Death, Grief & Healing at

Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize


It wasn’t until our second day in Belize, just before we were supposed to leave for a tour of Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, that I finally shed tears over the death of my father.


I was stunned on December 27, when my mother called to tell me the news that he’d passed away during the night after a long, gradual decline in health. I was numb at the memorial service a week later, when I reunited with family members I’d cut off all contact with over two years ago. I was distracted by our #JustOneRhino fundraiser and deadlines, too busy and exhausted to allow myself time to deal with the roiling cauldron of emotions buried deep inside me.

The Trailhead at Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

The Trailhead at Cockscomb Basin


I thought I was OK until the first day of our trip, when we went Scuba diving on the Belize Barrier Reef. First I got knocked into sharp coral by another diver as we were both trying to film footage of a 6-foot reef shark, getting cut on my legs and elbow. Later, after bobbing in choppy surface waves for 10 minutes while waiting for the boat to pick me up from our second dive, I spewed my breakfast into the sea. Thanks to my diving wounds, I barely slept at all that night, which proved to be the last straw.


The next morning, bleary eyed and facing a grueling all-day hike with a group of strangers, I finally broke down at the breakfast table. The tears flowed in endless streams behind my sunglasses as I watched the resident iguana at Hamanasi Resort posing among the treetops. It was all too much. I couldn’t deal with anything, or anyone. I told Mary I wanted to cancel our tour to Cockscomb Basin, despite the fact that I’d been yearning to explore it for nearly 20 years.


Map of Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Reserve Hiking Trails

Map of Cockscomb’s Hiking Trails



The relationship between my father and I had been complex right from the very beginning.


At the age of 21 he was drafted by the U.S. Army, and had to go AWOL to be there for my birth. Six hours later he was on a plane to Southeast Asia to support the war effort in Vietnam, and my mother and I moved in with my paternal grandparents. When he came home two years later we were strangers: I thought my grandfather was my dad, and I’m told this 6’4″, 200-pound newcomer frightened me.


My dad and I became close for a few years, but family tragedy (the deaths of my maternal grandmother and my stillborn sister) and unfortunate circumstances (the stress and exhaustion that came from working multiple jobs to raise a family of 5) led to clashes of wills as I reached adolescence. He didn’t understand my interest in singing, dancing and acting, which went against his machismo-centered view of what a man should be. I didn’t understand his repressive need for authoritarian control over my life choices, which went against the independent spirit he and my mother had instilled in me from an early age.



Manilkara Chicle, the tree whose sap made Chiclet Gum


After years of emotional, psychological and physical abuse, things came to a head shortly after I turned 18. My father tried to force me to quit my band over some forgotten household chore, and I refused. I announced that I was moving out on my father’s 40th birthday, leaving my mom and much younger siblings in tears. I severed all ties with my immediate family for several years.


My dad and I were eventually able to bond over our mutual love of pop culture after I became a successful entertainment journalist. He collected thousands of albums during my childhood, and I discovered nearly every artist I ended up loving – from Beethoven and the Beatles to James Brown and Miles Davis to Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash– through him.


But our relationship remained strained as his debilitating physical and mental struggles gradually whittled away at the man he had once been. On the positive side, my father was kinder, more patient, more willing to listen to and reflect upon opinions other than his own. On the negative, he would often nod off in mid-conversation, and needed constant care for his many health issues. Due to extenuating circumstances, he and I had not spoken in over two years before his death.


Wading Birds en route to Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize

Wading Birds en route to Cockscomb Basin



There were so many memories and conflicting emotions– love, hate, anger, regret, resentment, reconciliation and grief– jumbled together my mind as I sat there at breakfast that morning, I felt like I simply couldn’t deal with anything. Less than 48 hours into my dream trip to Belize, all I wanted was to go back to our room and wallow in my sorrows.


I choked back tears as Mary explained what was going on to Adventure Center director Chris Liles and asked to cancel our tour. But Chris didn’t give up: “I’m really sorry for your loss. But Cockscomb is amazing, and I’d hate for you to miss it… What if we canceled your spots on the group tour and arranged a private tour for you instead? You could take it slow and easy, go only as far as you want and come back whenever you’re ready.” How could I refuse?


To quote Robert Louis Stevenson, “the great affair is to move,” and something about the simple act of moving improved my mood immediately. As the sun broke through early morning clouds coming in from the coast, our good-natured guide, Lorenzo, drove us past marshland filled with wading birds– Wood Storks, Roseate Spoonbills, Brown Ibis and Snowy Egrets– and cracked jokes about the “free massage” provided by the pothole-filled dirt roads outside Hopkins Village.


Belize Whiptail at Cockscomb_Basin_Wildlife_Sanctuary

Belize Whiptail basking in the Sun


As we made our way to the Stann Creek district of south-central Belize, Lorenzo told us more about the history of Cockscomb Basin, which encompasses 128,000 acres (around 400 square kilometers) on the eastern slopes of the Maya Mountains.


The land was mostly used for logging of cedar and mahogany until 1982, when grad student Alan Rabinowitz (now the CEO of Panthera, the world’s leading NGO for big cat conservation) was commissioned to study its jaguar population. His jaguar traps, one of which is on display at the reserve’s Welcome Center, failed miserably until he got a blessing from a local shaman.


Eventually Rabinowitz determined that the area contained as many as 600 jaguars– the highest concentration ever recorded. In 1986 the Belize government established Cockscomb as a no-hunting zone, and in the 1990s they expanded the sanctuary to connect it to the Bladen Branch Nature Reserve. Thanks largely to Rabinowitz’s efforts, the IUCN declared the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, “The major achievement in cat conservation for the triennium.”


Howler Monkey in Cockscomb_Basin_Wildlife_Sanctuary_Belize

Howler Monkey Feeding in the Rainforest Canopy



Walking through the woods always reminds me of the good times I had with my dad in early childhood. In those tender years, before the baby died, my parents led our Episcopal Church youth group. So I got to go on trips hiking parts of the Appalachian Trail, climbing Blood Mountain and camping in Blue Ridge, Georgia. Along with summers at my grandparents’ cabin on Lake Hartwell, these trips instilled in me a deep love of nature and an understanding of our relationship with it.


As Lorenzo led us through the Cockscomb Basin rainforest, telling us about how his father had been a chiclero who tapped the sap from the Manilkara Chicle tree to make Chiclet chewing gum, these memories came washing over me, filling me with the warmth of nostalgia.


The further down the hiking trail we went, the more nature’s beauty began to alter my mood. I spotted a family of black Howler Monkeys feeding on wild figs in the rainforest canopy, looking down at us nonchalantly as they hung from their toes to grab the freshest fruits. Reintroduced in the 1980s after Yellow Fever wiped them out, the Howler population seems to have recovered nicely.


Crested Guan at Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize

The Crested Guan


A Crested Guan– an ancient bird from the Cracidae family that looks like a bit like a Turkey– suddenly flew into the tree right below them, its red wattle standing our brilliantly against its white-spotted black feathers. With a noisy call, a presumed mate soon flew in to join him.


The forest was bustling with sounds and activity: A White-Collared Manakin sat in a Cohune Palm, clacking its mating call. Lorenzo used a twig to coax a cute Scarlet-Rump Tarantula (whom he had named Lisa) from her nest in a muddy bank. Turtles and schools of small fish swam in South Stann Creek, whose waters ran milky with silty runoff from the morning rain. A blue-backed male and red-bellied female Slaty-Tailed Trogon eyed us cautiously from neighboring trees.


Male Slaty-tailed Trogon in Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, Belize

Male Slaty-tailed Trogon


It didn’t matter that we didn’t see a jaguar, that mystical jungle cat whose powerful presence initially got me interested in visiting Cockscomb nearly 20 years ago. It didn’t matter that the heat and humidity made my foggy glasses a constant struggle. It didn’t matter that I was tired and confused and grieving for a man I rarely understood.


All that mattered was that we kept putting one foot in front of the other, and that each new step brought with it so much natural beauty that my heart could not help feeling full.


I never had the relationship with my father that I yearned for all those years. I never felt like he truly understood or believed in me, or respected the choices I made for my life. These were things I could never change.


But the reality that I came to terms during that hike in Cockscomb Basin was that I had believed in myself even when nobody else had, and my choices had allowed me to make my lifelong dreams of adventure come true.


Waterfall at Cockscomb_Basin_Wildlife_Sanctuary

Winding Down with a Waterfall all to Ourselves



Eventually we made our way down a steep trail to the attraction I’d been waiting for since our first steps into the rainforest: A blue-green pool of water fed by a rushing waterfall, surrounded on all sides by verdant green trees. We had the place all to ourselves at midday, and Lorenzo covered his eyes with his hat and settled in for a cat nap as Mary and I stripped down for a swim.


The water was as remarkably cool as it was clear, and I found myself inhaling and exhaling deeply as my sweat-soaked skin adjusted to the temperature. Mary and I took the obligatory photos and video, then spent time soaking in the shallow water and talking quietly about our day. Eventually I made my way under the waterfall and let its pounding pulse massage away the aches and pains of weeks of stress.


In retrospect, I’m not sure whether it was the breathing, the water, or simply the joy of surrounding myself in nature’s immense beauty that did the trick. But somehow I felt as if these hours exploring Cockscomb had healed my aching heart. The pain of losing a parent may never go away, particularly because of our troubled history. But in that place, in that particular moment, I knew that I would be OK.  –Bret Love; photos by Bret Love & Mary Gabbett


Our trip to Belize was sponsored by San Ignacio Resort Hotel & the Belize Tourism Board, but we will never compromise our obligation to our readers. Our opinions remain our own.


If you enjoyed our post on exploring Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, you might also like:

BELIZE: The Ancient Mayan Ruins of Xunantunich

BELIZE: The Green Iguana Conservation Project

PIC OF THE DAY: Hamanasi Adventure & Dive Resort

INTERVIEW: The Garifuna Collective Preserves the Rich Culture of Belize

What is an Eco Lodge? A Guide to “Green” Accommodations

How to Choose a Green Hotel

Easy Ecotourism: 10 Simple Steps to More Sustainable Travel

The Benefits of Ecotourism: 20 Travel Bloggers on the Importance of Nature Travel

The Beauty of Nature Travel: A Blog Round-Up

40 Responses to Death, Grief & Healing at Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

  • Anda says:

    I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. No matter how troubled your relationship with your father, you both seemed to love each other. It not easy to lose a parent. I know, because I lost my mother two years ago to cancer. Time is a good healer, but your heart will always ache when you’ll think about him. Seems that Cockscomb Basin was the perfect place to start your healing process.
    Anda recently posted..Lucerne to Interlaken via the GoldenPass RouteMy Profile

  • Beautiful, thank you for sharing. Isn’t it amazing how traveling can help us deal with these painful, profound and complicated losses? Even if just for a moment.
    Karlie @ Miss Wanderlust recently posted..Sofia: Bulgaria’s bewitching capitalMy Profile

    • Indeed. For me, nature is the key ingredient: To quote Andrew McCarthy from our interview a few years ago, “The further I go, the closer to me I get.” It’s the act of getting away from the hustle and bustle of civilization that gives me the time and space I need to shut out the noise, clear my head and open my soul up to the Universe within and without. I wish I could do that a LOT more often.

  • Andrew says:

    I don’t comment enough on blog posts but as I’m sitting here drinking my morning coffee, reading your post, I was captivated and had to say what a wonderful post. Thank you for sharing. Nearly two ago I lost my baby brother. We was not particularly close and have so many regrets for just not making the effort to get to know him more. I too have found myself on some amazing tours and become overwhelmed with feelings of loss. Time helps to deal with the pain but not a healer, nor should it be, it’s a reminder of everything that means so much to you.

    Thanks again for sharing.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, Andrew, and for the props. Losing loved ones is always hard, but I think troubled relationships bring with them an added element of emotional complexity. The whole “shoulda/woulda/coulda” second guessing sets in and makes us question our actions, and regret… well, it’s a beast. Ultimately I think time just helps us get to a place of understanding and acceptance, which I think is what eventually allowed me to come to grips with my feelings and write this post.

  • sarah says:

    Isn’t nature spectacular and amazing? I’ve always found it to be a great healer for me. Bret, this is one of my favorite reads of yours, partly because I appreciate your willingness and ability to be open with your readers and partly because I have a similar story of my relationship with my father. Ultimately though we are who we are in part because of those relationships and I think we turned out pretty damn good! Thanks for sharing and thanks for always bringing awareness to the wonder of all things nature. You guys rock! 🙂
    sarah recently posted..Why We Chose Split Over Dubrovnik For Our Time in CroatiaMy Profile

    • I agree, Sarah: I have no regrets about my past because everything led me to where I am now, which is pretty damn awesome. But I definitely empathize with anyone going through these emotional struggles, because it’s sometimes difficult to see the positive side of negative experiences when we’re still working our way through them. Only in retrospect do we fully understand and appreciate how they shaped us as human beings.

  • Wow, Bret… quite a journey. I’m so glad you guys got to do this as a private tour and were able to go in spite of your grief. It sounds like such an amazing place and no wonder you’d looked forward to it for so long. One foot in front of the other, indeed, and eyes open! Wishing you peace and continued healing.
    Shelly Rivoli recently posted..The 411 on Huntsville with KidsMy Profile

    • Thanks, Shelly. It was an extraordinary place. And even though I didn’t want to do anything but sleep at the time, I’m glad in retrospect that Chris talked me into going. I would definitely regret missing out.

  • Camille says:

    Sorry to hear about your loss. I can relate to so many aspects of this post… I also just had to deal with a difficult emotional situation (or two!) while on the road, and I understand this feeling of losing interest in everything and just wanting to crawl back into bed… but like you, I find that being on the move and forcing myself to do something and getting into it helps. Well done for not giving up on the tour and managing to make the most of it anyway! 🙂
    Camille recently posted..Wanderlust Instagrammy Awards: Myanmar in 30 Amazing PicturesMy Profile

    • Thanks, Camille. I’m guessing that these emotional struggles are universal, and hoping that others can find similar solace in the sanctuaries that nature provides. I believe that they’re crucial, not only for the health of the planet but for the health of us, as people, as well.

  • Bret,
    I think it takes a certain amount of courage to write a personal expose like this and throw your emotions to the public. As you know, I have been down this path with a similar ordeal. You helped and supported me. I am here if you need to talk my friend. We all need to learn to “love ourselves” and I think you are well on your way. Congratulations amigo!
    Mike (Nomadic Texan) recently posted..Azalea Trail #4, Azalea District Historic HomesMy Profile

    • Thanks so much for the support, Mike. I’m OK now, but it definitely took some time of reflection and healing before I felt capable of writing this story and putting it out there for the world to see. Hopefully this is something lots of readers can relate to, whether they’re coming to terms with a difficult loss or simply looking for ways to heal themselves. For me, nature has always been much more than merely an escape, but more like a holistic medicine that cures whatever ails me. In its embrace, I always feel more like my very best self.

  • Izy Berry says:

    i am so sorry about your loss!!
    “He promised us that everything would be okay. I was a child, but I knew that everything would not be okay. That did not make my father a liar. It made him my father.”
    ― Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

    • Thanks Izy, both for the comment and the quote. I think recognizing that are parents are flawed human beings, rather than perfect idols, is one of the hardest parts about growing up. Or at least it was for me!

  • SO sorry about your loss, and about the relationship being different than what you wanted. But nature has a magic wand, doesn’t it? That last paragraph gave me goosebumps. XO, j
    Jessie Voigts recently posted..The Big Trip: Your Ultimate Guide to Gap Years and Overseas AdventuresMy Profile

  • Ryan says:

    The way you described your early relationship and clashes with your father was so like my relationship that I thought I was reading an article I had written. And when he passed away, all of the hate and anger and clashes and attachment drifted away and the loss was all that was left — and I couldn’t take it. But, for you, one foot in front of the other, you kept moving. Something I would learn years later was the best way to deal with loss. One foot forward. It isn’t leaving a loved one behind or not honoring them properly to keep living, and for you to fulfill something you and always wanted to for that many years at such a moment was crucial. The reason why people die, is to show us what it is to live and to not waste that time, and though it is hard and shocking to lose someone we love, it can also be transformed into a lasting empowerment to take advantage of our finite moments. I wish there could have been more reconcile with your relationship, as I have wished for a redo on occasion with my father, but it seems now that his death was whether you know it or not, attached to fulfilling that life moment, and he was a part of that in essence, to push you, and now your feet keep moving forward, living life, and being an inspiration for others my friend. Now he goes back to the earth in whatever form and will forever be in the growing plants or budding flowers or shining sun and beautiful waterfalls. Here’s to life Brett, and though nostalgia will always pain us, it will be okay.
    Ryan recently posted..13 Rickshaw Run Photos that will Blow Your MindMy Profile

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Ryan. I’m both happy and sad to hear how much you could relate to the story. One of the key things I’ve tried to pass down to my daughter is that can’t shy away from our feelings, but we also can’t become so overwhelmed by them that we become paralyzed. It’s important to deal with them as healthily as possible, learn from them and then move on, using those lessons to guide us forward. It’s how we deal with these sorts of tragedies and setbacks in our lives that defines who we are as human beings.

  • I think it is harder to lose a parent with whom you have had a troubled relationship than to lose one you have had an easy relationship with.
    Lyn aka TheTravellingLindfields recently posted..Vivid Sydney – light, music and ideasMy Profile

    • I think you’re onto something, Lyn. Though I was very saddened by the deaths of my beloved grandparents, the fact that I got to spend lots of quality time with them before they passed and we had very strong relationships made it much easier to let them go. I definitely have regrets about my dad, wishing we could’ve had a few more conversations. But I know somewhere he’s watching over me, and hopefully he’s proud of all the amazing things we’ve been able to accomplish these last few years.

  • A very personal article but one that resonates with many of us I’m sure. Families can be very complicated (I have one of those) but I’m pleased you managed to get to where you wanted to be and needed to be… both geographically and emotionally. xx
    Elle | Spain Buddy recently posted..Moors and Christians Mojacar 2015 – programmeMy Profile

    • Thanks, Elle. One of the greatest things about blogging is the realization that the circumstances of my childhood are not entirely unique. On one hand I hate knowing that so many of my friends had similarly difficult experiences growing up, but on the other hand it’s great to see how people build their own tribes, their own families, as they grow up and realize that they’re not alone.

  • Jenna says:

    So sorry for your loss, Bret. Wonderful article and reflection–it’s amazing how travel and nature can be so healing. I’m glad you were able to head out on a private tour and that you were able to still explore such a beautiful spot! Belize sounds amazing!
    Jenna recently posted..A Photo Essay: Kyoto, JapanMy Profile

    • It is amazing, and there are many stories left to be told from our time there, including diving the Belize Barrier Reef (which I mention here), learning the drumming and history of the Garifuna people in Hopkins Village, adventures at the ATM Cave, and exploring the ancient city of Caracol. All coming soon!

  • Vanessa says:

    This piece really touched me as it reflected many of the emotions I have regarding my own family. But this post has reminded me of how soothing and restorative nature can be and how you can experience peace and tranquility anywhere in the world

    • Thanks, Vanessa– it makes me both happy and sad to hear it struck a resonant chord with your personal experience. As for the restorative power of nature, I think that’s a big reason why we prefer to travel in the way we do. I never feel as refreshed and rejuvenated when we travel to cities as I do when we’re “away from it all,” surrounded by natural beauty. I’d go back to Belize in a heartbeat!

  • I’m so sorry for your loss, and the pain never does go away after losing a parent, even one where you have a complicated relationship. This definitely struck a chord with me, as I have a complicated relationship with my family, too, and my father passed away when I was 22. Sometimes visiting peaceful and beautiful spots in nature can help you heal, and I am glad that you continued with the tour later that day. Sometimes when I’m traveling, I think about those that I have lost, and fully appreciate the beauty that I am still able to go out and see in the world. Thank you for sharing something so personal.
    Lauren | Justin Plus Lauren recently posted..The Colorful Houses of Burano, ItalyMy Profile

  • My father died in April and it will soon be a year since I saw him last. I didn’t feel to bad because at least we talked frequently and I had healed most of the issues I’d had with him by the time he died. As I read this I thought of a couple of things: 1) how sweet of them to arrange a private tour for you and 2) somehow going to this place that you’d longed to go at this particular time was just right. I can feel the cool water and the massage of the water falls. Thanks for sharing your story. Great photos even if it was a bit of a sad day.
    Penny Sadler recently posted..Postcard: The Lone Cypress and Pebble BeachMy Profile

  • This is a really touching piece. I am so glad you got the time to release those tears and in such a beautiful place.
    Erin Bender recently posted..Living The Dream: When Air Miles Pay For Your DreamsMy Profile

  • A heartfelt post that clearly resonates with so many of us! I remember breaking down in the Matisse Chapel in Vence in the South of France. My artist parents had gone there on their honeymoon, and when I was there so many years later my my father had just been admitted to a longterm health facility. It just seemed so sad. It’s so interesting how we can process things through travel – I’m not sure what it about ‘the journey’ that lets us tap into something much deeper inside ourselves. I’m glad nature helped you come to terms with your grief.
    Wandering Carol recently posted..Historic Montparnasse cafes in Paris, what’s the point?My Profile

  • Elena says:

    I am so sorry for your loss but am so glad that you were able to soak in all the energy that nature had to give you to heal.
    Elena recently posted..12 Not To Miss Experiences in MarrakechMy Profile

  • Jessica says:

    What a beautiful piece! Thank you for sharing your grief and your journey so eloquently.

  • Anna says:

    Thank you for having the courage to share this Bret, beautifully written.
    Anna recently posted..Most Affordable Travel Destinations in EuropeMy Profile

  • so sorry to hear about your father. Father and son relationships are almost always complicated. time will heal everything. Thanks for sharing.
    Tajirul Haque recently posted..7 Top Reasons to Visit IndonesiaMy Profile

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