an unfamiliar voice at the other end. “He’s dead.”

My dad, an emergency room doctor by trade, was alone piloting his single-engine plane to work in upstate New York when he encountered icy weather at night, just a few miles from the runway. I’ll never know the fear he experienced. But I do know that split-second tragedy led to all-consuming grief for me and sparked a new fear of flying.

Up to that point, flying and travel were some of the things that made me happiest. I was fortunate to have parents who took my sisters and me across the globe and knew the importance of exposing us to new cultures. We traveled to Israel where my parents renewed their vows, the beaches of Normandy to learn about WWII, and Belize where I learned to scuba dive. I’d feel a sense of adventure each time we set foot in an airport, regardless of where we were headed.

I also had countless conversations with my dad plotting where we should go next, and some of the best memories I have with him are when we would take flight in his four-seater prop plane, just the two of us. He’d come to pick me up from college in Boston and take me to lunch a couple of states over. Once, we flew on the Fourth of July and watched fireworks displays that stretched for miles from above. He’d talk about everything from his childhood and hilarious mishaps at the emergency room where he worked, to sage life lessons and my future. Sometimes we would just sit in silence and peacefully take in the birds-eye view. For a long time, flying was my sky-high sanctuary.

When his life was cut short, that haven transformed into a nightmare. So much so that even hearing a plane in the sky or seeing one on TV would stir up anxiety. My sense of wanderlust crumbled as fear and doubt seeped in. Overcome with grief, I tried everything to once again find happiness, from self-help books to antidepressants. Nothing worked.

Several months after the accident, however, a work assignment came up that required me to fly to Fiji. Normally, I would have jumped at the chance, but instead of feeling that thrill I was used to, panic and dread sat in its place. Not only would this be my first time on a plane since my dad’s crash, but also the furthest flight I’d ever taken—and I was doing it alone.

Yet while my heart was screaming, “Don’t do it!” a sliver of adventure hidden somewhere deep in the cortex of my brain was desperately trying to bubble up. A quick flash of an exotic beach (and the opportunity to impress my boss) was enough to accept the assignment. A couple of days later, I was on a 17-hour flight to the South Pacific.

Waiting for takeoff, my mind spiraled, thinking about everything from my dad’s funeral to rationalizing how the statistical odds of a crash were in my favor. I found myself reciting the Jewish Shema prayer, even though I don’t consider myself particularly religious, as the plane backed away from the gate, slowly rolled to the taxiway, revved its engines, raced down the runway, and finally went airborne. I also spoke directly to my dad, asking him to keep me safe.

When I opened my eyes, we were already above the clouds, and something felt different. I found a sense of calm I hadn’t experienced since my dad’s death. In fact, I felt closer to him at 30,000 feet in the air than I had been at his gravesite. I was able to push through what felt like paralyzing fear and come out okay—actually better—on the other side.

Now, just over 10 years since my father’s crash, I’ve traveled more than ever. Fiji’s turquoise waters and tropical sun not only pushed me through my darkest hour by showing me how wonderful life can still be, but it ignited the traveler in me again. In 2015, I quit my full-time job to become a freelance travel writer and visited over 35 countries on all seven continents. I even announced my pregnancy from Antarctica—my final continent—in 2018. With each journey, I broke out of my haze of fear and uncovered bliss in many forms.

To this day, however, I still get nervous stepping on a plane. But what I’ve learned is that life is a conundrum. It’s never an “either/or” experience; it hurls every emotion at you, sometimes all of them at once. I’ve learned that the goal is not to live a life free of fears, but to acknowledge them—and find the strength to push through to the other side.

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