THE AIRLINES DON’T WANT YOU TO KNOW IT, BUT IT’S TRUE.
AND FLYING ON THE MILES GIVEN TO YOU BY SOMEONE YOU LOVED, WHO HAS HIM- OR HERSELF FLOWN OFF EARTHLY LIFE… WELL, THE JOURNEYS I HAVE TAKEN UNDER THESE CIRCUMSTANCES HAVE BEEN DEAR TO ME.
HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW.
This post is unusual for me. It is something of a practical public service announcement (PSA).
It’s a PSA for travel-fond young people who love older people, and travel-fond older people who love younger people.
And it’s a PSA, maybe, for some of us who grieve, and wish we could (even though we think we can’t) do it with some bravery. For those of us who might be willing to discover that while we look back with longing to a past that can never be repeated, know we are already reluctantly facing a future without a person we loved… if that person traveled some, and accumulated Frequent Flyer miles.
The past; irretrievable. The future; unknown and unknowable. But the present?
Right in the present, right in the middle of that grief that bends us over double, it can turn out that we may not be entirely without love and the capacity for adventure, though it feels that way most of the time.
And it even turns out that, in an odd way, we might be able to take one more trip with the vanished loved one.
This is because:
Don’t let them go to waste.
Look. I know. I get it. There’s a lot, far too much, to think about when in the raging river of grief. It’s easy to overlook Frequent Flyer miles, in the pressure of more immediate and urgent concerns.
Plus most people, certainly bereaved ones, don’t even know about this. Nor does it occur to them ask. And for some grief-stricken people, expense is not an issue; they can fly anywhere they like with no worries. So why add doing this to the already-impossibly-long stack list?
Because a trip you make on your beloved’s miles is different emotionally from one you make out of your own pocket.
The three journeys I have taken have in this manner, have been a small but significant part of working with grief and loss for me. They have deepened my understanding of one of the great paradoxes of life after someone you loved deeply is no more: that I am now both with and without the person I loved.
But, this: Don’t let earned miles go to waste (and into the pockets of the airlines) when those miles can gift you, or allow you to gift someone else, in a way that can be so very meaningful and personal.
Yes, the paperwork is a small amount of hassle. And yes, it may seem morbid or tacky to even consider this (I believe probably the airlines count on this, because you have to dig to discover that the benefit does not die with the person, any more than his or her stocks and bonds).
But the return you’ll get for pursuing your beloved’s miles can be vast.
These journeys are in a sense given to you by the person you’ve lost.
Accept this gift.
3. When death comes, as it will and must, make sure to get extra copies of the original death certificate. You will need it (some airlines, and many other institutions you will deal with for that matter, accept only originals; some will accept photocopies — and the certificates are much more expensive if you wait to ask for them instead of doing it at the time they are issued).
4. There is quite possibly other paperwork needed to prove to the airline the legitimacy of your claim. You may also need some proof of your relationship to the person who has died if you don’t share a name. If you call the 800# for whichever airline’s Frequent Flyer rewards program you are considering, they will tell you what is required (I am sure the rules vary slightly from airline to airline, and may have changed since I was in a position to redeem a deceased loved one’s miles).
Airlines do not volunteer this information, though they do not deny it or hide it as such. But you have to ask.
I am quite certain that millions of miles go wasted, since most people have no idea Frequent Flyer miles are considered an asset.
How do I know this, you ask?
Because when I cleared out my father’s apartment after his death, there was a mileage statement on his desk. Just on a whim, I called the 800 number. And that is how I found out.
It felt like a final gift from my father.
In 1991, after my father died, I traveled to Paris on his Frequent Flyer miles.
My father had always adored France, and especially Paris. He loved French food; he loved, in the years when he drank, French wines. He peppered his speech with French phrases; for instance, he would never say, “Let’s go,” always, “Allons-y!” And not “To each his own,” but “cha·cun à son goût.” He loved Proust. He was so fond of the famous Francois Villon line, “Où sont les neiges d’antan?” (“Where are the snows of yesteryear?”) that he planned to have it painted on the mantel of the house he was thinking of buying around the time he unexpectedly died.
I knew Maurice would not only have approved, but been delighted that he had given me this journey to Paris. He was with me often in thought as I traveled and once I got there, as I ate extra-smelly goaty varieties of chevre I had never heard of and which waiters told me I wouldn’t like (which insured I would) , or giant street crepes… as I prowled the Tuileries and the Jeu de Palme (why isn’t this impressionist gallery better lit?), walked back and forth over the bridges of the Seine.
In 2001, after my husband died, I traveled to India on his Frequent Flyer miles. He loved that country deeply.
The one children’s book he wrote and lived to see published, The Sanyasin’s First Day, expresses his tender regard beautifully.
Although Ned’s death was sudden, and though he was young, he had expressed in writing, years earlier, on a note he left in our safety deposit box, his wish that should he predecease me, his ashes be put in a certain river in South India.
I was able to comply with those wishes because of using his miles (combined with my own).
It was a strange, difficult privilege to fulfill the task he had left me. To travel there one more time, in a sense with him (though in my view everything that was “him” vanished, except in memory, when he died; the “remains” were just that).
This trip — because Ned had died so unexpectedly, and was a mere 46 years old– was not joyful. It was solemn at best, filled with mostly pure, unadulterated pain. (I wrote about this trip here).
Yet I remain glad I did it. Glad I could do what he wanted.
Though I have never returned to that country.
In 2014, after my mother died, I traveled to the South of France on her Frequent Flyer miles.
She too, had loved France, though not to the extent of my father. But she loved traveling with friends, and she particularly loved one friend of mine, Bill Haymes.
Like my father, Bill is a francophile, and for some years has divided his time between Nashville, Tennessee and France, spending part of each trip in Paris and part in Nice. Bill had invited me to visit for years, and that year, ten months after her death, I did.
My mother loved gardening, plants, and scent. She loved the paintings of Chagall and Matisse (I remember looking at Matisses with her at MOMA when I was a little girl).
And she loved the ocean, as her The Seashore Book attests).
So on that trip, I went to Grasse, where flowers for many of the world’s legendary perfumes are grown. I also went to the Chagall and Matisse museums. And, almost every day I walked down through the alley the half-block to the pebbly beach near the apartment Bill rented.
In all cases, she, too, was with me in thought.
I knew she, too, would not only have approved, but been delighted that she had given me this journey to Paris.
These journeys, particularly the ones that were done with my parents’ miles, felt right, and were something of an anodyne to the pain of their loss. As I have said, it was different in Ned’s case. But still.
Still I was grateful in all three of these cases.
For I was making those journeys as those three people I’d loved, made theirs, at least metaphorically. From life on Earth to whatever (if anything) comes next.
I was, in a sense, traveling with them still, in present time, even though they were no more.
For those we have loved deeply, who leave before us, always travel with us. Not in a guardian angel sense, at least so I believe, but in memory. And, even more importantly, in the way we have been shaped by knowing and loving them.
Taking one more trip, in any sense, with someone you have loved who has died, is a privilege.