Grief Travel: How and Why Vacations Can Help Heal Your Grief
(Original Article on Eterneva, September 2019)
I’ve spent a lot of my life traveling for business and pleasure. I even co-owned a retreat company that designed group trips to Bali, Indonesia—so understand the richness travel brings life.
SEEKING RELIEF: TRAVELING TO GRIEVE
Exploring unknown terrain, hearing different languages, experiencing different cultures, food, smells, sounds, sights, beliefs, and rituals have made me a kinder, more adaptable, and grateful person.
As someone from the United States, I know so many of us are taught to work hard, our value comes from a life earned, and travel is an optional luxury.
Travel has afforded me the ability to drop that “story” as I’ve observed numerous cultures that value “play” and just “being” as much, if not more, than work.
Rest and reflection are essential parts of a successful and happy life. Travel has also shown me that it as a valuable opportunity to process challenges, including loss.
Losing loved ones is something we will all experience, likely many times over. How each of us grieves is individual, but what I can say from experience and from witnessing others, is that traveling can be profoundly healing.
WHY VACATIONS CAN BE GREAT WHEN GRIEVING
Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom. – Rumi
There is no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of a loved one; be it a partner, best friend, or family member. After the death of someone dear, we can lose ourselves in sadness—grief can feel like an all-consuming vortex of sorrow. Deciding to travel as a conscious way to grieve can pull us out of that isolation and provide insight, healing, transformation, relief, peace, and more.
Forcing ourselves to remain present and attentive as we navigate new surroundings in tandem with the ebb and flow of emotions can provide a necessary connection to the world around us.
Travel brings simple distractions that give us moments to retrain our attention on basic activities like buying train tickets, finding a hotel, hailing a taxi, and so forth. It can also be a significant component of mourning if travel includes activities designed to nurture our vulnerable spirits and honor the life of the loved one lost.
For several years, I helped others process grief during many group trips to Bali and taken time to grieve myself while traveling so intimately understand what’s possible.
SETTING THE TONE FOR TRAVEL
If you plan to take a trip as a means to process death, I recommend planning specific activities to help you make the most of your experience. Reflect on things that might be important to see or do, allowing yourself to entertain the most basic to more elaborate options.
Dr. Karen Wyatt, a hospice physician and the founder of End-of-Life University Blog, defines six categories of grief travel to consider when making plans:
While I think you can design a whole vacation around just one of these intentions, I believe many would plan something that combines several of these elements.
If you feel called to travel but are too overwhelmed to make plans, consider asking a friend or close family member to help with details or even join you on the trip.
They can coordinate and book specifics, provide an outlet to share your emotions, be there to lift your spirits, and offer comfort. Having someone you trust accompany you at this sensitive time can be just the added support you need to make this trip happen.
Below, I’ve shared more thoughts and ideas on each of Dr. Wyatt’s six categories listed above to help you plan your journey.
If you’re not ready to engage with the whole world around you, focus on spending time with others, or resume your day-to-day activities, staying with a friend or family member for a short while might be the haven needed. If this isn’t a possibility, traveling to a retreat designed explicitly around grief and loss can provide mindful and trained support.
During your deepest despair, a scenario where meals are provided, someone is available to listen compassionately, actively comfort in a type of comfort zone, or give you space to be alone is ideal.
Other restorative elements to consider including on your trip are music, journaling, and soothing fragrances.
Design a playlist on your device and pack headphones so you can easily tune in (and tune out) anywhere along your route.
Journaling—which can run the gamut of purging emotional pain, writing poetry, or sketching images—can be a healing lifeline.
Scents like lavender, sage, rosemary, cinnamon, or a personal favorite fragrance in the form of candles, essential oils, incense, and body products create an environment of tranquility and comfort. Andrea Oliveras, founder of the Toronto-based Ayurveda Rituals and leader in the wellness industry, shares, “Aromatics engage our senses with creative, evocative and inspirational infusions, reminding us that rejuvenation is our birthright.”
Spa services and body treatments can be particularly restorative as therapeutic touch can feel extra-healing while mourning. Massage therapists are acutely aware of how releasing tension in the body can release emotional pain. As a result, they provide a supportive, judgment-free experience for clients to release trauma.
If you are further down the road from your loss and seek opportunities to find joy, moments of laughter along your journey can also be restorative. Meenakshi Nagdeve, co-founder of Organic Facts, shares, “Laughter indeed is a medicine for all.” Nagdeve cites ten benefits of laughter, including boosting immunity, lowering blood pressure, reducing stress, and elevating overall mood. You can read her full list here.
As I shared earlier, I used to take groups to Bali. It was here I witnessed firsthand the healing effects of laughter through a woman who lost her husband after a medical mishap about nine months before our trip. She quietly shared with me a few days into the journey:
“My sadness over his death has swallowed my joy. I don’t want to talk about him, or my loss, or how it all happened anymore. I don’t even want people here to know. I need to try to find my happiness again.”
Her emotions were raw at that moment, as she wiped away tears before they could fall. Honestly, I doubted whether she was ready.
The next day I found myself sitting next to her in an SUV on the way to some hot springs. We both burst into huge laughter as we passed farmers trying to wrangle a giant pig onto a tiny pickup truck. When we finally stopped, we caught and held each other’s gaze. I saw in her eyes release and relief as she wiped away tears of a different kind. After that afternoon, she began really engaging with others, establishing friendships that remain to this day.
Grief is one of our greatest teachers. It cracks us open.—Ram Dass, Walking Each Other Home: Conversations on Loving and Dying
Honoring your feelings of loss through a mindful practice meant to bring about a state of peace and self-compassion can be a critical part of mourning. Adding an element such as meditation into your daily travel can be transformative.
Tris Thorp, a leading expert on emotional healing, recommends doing a 15-20 minute meditation that focuses specifically on visualizing your loved one and going through a six-step guided process. You can find her meditation process here.
I love this meditation because you can do it almost anywhere, anytime. When traveling, consider finding an outdoor location—a park, beside an ocean, river or stream, a rock along a hiking route—anywhere you can sit quietly and do this meditation. Remember, meditation is a practice you can do as many times as you feel called.
As Tris shares: “The grieving process takes time. There is no quick or easy way out of the pain and suffering that we endure as a result of losing someone or something that we love dearly. It is important to feel the emotions as they are moving through us rather than avoiding or burying them. Pretending that we’re fine when we’re not is how we suppress emotional pain that will later show up as any number of physiological symptoms down the road.”
3. PHYSICALLY ACTIVE
Many people work off intense emotions through physical activities. Planning things on your trip like hiking, biking, running to help physically release the emotional energy of loss can be a healthy outlet.
Consider looking up local activities popular in a region or country to try such as fencing, canoeing or kayaking, archery or similar. Endorphins (the brain’s “feel-good” chemicals) released during exercise combined with the focus of learning a new skill are beneficial, elevating mood, lowering tension and pain.
Yoga, in all its many forms, offers another avenue to release physical and psychological stress. Yoga has become quite popular worldwide and finding a class in the town, or even at the hotel you’re staying at might be a lot easier than you think. There are also online no or low-cost options available to you wherever you’ve got access to the internet. Most types of yoga don’t require much space, and I’ve grabbed a bath towel and done yoga in many hotel rooms.
Giving yourself the gift of even twenty minutes of yoga before you venture out into everyday life can provide inner calm and centeredness.
Planning a vacation to a spot where you shared special memories and commemorating that person through a ceremony or ritual can be very healing.
If your destination doesn’t hold shared memories, I suggest finding a spot along your trip to design a ritual that honors you and your loved one. Your ceremony doesn’t have to be elaborate—although it can be if that’s what feels right, it only need be meaningful to you.
Here’s a list of possibilities:
Light a candle in a church or temple
Write a letter to your loved one—share everything that feels unsaid or needed—and then (safely) burn it
Release your loved one’s favorite flowers along a river
Say a prayer you’ve prepared while burning sage.
Organizing anything to honor your loss can bring about relief and peace, and can be the best thing for you.
Over the years, many people at various stages of grief came on my group retreats. One of my most memorable trips was the first one.
Shortly after arriving on the island, one of the women approached my business partner and me.
“I lost my son in a motorcycle accident last year. I brought some of his ashes with me and was hoping we could do a ceremony to say goodbye to him. Would that be possible?”
We felt humbled she’d chosen us to help coordinate something so special. With her input and approval, we arranged for a local village priest to meet our group at the ocean’s edge about a week into the two-week trip. On that morning, she honored the life of her youngest child, set his ashes free in the waters, and had a holy man consecrate the event with traditional Balinese blessings.
It was a profound moment for her—for our whole group. Who she was before the ceremony and who she became afterward was visibly different. Her eyes brightened, and her whole being seemed lighter, freer. Saying goodbye to him in such a conscious way helped her release some of the anguish she carried.
I want to stop here and add that I believe most are likely to think of traveling after a loved one has passed away. There are so many of us who grieve during a loved one’s terminal illness.
Since my mother’s dementia diagnosis in spring 2017, I have experienced varying levels of grief as she declines mentally and physically due to the disease. I’ve needed to take time, even though she doesn’t have much time, sometimes for just a weekend getaway, to allow myself space to grieve the incremental loss of the mother I once had.
This self-care has been vital to my well being. That time away replenishes my spirit and gives me psychological strength to move forward and face the challenges with her care. I didn’t just need it that first time, I need again and again. If you too find you are in a similar situation, I encourage you to take a trip to grieve and restore.
Sometimes a loved one passes away, and we realize we have unanswered questions. Perhaps it’s the family history you seek or learning firsthand details about the town, country, or region where your relative or ancestors originated.
In arranging a trip of discovery, doing research, and planning to maximize your experience is vital. Before you go, find out as much as you can from living relatives, investigate military records, visit your local library and do online searches, including genealogy websites.
While you can plan your trip unaided, Trip Savvy is an excellent resource. Trip Savvy connects you with travel companies that specialize in genealogical vacations to make the most of your time away.
Karen Johnson, who lost a son, found she could no longer relate to the life she created after his death. She felt compelled to leave her career as a federal judge, sell her home, and all of her belongings to set out to find meaning and value again.
With only her grief as a guide, her travels ultimately led her on what became a two-and-a-half-year sacred pilgrimage. She found healing and a completely new life path in Modern Shamanism through the Four Winds Society tradition. Now a trained shaman, Karen hopes to be a catalyst for healing for others suffering from loss. She will soon be leading individual and group grief retreats at her Healing Waters Sanctuary in New York this fall. Find her at The Four Winds here.
Sometimes, grief can lead us to a completely new place, a new life, a new direction—even a new career, if we are open to it.
Maybe you know you want to travel, but it’s not something you’d like to plan out entirely in advance. It’s okay to allow yourself to take a trip that has little or no organization.
If you’re the kind of person that is revitalized by the unknown, perhaps letting yourself wander the earth is the exact medicine your grief needs. Being present and listening to your intuition can lead to surprising and enriching moments that help you process the myriad of emotions that arise while grieving. Even if most of your trip is planned out, consider leaving some time free to explore and get “lost” in a city.
When Theodora Blanchfield, writer/journalist/brand specialist, lost her mom to cancer, she decided to take a “grief-cation,” as she calls it, to Los Angeles. When she tried unsuccessfully to ease her grief through organized activities, she decided to be open to unplanned moments. Theodora shares the most memorable experience on her grief-cation was…
“a teary conversation with my Lyft driver back to the airport. She asked about my family, and I blurted out that I’d just lost my mom. As we inched through LA traffic, she told me she’d lost her mom recently, too. I ugly cried, a heaving, snotty mess in the back of her car, missing my mom but also feeling the strength and power of this bond with a Lyft driver I’d probably never see again.”
Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts; it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind. – Anthony Bourdain
Planning a special trip after losing a loved one can be an essential part of the grief process and grief journey. Traveling helps remind us that the world is filled with meaning, love, and beauty.
By shedding regular routines and familiar environments, there are opportunities to see our loss through a different lens with unique insights and perspectives of our memories. I’ve had some of my greatest epiphanies about life and relationships while traveling.
I’m not suggesting that travel is a magic solution that will resolve your pain and loss. Grief isn’t something we get over or get past, but it is something we can get through. Travel can be a healthy and healing coping mechanism. Know that your loved one wants you to live your life fully, find happiness, and not be in a continual state of suffering.