The grieving journey: Travel and healing after bereavement

The grieving journey: Travel and healing after bereavement The Travel Psychologist

The sunset in Florida on my first trip abroad after bereavement. I liked the way the sun shone through the clouds, offering a sense of peace and hope

Dr Jenna Kirtley, Clinical Psychologist & Guest Contributor

Travel is known to boost emotional wellbeing (Gilbert & Abdullah, 2002), help recovery from depression (Chikani et al., 2005), improve openness and emotional stability (Zimmermann & Neyer, 2013), relieve stress (APA, 2013) and even reduce the risk of heart attack (Gump & Matthews, 2000). But does it also help healing after the death of a loved one?

The initial trip after an incredibly challenging period in your life or after losing someone you love can be difficult. I am speaking from experience. It has been less than a year since my step-dad (who I called “Stad”) died, and I know first-hand the physical pain, the emptiness and the constant ups and downs of emotions that come with grief. My sense of adventure, my urge to escape, my need to absorb breath-taking sights and sounds and my desire to feel emerged in another world was what I was craving. I also hoped it would “fix the pain”. However, on my first trip abroad, six months after his death, I felt like the feelings of grief ramped up 100 notches; I felt trapped, I couldn’t breathe and I wanted to go back home. But despite the wave of these difficult feelings and sensations I was also noticing the benefits of having time and space to process, to connect with him and to bring about new perspectives.

Over this last year, I have taken a number of trips- some in the UK, some abroad, some solo and some with a travel companion. There are pros and cons to embarking on a trip after going through a personal trauma like losing someone you love. In this article, I want to share some of my experiences and thoughts about what to keep in mind if you’re planning on travelling as a way to deal with grief.

Processing emotions and brain changes 

Travel gives you the head space to process how you are feeling; to let sadness happen and to be at one with your loss. While there is no easy fix to grieving, travel may offer a balance between feeling and perspective. I noticed this on my most recent trip; emotions were heightened, dreams were vivid and so many thoughts and ideas were running through my mind. I think having that space to process, which you might not be able to get at home, allows you to lean into more flexible thinking. Having that space to reflect may also help you realise what is important in life and re-assess your values and goals.

Travel can also boost cognitive functioning, which is likely to have been depleted through the grieving process that impacts on memory and concentration. Travel exposes us to new sights, sounds, and experiences that build new connections between neurons (Eichenbaum et al. 1999). A new adventure introduces originality to your mind, activating the cognitive networks that keep your brain healthy.


The positive effects of nature on our mental health and wellbeing have been well-researched (Hartig et al., 1991; Berman et al., 2008; Bratman et al., 2015). I think that in grief, the change of scenery offers a physical escape, even if it is impossible to escape the emotions. I particularly found being connected to nature had a calming effect. Being able to look out into the ocean, view the mountains and feel the sunshine did help me feel lighter and more grounded. Although at times I felt empty, engaging in new experiences introduced some joy and distracted me from the pain. I also found that when looking at breath-taking landscapes, I was reminded that life, however painful, is undeniably beautiful.


When I was 8 years old my mam, my sister and I went on holiday to Spain. This is where we met Stad and I remember that he taught me how to dive and bought me a bucket of ice cream! We had many holidays together over my life and we even moved to Dubai when I was 10. I remember that one of the things I last spoke to him about was travel; asking him about some of his favourite places he had been to. I was reminded in this moment that we shared the same passion for travel. After his death, when I was travelling, I was able to remember times we had together abroad. It was comforting to think about how much he would appreciate the experiences I was having while travelling.

During his last days, he told my mam that she had to live for the both of them. I think when one of the most important people in your life tells you to enjoy life as much as you can, because they can’t anymore, then you should do it as a tribute to them. One of the ways we felt we could honour Stad, was to do what we were all passionate about: travel and having new experiences.

I think you can also connect with the person who has died by engaging in rituals or activities they use to do, such as doing a crossword by the pool, or having a “sundowner” (an alcoholic drink watching the sunset!). It might even help to think about what they would say to you or what you would say to them in that moment. I found this comforting and at times it was as if he was travelling with us.

“When we have joy that we crave to share: We remember them” 

Sylvan Kamens & Rabbi Jack Riemer

An unexpected experience I had, was connecting with people who were also grieving or had past experiences of grief. Sharing stories and ways of coping felt reassuring and supportive. I was touched by their willingness to listen and show compassion.

The grieving journey: Travel and healing after bereavement The Travel Psychologist

Me & my Stad in Costa Del Sol, 1994

The emotional rollercoaster 

I noticed heightened emotions, an increase in hypervigilance and vivid dreams whilst travelling; something both my mam and my friend had also noted in their own experiences. This increase in intensity of emotions may be because you are more aware of the emotions, as you have the time to slow down and tune in. I would consider this a positive because avoidance of emotions doesn’t resolve them. It is important to lean into the pain in order to process.

One of the other experiences I noticed was that crowds could feel intense and confined spaces were suffocating too. I also noticed a heightened sensitivity to noise. I understand that this is normal when grieving but was possibly more noticeable when travelling. I wonder whether not being able to retreat to my own home (my safe place) contributed to this increase in intensity, or whether it was to do with my brain working harder to take in all the many new sights and sounds.

Being away from the everyday routines, such as work, opened up the space to cry, which seemed to happen more often while travelling. For me, it felt more comfortable to cry while travelling. Perhaps this was because I was away from others I know so there was less pressure to act in a certain way. It felt freeing to just let it out.

I think sometimes in grief we create stories to protect ourselves from the reality that the person has gone, such as “they are just on holiday and will be back next week.” This is just our brains way of protecting us from the pain and stopping us becoming overwhelmed. One story I had was that he would be meeting us on the holiday and I would see him there but then when reality hit that I wouldn’t, this felt extremely crushing.


One of the things I noted was a pressure to do things. Perhaps this was because I was looking for a distraction from the difficult emotions, or because I felt whilst being away I needed to fully emerge into the experience, as I usually do. This included the need to feel I was speaking to new people and making new connections. However, while grieving you are already exhausted so the pressure of this was sometimes a lot to manage and I needed to escape and have a nap!

The other difficulty was wondering what to share with people when they, quite naturally, ask about your personal circumstances. I think this was particularly difficult for my mam because most people will notice the wedding ring and ask, “where is your husband?” You are then left with the dilemma to lie, to avoid having to share because you don’t want them to feel awkward or you don’t want to burst out crying. Or to be honest and open to whatever that brings up, both for you and the interaction with the other. This was challenging for us when we were cruising as these were people we would continue to see over the two weeks and it was still so raw for us. I don’t think there is a right or wrong in this; I would say to anyone that they should just go with their gut.

Travelling solo or with a companion

If you travel solo you have space away from others, especially those who are also grieving, which can allow you time to process your own emotions. You may feel a renewed connection to the person who has died and have the sense that they would be proud that you had found the strength to keep going without them. This was my overall experience of travelling solo but there were also times I felt lonely and isolated.

To travel with others comes with its own challenges. If you travel with someone who is also grieving you could trigger each other and feel inclined to support them rather than yourself. However, someone who is also grieving understands your pain, shares that pain with you and therefore no “mask” is needed to hide your emotions to make others feel more comfortable. I also noticed that while travelling with someone who was grieving that you share special moments, reminisce and offer perfectly timed reassuring rubs or hand squeezes when the unavoidable “I wish he was here” moments arise. I found this incredibly healing and believe it strengthened our relationship. This showed me that despite the pain, you can also develop new, joyful memories with people you care about.

Where to travel

I took a number of trips both solo and with companions. This ranged from a solo camping trip, solo trip to the Dales, a Caribbean cruise with my mam and to Santorini with a friend, who was also grieving. My main thoughts on where to travel are that it is best to find a place that is relaxing, involves connecting with nature, has limited noise and isn’t too crowded. Overall, I recommend it is some place where there is no pressure to do anything you don’t feel up to.

When to travel

How soon is too soon? I found I was conflicted, even in the first few months, whether to sit at home or to do a solo trip. For some, it may seem important to work through the worst months with loved ones in easy reach. At times when I was away I felt isolated and alone and wondered if being near friends and family would have felt more grounding. However, it may be that space on your own is exactly what you need. When you are grieving you are exhausted so taking the pressure off yourself to engage with people and do less can feel important.

Although the thought of travelling while feeling so exhausted may feel like too much, it could also feel difficult to sit with the pain at home. For me, I decided that I needed to take my pain with me and to try to enjoy some new experiences.  Overall, going travelling has given me the headspace I needed, which I was failing to get back home. There were many moments when I wished my Stad was there with me or that I could text him photos or messages about my adventures, as I use to do, but I had time for reflection and moments that made me feel he was on the trip with me.

Top 10 tips that may make travelling easier while grieving: 

1. Grief can impact on your sense of identity and bring up self-critical and doubting thoughts. Practice self-compassion by noticing your strengths, taking the pressure off and being kind to yourself.

2. Practice mindfulness to ground yourself in the present moment.

3. Connect with nature, sunshine, culture and people

4. Don’t socialise if it feels too much (forget being polite)

5. Consider quieter spaces to allow for reflection

6. Talk or write to the person who has died about these new experiences. It can make you feel as if they are travelling with you

7. Take something with you that connects you to the person i.e. an item of jewellery or their favourite t-shirt

8. Reach out for support- whether that is someone you meet on your travels or someone you can call up back home

9. Engage in some form of movement. Even if this is gentle exercise it can help shake off some of the physical pain and tension of grief.

10. Let yourself cry whenever you need to; feel into the emotions and let yourself just be.


Grief is a journey with many ups and downs and therefore travel on its own could never fully heal the pain of grief. However, I believe it can offer you time and space to process emotions, to create new perspectives and to connect with both the person who has died, yourself and others. It can also help you find an inner peace as you connect with nature and the world around you. As you look out at the mountains or the beautiful sunset allow this to remind you that whilst there is always going to be a part of you missing without them, the world still has a lot to offer you.

I want to dedicate this article to my Stad, who I love and miss every day. I would like to acknowledge my dear friend Vanessa for being a supportive friend and travel companion and my mam for showing such strength and willingness to live life and travel, despite the pain of grieving.


Gilbert, D. and Abdullah, J. (2002). A study of the impact of the expectation of a holiday on an individual’s sense of well-being. Journal of Vacation Marketing, 8(4), p.352-361.

Chikani, Vatsal & Reding, Douglas & Gunderson, Paul & Mccarty, Catherine. (2005). Vacations improve mental health among rural women: the Wisconsin Rural Women’s Health Study. WMJ : official publication of the State Medical Society of Wisconsin. 104. 20-3.

Zimmermann, J., & Neyer, F. J. (2013). Do we become a different person when hitting the road? Personality development of sojourners. Journal of personality and social psychology105(3), 515–530.

American Psychological Society. (2013). Stress in America Survey. Retrieved 12th of May 2022: full-report.pdf (

Gump, B and Matthews, K. (2000). Are Vacations Good for Your Health? The 9-Year Mortality Experience After the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial. Psychosomatic Medicine 62:608–612.

Kamens & Riemer “WE remember them” Retrieved 12th of May 2022: Plaza Jewish Community Chapel ‘We Remember Them’ by Sylvan Kamens & Rabbi Jack Riemer – Plaza Jewish Community Chapel

Eichenbaum, H., Dudchenko, P., Wood, E., Shapiro, M., & Tanila, H. (1999). The hippocampus, memory, and place cells: Is it spatial memory or a memory space? Neuron, 23(2), 209–226.

Hartig, T., Mang, M., & Evans, G. W. (1991). Restorative effects of natural environment experiences. Environment and Behavior, 23(1), 3-26.

Berman, M. G., Jonides, J., & Kaplan, S. (2008). The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1207-1212.

Bratman, G. N., Daily, G. C., Levy, B. J., & Gross, J. J. (2015). The benefits of nature experience: Improved affect and cognition. Landscape and Urban Planning, 138, 41-50.