Grief and travel: a guide to using travel to heal

Grief and travel: a guide to using travel to heal The Travel Psychologist

Dr Charlotte Russell, Clinical Psychologist and Founder

The single most important thing to remember when it comes to grief is that everyone grieves in their own way. When I am working with clients who are grieving, our work often involves helping them to figure out what are the right choices for them. Examples might include how they might navigate difficult dates, what they might do with their loved one’s belongings or when is the right time for them to go back to work.

Every person is different, and our relationship with the person we have lost will also be unique. This make it difficult to give ‘one-size-fits-all’ advice when it comes to grief and travel.  However this article aims to provide some points to help you think about how you might use travel as part of your own grieving journey. Think of these as prompts to help you make choices about using travel to grieve in your own way.

The need for relaxation

It is common and understandable to feel easily overwhelmed whilst grieving. This means that it is sensible to consider destinations that will be quieter and will allow you to do things at your own pace.

With this in mind, it is usually advisable avoid large cities or places with high levels of tourism. The exception to this is if the destination is particularly meaningful to you. For example if it is somewhere that you planned to visit with your loved one, or somewhere that you used to visit together. In that case, think about how you can incorporate relaxation time into your itinerary. Avoid planning as many activities as you would usually do.

Connection with nature

Time in nature can be incredibly healing for us. Think about incorporating places with natural beauty into your travel plans. This does not have to be somewhere fancy or iconic. A basic cabin near the woods, or a cottage at the seaside can provide time and space for you to heal.

The concept of ‘soft fascination’ is helpful here; looking at a robin in the tree or the waves in the sea can gently keep our attention. This can help us to work through and to process feelings of grief.

For more reflections on how nature can help us to process difficult experiences, see my previous article Beaches, benches and nature: travel and our sense of calm

Listening to yourself

When grieving sometimes you will feel like doing things and sometimes you won’t. Be kind to yourself and do what you need to do. Think of this as making space for your feelings to fluctuate, as thy inevitably will.  This advice is helpful whether you are travelling or not.

When travelling with others ensure they are on board with this, and that there will not be pressure to join in with activities if you do not feel up to it.

Connection with the person you have lost

There may be destinations that remind you of the person you have lost or places that were special to them, or to you both. You may be drawn to visiting this place, but it is important that you feel ready to do this, and it is not ‘too soon’ for you. Everyone moves at their own pace so do not rush yourself.

Perhaps it would feel too difficult to visit a place that reminds you of the person you have lost. Many people feel like this. In which case it might feel right to you to visit somewhere new.

Meaningful travel

Finding meaning in our travels can provide us with a focus and purpose. Whilst this does not take away feelings of grief, it can help us to manage them.

How you find meaning in your travels will be very unique to you. Here are a few examples that might help you to think about what is right for you:

If you are a very task focused person, you might benefit from concrete goals. Being task focused means that you are someone who usually does well in situations where there is a clear goal that keeps you motivated. If this works for you in most situations then it is a strength, and you can use it to help you to grieve.  When it comes to travel, your goal might be to try out the best coffee house in every place you visit. Alternatively it might be to visit a specific place that was the setting of a movie you like.

If you are a creative person tune in to what you need. It doesn’t have to make sense to other people but just has to feel right to you. If you are generally someone who can feel moved by the beauty of nature, then this is probably what you need. If you feel like you need to go on a ‘journey’ of some kind then listen to this. The author Cheryl Strayed describes this process in her book Wild. Her solo journey involved hiking over a thousand miles after losing her Mum. It is a helpful example of how a trip can allow us to process and heal a loss.

There are many personal stories of people using a travel journey to grieve. You might resonate with some of these but probably not all of them. Look for stories that you can relate to and remember that everyone’s journey is different.

When to travel

People will differ a lot in how soon they want to travel after losing a loved one. It is important to listen to yourself and to not push yourself until you feel ‘ready’.

It is also important not to make any rash decisions soon after losing someone you love. Feelings can change quickly during the early stages of grief, so it is usually sensible to think carefully about plans before making them. Travel can be very expensive, and you don’t want to invest without being fully sure it is right for you. If you are not sure, talk the decision through with someone who you are close to and trust. The people around us can offer important insights when we are grieving.

When it comes to travelling on special dates there is no right or wrong. If you have a strong desire to be at a particular place on a particular date, then it is important to listen to this. You may not be sure what you want, which is ok too. My best advice would be to make sure that you have something nice planned on birthdays and anniversaries. It doesn’t have to be anything big or fancy, just something that you enjoy and will keep your attention for an hour or two. Having something nice planned can also help with the anticipation around birthdays and anniversaries.

Who to travel with

Some people who are grieving will decide to travel solo. For others it is important to travel with someone. Your travel companion may also be close to the person you have lost. In this case it is important that you communicate well with one another when things are feeling too much and allow each other space when needed.

The support of people around you is vital when you are grieving. If you are travelling solo, ensure that you check in with friends or family members regularly.

In summary

Travelling whilst grieving can be a healing experience for many people. However it is important to give yourself time and space and not to rush in to booking trips in the very early stages of grief. When you do feel ready to travel, think about what is right for you and your specific situation as there is no right or wrong. Ensure you allow yourself time and space on your trip and consider how you can connect with nature, and travel in a way that is meaningful for you.

This article follows on from our previous guide by Dr Jenna The grieving journey: Travel and healing after bereavement .