Before a vacation in Malawi last summer, I shared my trip details with my family, in case of an emergency. I told them when I would be traveling and staying, what I would be doing and with whom. But I overlooked one crucial piece of information, an omission my sister addressed in an email a few days after I arrived in Lilongwe, the country’s capital.
“I forgot . . . to ask you if you want me to email you if anything significant changes with Dad,” my only sibling wrote.
In the tizzy of packing — or maybe it was the daze of denial — my mom, sister and I had never discussed the possibility of my father succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease while I was in Africa. Writing to me from Massachusetts, they asked if I wished to stay informed of my dad’s condition. I replied that I wanted to know everything. Then I learned the truth: My father’s health was rapidly declining. Five days later, he died. I was 8,000 miles away, but I felt as connected to my father and my family as if I had been in the same room.
When we travel, we are so giddy with excitement, and desperate for an escape, that we can’t imagine bad news foiling our vacations. But illness and death do not care about our holiday plans. They follow their own schedule, and the alarm can go off at any time.
“Plan for the worst and hope for the best,” said Anita Tarzian, a former hospice nurse and faculty member with the Death, Dying and Mourning program at the University of Maryland at Baltimore.
Every situation is unique, and every response is personal. But the decision to return home or remain on a trip is never easy. Myriad factors come into play, such as your relationship with the loved one, your family dynamic, and the time and expense involved in changing your travel plans.
“You don’t always have to fly back,” said David Kessler, a grief specialist and co-author of “On Grief and Grieving” and “Life Lessons ” with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, “and you don’t have to define your relationship by that last moment.”
In my case, I decided to stay in Africa, a conclusion I reached after consulting with my father’s primary physician, a hospice worker, my mom and sister, and my inner self. I spoke with my family every night, maneuvering around power failures and spotty service. With my mother’s help, I FaceTimed with my father and played back my day for him. I told him about an upcoming visit to a refugee camp and my mastery of driving on the left side, including conquering roundabouts. I reminded him of how grateful I was to have him as my father and told him that I understood if he needed to let go before I returned. I ended every phone call with three little words in case Aug. 31 or Sept. 1 or Sept. 2 would be our last conversation.
“It’s not uncommon for people who are dying to hang on for some event or to await a particular person’s arrival or permission to let go,” Tarzian said. “So that would support talking by phone or video chat if one gets the news that a loved one is actively dying.”
I do not regret staying in Malawi. I know that my father, whose wanderlust gene I inherited, would have approved. But I wish that I had been better prepared. To help travelers in a similar situation, I reached out to grief experts and travel specialists for advice on how handle an emergency that can turn a vacation from a celebration of your life into a farewell to a loved one’s.
No one wants to say it aloud, or even think it privately, but your ailing friend or family member could die while you are away. Before leaving town, initiate a candid conversation with your loved one. Tell them that you are going on vacation and that they mean the world to you. (If you can’t get the words out, Tarzian suggests recruiting an end-of-life specialist, such as a social worker, chaplain or hospice nurse, to help facilitate the conversation.)
“If you have something you need to say, say it — get it out,” Kessler said. “It is rare that the loved one will say, ‘Please cancel your vacation and stay with me.’ ”
Schedule a family meeting and nail down how you want to stay informed of developments and how frequently you want updates. Or maybe you prefer a total blackout of information until you return.
“If you are going to New York, you might say, ‘Keep me posted,’ but if you are on a beach in Australia, you might not want to keep posted as much,” Kessler said. “You might tell your family to just let you know when it has happened.”
Although your response to a loss could change in real time, run through different scenarios before you depart. Establishing even a rudimentary foundation will help when it feels like the ground has crumbled beneath your feet.
If you think you might have to forsake your trip, buy travel insurance. Consider a comprehensive policy that includes travel interruption. Jenna Hummer, director of public relations at Squaremouth, which compares insurance policies, said interruption coverage typically costs 5 to 7 percent on top of the premium price. In return, you will receive 100 to 200 percent of your nonrefundable expenses, such as unused portions of your trip and your new return flight. Hummer reminds travelers to read the policy documents to make sure the coverage applies to their specific situations.
“The policy may only cover direct family members and not a stepchild once removed,” she said.
To ease the stress of rebooking a flight, buy a flexible economy ticket. This fare category is expensive — up to four times as much as basic economy — but you can alter your itinerary without incurring any fees or price differences. (If you buy insurance, you can stick with a nonrefundable fare.)
“Not everyone wants to pay that money,” said Tracy Stewart, content editor at Airfarewatchdog.com, “but the peace of mind is worth it.”
For communicating abroad, ask your cellphone service provider about your international data plan. If necessary, buy a SIM card. Also check with your hotel or rental property about reliable WiFi service. For free video calls, use WhatsApp or Skype. You can also use FaceTime for no charge, as long as you are connected to WiFi or your cellphone plan includes the data.
No matter how much you have prepared for this moment, the news will jolt you and could upend even the best-formulated plans. Before ditching your vacation, think about why you are racing home — to hold your love one’s hand a final time, to console your family, to attend the funeral.
“It is easy to panic and be impulsive,” Tarzian said. “It’s not wrong to take time to be mindful.”
If the person’s health is failing, Tarzian recommends speaking with several medical professionals overseeing the patient’s care. Seek out corroborating information that will confirm the urgency of the situation or deter you from dashing back for a false alarm.
“What does ‘limited time’ mean?” she said. “Get a sense of where they are in their illness, what is the trajectory.”
Tarzian warns against falling under the spell of the Hollywood deathbed scene. In reality, the person could die while you are midflight or hang on for several more days or weeks.
“It isn’t always like it is in the movies,” she said. “You can’t be wedded to a particular outcome.”
Kessler suggests asking your future self for help in making the decision. To illustrate his point, he shared a personal story. While on a lecture tour in Ohio in 2004, the author learned that Kübler-Ross, his close friend and collaborator, was close to dying in Phoenix.
“Would my future self feel bad if I missed that moment?” he said. “How would my future self feel if I missed a lecture?”
He canceled the remainder of his trip and flew to Arizona, a decision he has never regretted.
“I wanted to be there,” he said of the last time he saw his friend alive. “I would have done the same thing if I had been on vacation.”
Kessler said that in many cases, the traveler arrives too late to say goodbye. Before ending your trip early, calculate the time it will take to reach your loved one.
“Sometimes the reality is that you just can’t get there fast enough,” Kessler said. “It’s really about connecting with your loved ones. It’s about the phone, it’s about Skype, it’s about FaceTime.”
Once again, Kessler spoke from experience. Three years ago, while he was on a work trip in the Baltimore area, he received news that his 21-year-old son had died suddenly in California. He missed the last plane to the West Coast but stayed in contact with his family until he could board the first flight out the next morning.
“Sometimes those stuck moments also give our minds time to process what has happened,” he said.
If you can’t be there physically, you can still show up spiritually. Tarzian recommends engaging in a meaningful act that honors the person or visiting a sacred place and lighting a candle.
If you have decided to terminate your vacation early, your next step is to arrange your trip home. Start by contacting the airline by phone or through social media. Explain your emergency, and if you are a member of the carrier’s loyalty program, mention that, too. Many agents are sympathetic and might reduce or waive the change fee.
“Even if you don’t expect much,” Stewart said, “begin with a call to the airline and see what options are available.”
If the first reservationist is a stickler for rules, Kessler suggests hanging up and calling again to speak with a different agent.
“Don’t give up until you have tried at least three people,” he said.
Only a couple of airlines (Alaska Air and Delta) still offer bereavement fares. However, the discounted walk-up fares are usually more expensive than the prices you find online. Plus, you have to show proof of the illness or death and, in Delta’s case, join the carrier’s frequent-flier program.
Stewart encourages travelers to consider the most basic level of economy. Of the major domestic carriers, only United Airlines prohibits carry-on luggage. In addition, considering your needs, the inability to change your reservation is immaterial.
For hotels, speak directly with the manager. If you have reservations at other lodgings, call or email them with your reason for canceling. Ask for a refund rather than a credit.
No question, your flight home will be agonizing. Kessler says not to bottle up your pain but release it. Don’t underestimate strangers: They often provide compassion and comfort when you least expect it and most need it.
“Acknowledging [the death] on a flight allows your grief to be witnessed,” Kessler said. “It is a moment to be human and to connect with humanity.”
In-flight movies can distract and ease a heavy heart. Kessler says to avoid comedies — you can’t ha-ha your way out of grief — and choose a drama featuring struggling characters.
“When our heart is broken, that’s the time to connect with people,” he said, “even if that someone is in a movie.”
On my flight back to my father, I found solace in Peter Rabbit.