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End-of-Life University Blog
End-of-Life University Blog
6 Types of Grief Travel
6 Types of Grief Travel
Which one is right for you?
Which one is right for you?
Revised and re-posted 10/30/22
Over many years now - 32 to be exact - I have been on a journey through the dark passages of grief, which began on the day my father died by suicide. There have been many ups and downs, detours, and dead-ends on this path, but also many opportunities for me to grow as a person. One of the discoveries I made along the way is that travel, for me, is a helpful tool for grief, whether by allowing new memories to form or old memories to be resolved.
I’ve shared how travel has helped my own grief process in an earlier post and included some tips for planning your first travel experience. But grief travel can have different purposes and take on different forms. If you are going to plan an extended travel experience for yourself you’ll want to know your goals for the trip so you can choose the best type of travel for your needs.
Here are six types of grief travel for you to consider:
- Physically active
Ultimately, your own grief travel may combine two or more of these types. Read more about each of them below to see which type might be best for you during your own experience of grief:
A restful grief vacation may be the best thing if you are grieving acutely and not yet ready to return to the mainstream of daily life. Consider visiting friends or family who will help care for you by providing food and shelter, offering companionship or solitude as needed, and permitting you to gradually reenter the world on your own terms. This type of visit is likely to be time-limited since most people cannot drop their own schedules for too much time in order to be of service. But during the early days of grief it can help you immensely to have a safe and nurturing place to just “be” yourself for a short time.
After my father’s death I traveled back to my hometown with my husband and two small children to help make funeral arrangements and be with family. My cousin took us in and housed us in her home for an entire week so we wouldn’t have to stay in an impersonal hotel. She cooked nourishing meals for us, watched my children when I needed time alone, and sat up listening to my stories late at night when I couldn’t sleep. Her lovingkindness made all the difference for me in my own grief process as I left her home feeling much stronger than when I had arrived.
If you are further along in the grief journey you may be ready to spend some time alone so you can dive deeply into the pain you have encountered and explore all of your emotions. For this contemplative type of travel you might want to visit a meditation retreat center, spa or healing resort that will allow you space for your own private experience. Many retreat centers also offer meals and a variety of classes like meditation and yoga that you can join if you want.
This travel experience is perfect if you need to process some deep feelings and are comfortable being alone for a few days. Bring a journal, music, candles, instruments, inspirational books, and anything that helps you connect with your higher self to get the most out of your travel.
Several years after my father’s death I spent a long weekend alone at a hot springs resort so that I could do some thinking and writing about the impact of his suicide on my life. I had a profound experience there as I confronted old fears and anger and found a new level of forgiveness for him. But it was only possible because I was there alone and had time to go deep into my own dark emotions.
3. Physically Active
Some of us process our emotions more easily when we have a physical outlet to help dissipate stress. If this is true for you grief travel that involves physical activity might be most appropriate. You could consider going on a long backpacking trip like Cheryl Strayed who wrote her book Wild about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail as a way of coping with grief after her mother’s death. Biking, camping, climbing, sailing, surfing, and kayaking are among many forms of active travel that could be beneficial when you are dealing with grief. A company that provides guided adventure vacations might be helpful to handle some of the extensive planning that is necessary for this type of travel.
Several years ago I participated in a 60-mile walk to raise funds for breast cancer research, motivated by the deaths of two friends from the disease and the recent diagnosis of my young niece with breast cancer, as well. I trained for several months before the walk, which allowed me ample time to contemplate the nature of serious illness and death and to dedicate my walk to a higher purpose. During the walk itself I had many inspirational encounters that helped me see the connections between all of us—those who walked and those who were struggling with cancer. Not only did I raise a significant amount of money through that walk but I reached a new level of spiritual understanding about death and loss that helped me immensely over the years that followed.
Travel to remember a special experience from the past with a loved one can be a powerful way to connect with and process grief. Consider visiting the site of a memorable celebration or a place where you felt connected to your loved one in a meaningful way. Returning to a place of positive memories can help you recall your love for another person and also strengthen your sense of an ongoing connection that can transcend the physical realm.
On many occasions after my father’s death I returned to the cabin he had built in the mountains in a place he dearly loved. Spending time there helped me recall happy moments from the past and also provided me with a tangible sense that Dad lived on through his possessions still present in the cabin and through the trees, streams and wildflowers that surrounded this very special place. I could sit next to his favorite fishing hole and still hear his laughter and see him casting his fly line above the water: Dad was with me again in those moments and I felt the power of our connection that was stronger than ever before. Though I also experienced pain through these memories, I came to terms with my grief a little at a time with each and every visit.
Travel that includes historical research can be very therapeutic for grief. If you have questions about the past you might find that travel to a particular place to do your own research can be a productive way to work through your emotions. Consider doing background research on the place you plan to visit before you go so you can maximize your time once you get there. Take careful notes, ask lots of questions and search out people who may have information that can help you fill in some missing pieces.
As I sought answers for my father’s suicide I began to suspect that his experiences during World War II played a key role in the depression and anxiety that had plagued him for years after the war. I researched the history of his army division to the best of my ability and learned that he had been part of the invasion at Normandy as well as the Battle of the Bulge. On a subsequent trip to France I visited Omaha Beach and many other historic sites in Normandy. Walking the beach where so many died during the invasion deepened my awareness of the trauma Dad and other soldiers experienced during the war and I felt that I finally understood his pain.
I also met a French guide there who helped me trace the route of my father’s division in the U.S. Army during the days after the Normandy Invasion and we discovered that his unit had fought in the battle of St. Lo, which happened to be the town where she was born. She thanked me on behalf of my father for his service that had allowed her family to survive. In that moment I could see a deeper meaning within the trauma he had experienced, the manner of his death, and my own years of grief.
This final type of grief travel requires an adventuresome spirit and a willingness to take a bit of risk. Unstructured travel means to arrive at a place without a firm agenda or plan and allow yourself to “wander” and see what experiences arise for you. You might come across a museum or park that seems interesting or be inspired to walk along a beach or enter a certain church. When you follow your intuition you might discover a connection to a certain place that helps you process your grief–a connection that you couldn’t have planned or discovered by reading a guidebook in advance. To enjoy intuitive travel you’ll need an open mind and curiosity about the “mysteries” of both life and death.
Once on a trip to France I felt inspired to take a bus to a small village nearby, without knowing what I would find there. I wandered the little streets and came upon a church that attracted my attention. When I stepped inside I heard angelic music that filled the entire space. A soloist was practicing her songs for Sunday mass and I was treated to a spontaneous and inspirational concert as I sat within that comforting space. I could not have planned or scheduled this special experience on my own, but it transformed my entire trip.
As you can see from the examples I have shared, my own grief travel has made it possible for me to heal in ways I could not have anticipated. For this reason I am eager to share my inspiration and travel suggestions with you so that you might also experience the benefits of grief travel. If you decide to travel while you are grieving, first identify your goals for travel and assess what type of travel might work best for you at this time. I’m sending you wishes for meaningful journeys that bring insights and healing to you over time!
About the Author:
Dr. Karen Wyatt is a retired hospice physician and the host of the popular podcast End-of-Life University. She is the author of "7 Lessons for Living from the Dying" and the forthcoming books "Grief Travel: How Your Treks, Tours, and Trips Can Soothe Life's Deepest Pain" and "Wild and Holy: A Grief Journey Through Italy."
Tips for Planning Your First Grief Travel Experience
Tips for Planning Your First Grief Travel Experience
Originally posted December 8, 2017
In previous posts and podcasts I’ve shared some thoughts about the benefits of travel for those who are grieving and told the story of one of my own experiences with “grief travel.”
Other authors have also written about journeys that were undertaken as a way of coping with grief, like Cheryl Strayed, who wrote her bestselling book Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail about an epic backpacking trip she took while grieving her mother’s death.
If you think you might benefit from some “grief travel” of your own, it’s important to be prepared. Here are some tips for planning your first journey:
Start local and go small
The first time you venture out into a new place while you are grieving it can help to stay fairly close to home and limit your time commitment. For example, after my mother’s death I planned a special trip to a botanical garden that was just 90 miles from my house. I set aside a half-day for the trip, which didn’t disrupt my schedule much and let me see how I felt when I was outside my usual comfort zone.
Before I went to the botanical garden I did some research to see what it had to offer. I found that there were lots of walking paths and benches in private areas that would lend themselves to quiet moments and meditation, which was exactly what I needed at that time.
You might feel more comfortable in a busy area with less solitude so it’s important that you know yourself and have a sense of what will work for you. However, during a time of grief you might not know what’s best for you or how you will react and it’s okay to experiment with different locations and settings. If you start local you’ll be able to change the plan quickly if it’s not right for you.
Choose a destination that has meaning
I decided on the botanical garden for my first journey because I knew my Mom would have enjoyed going there with me. She loved flowers and the beautiful displays at the botanical gardens would have thrilled her.
On other grief journeys I have hiked to places my Dad would have loved and visited places we had all once experienced together as a family. Such special locations helped create positive ties to the past for me and brought back pleasant memories.
Keep your loved one in your thoughts
The day I visited the garden I “invited” Mom to join me on the trip and as I walked along the paths there I imagined what she would say and how she would react. I felt comforted by her presence and was reminded that I could still share special moments with her even though she could no longer be physically present with me.
Remember that grief travel isn’t meant to be a distraction from grief or a way of forgetting the pain of loss.
"Grief travel is an opportunity to embrace grief as part of your ongoing life and discover
how to live the “new normal” that loss has created for you."
Bring a journal and a camera
Recording your experiences in words and photos will give you a tangible reminder of your journey and help you focus in on the experience so that you don’t just “go through the motions” while you are there.
Take time for contemplation
While I was in the botanical garden I stopped a few times to meditate in the lovely surroundings. It helped me slow down my pace and notice everything around me, like the beautiful colors and the sounds of flowing water.
The value you derive from your grief travel experience will be determined by the quality of the intention you put into it. So take your time, breathe deeply and utilize all your senses as you engage with your surroundings.
Accept your emotions as they are
On your grief travel experience you might feel overwhelmed with sadness but you might also find surprising joy during the journey, as I did in the botanical garden. Allow your feelings to arise naturally without judgement and observe them as they flow through you. Then take time to reflect on any memories or emotions that come up by writing about them in your journal.
Notice the "small things"
Another way to deepen the meaning of your grief travel experience is to pay attention to the small signs and symbols around you that might otherwise go unnoticed. On my journey through the botanical garden I had several experiences that reminded me of my mother: a chickadee singing in a grove of trees, a tiny waterfall in a nearby stream, and a “scripture garden” that would have filled her with joy. These little moments enriched my visit that day and helped me feel connected to Mom and to all living things.
Find your own unique path
Wherever you choose to go on your grief travel adventure, the path will be uniquely yours as you explore your loss and pain. Go slow, listen to your heart and be gently with yourself. Stay flexible so you can make changes when needed and accept any obstacles that arise.
Grief comes into our lives to change us and help us grow--but that doesn't happen easily. Wishing you meaningful travels and inspirational trails in the days ahead as you plan your own journeys!
How to Process Grief Through Travel
How to Process Grief Through Travel
Originally posted December 4, 2017
During a trip to Italy a few years ago, my husband and I received the shocking news that our dear brother-in-law had died suddenly back at home. Unable to change our flight reservations to return home immediately we had to finish our planned travel, even though we desperately wanted to be with family.
But we found a certain comfort during those days as we wandered around in unfamiliar surroundings and we soon discovered that travel can bring solace in the midst of grief. You can listen to my recent podcast about this story here.
You might wonder how travel could be a positive experience for someone who is already devastated by the death of a loved one. Though it seems counter-intuitive, here are some of the benefits I have received from my explorations in “grief travel:”
Get out of the “comfort zone”
The death of a loved one is an event that has the potential to change everything in our lives. In fact, after a death we gradually discover that things will never be the same again, even though we desperately long to go back to what used to be “normal” in our lives.
We can resist this “new normal” that has been ushered in by grief for some time as we struggle to accept what has happened. But travel to an unfamiliar place actually helps us accelerate the process of change and get comfortable navigating through new territory, which is exactly what grief is trying to teach us. When we leave behind our “comfort zone” we open up to the possibility of inspiration and growth, even in the midst of our sorrow.
Find a new perspective
When you travel you have opportunities to meet new people from cultures and religions far different from your own. You can see the monuments they build, the ways they express love for one another, the activities they value, and how they cope with day-to-day life.
You soon discover that everyone, no matter where you go, must deal with death, loss and grief as a normal occurrence of life. Your own broken heart is one of an infinite number of heartaches that have been happening since the dawn of humankind. You begin to recognize that you are not alone in your pain, even though the way you process loss is uniquely yours.
While standing in the middle of Pére Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, I came to understand that all human beings have a need to memorialize the dead as a way of coping with the pain of loss and the fear of the unknown. I felt comforted by seeing the many thousands of graves there that had been washed by tears of love, just like the tears that were flowing from me.
“I am human in every way,” I realized, “and this grief is what it means to be human.
I have come to this life to learn to love and to learn to grieve for those I have loved.”
This was a profound shift of perspective for me and it demonstrated that travel makes possible a new way of seeing our existence.
Discover small moments of joy
One of the most difficult parts of grieving my father’s death when I was in my 30’s is the fact that I remained in a state of numbness and shock for nearly three years. I simply could not pull myself out of the darkness that surrounded me.
But my travel experiences have introduced me to a wealth of new sights, sounds, smells and tastes which have helped me awaken from the cocoon of numbness to discover joy in the tiny moments of day-to-day life.
Hearing a bird’s song in the mountains of Switzerland, feeling the mist from a waterfall in Iceland, smelling fresh croissants in a French boulangerie, listening to a spontaneous operatic solo by a street singer in an Italian piazza, and tasting a cool draught of German beer were all experiences of the senses that awakened me from numbness and brought unmistakable joy in the moment.
Get in touch with what really matters
On my travels I have met and observed people of every race, culture and ethnicity and have seen how they connect and care for another. I have been reminded that love is the most powerful force on the planet–in fact love is what really matters in all of existence. Grief is a form of love that I have learned to cherish, even though it is painful and heartbreaking.
"The greatest tribute I can pay to those who have died is to carry my grief with grace,
feel the pain of grief to my core, and continue to live fully in every moment."
Travel for me provides a pure and spontaneous opportunity to enjoy life to the fullest and love even the pain that comes from this human existence. Rather than stay tightly wrapped in a cocoon of sadness after the death of a loved one I have learned to wander in strange places and to find my comfort there. Travel has helped me love life, no matter what life has brought to me.
May your own grief inspire you to take new journeys to unfamiliar surroundings and may you learn unexpected lessons on your travels. How has travel brought comfort to you in the past? Please share your stories in the comments below.
Grief Travel: Tips for a Pilgrimage to Heal the Wounds of War
Grief Travel: Tips for a Pilgrimage to Heal the Wounds of War
Originally posted May 5, 2018
For the past 30 years since my father decided to take his own life I have been searching to understand why he made that choice. What had caused him so much pain that he would destroy his own existence and deeply damage the lives of everyone who loved him in the process?
With information I received from a psychiatrist who specializes in treating war-related trauma in members of the military I concluded that Dad had been carrying hidden pain from his experiences during World War II that he had never been able to resolve. I realized that in order for me to heal my own grief over Dad’s death I needed to conduct a pilgrimage to explore more closely the pain of war that haunted him.
On my journey I discovered lingering echoes of the devastation and suffering created by the war. But I also found people eager to share the stories of heroism and honor that had taken place on their soil and I found a connection with my father I had never before experienced. Ultimately my pilgrimage helped me understand the deep wound he had been carrying that undoubtedly contributed to his death.
Here are some tips for planning your own pilgrimage to heal the grief of war:
Do your homework before you go
Gather information wherever you can: from old letters and photos, the memories of those who knew your loved one during their time of service, historical information about the war itself, and military records available online from the National Archives. Use this information to help you decide which sites are the most important for a visit so that you can keep your itinerary manageable.
I spent several months doing research before I began my travels. I knew that Dad had spent at least part of the war in Iceland, England, and France but I had no further details. After finding Dad’s uniform I was able to determine which division he served in and I also utilized conversations with relatives, and multiple online sources to piece together enough information to get me started. I was surprised to learn for the first time that Dad had been part of the Normandy invasion so one focus of my pilgrimage became a visit to Omaha Beach.
Visit a museum
Plan to tour a war memorial museum as part of your pilgrimage if there is one available to you. You will have a chance to learn the overall scope of the war and to take in details that you may not have known. Also you may see a picture of the war from the perspective of another country, which can also be useful as you begin absorb the immensity of war and its impact on everyone it touches. Learn about some of the WWII museums in Europe here.
My pilgrimage included the Mémorial de Caen Museum, in the city of Caen, where I learned the history of the build up to the war starting with World War I. Through the informative exhibits there I learned about significant events on both sides of the conflict that contributed to the start of the war, the impact of the war on the people of France, and the importance of D-Day to the entire European theatre. I also came away with a much better picture of the timeline for the war and recognized that my father’s training in England had been part of the preparation for the Normandy invasion.
Enlist a guide
On your pilgrimage consider utilizing the services of a guide trained to offer tours through the region. You are likely to discover sites and hear stories that you might have missed otherwise and a guide can help you get the most from your visit for the time you have available. When choosing a guide make sure they speak your language fluently, have been trained in the history of the war, and specifically focus on the sites you want to see.
I knew from my research that my father’s division had landed at Omaha Beach so I booked a guide who would take me there and to other significant sites in the area. She found out the date his division landed, which was five days after D-Day, and she showed me a map that traced the route his division followed after surviving the landing. We discovered from the map that Dad would have been involved in the Battle of Saint-Lô, which serendipitously turned out to be the town where she grew up.
Meet a local
On your pilgrimage spend time talking with the locals in the area who have their own recollection of the war or can share stories that have been passed down from older generations. As you hear about the suffering endured in their lives you will begin to see how we are all connected in our grief, particularly after a brutal war for freedom. We do not mourn alone but our pain is shared with others all over the world.
The fact that my guide’s family had lived in Saint-Lo during the war and my father was part of the battle that took place there helped create a bond between us. Though she hadn’t been born yet during the war she had been told many stories of the bravery of the American soldiers who fought to free France and she immediately expressed her gratitude for my father’s service. At that moment I knew I was on the right track and my pilgrimage was leading me exactly where I needed to go.
Take your time
Intense emotions can arise during a visit to a war memorial site so make sure you budget plenty of time for contemplation and recovery. Don’t rush through the experience but stop to let the stories and images sink in. Allow your grief to surface because that is an important part of the healing process that occurs during a pilgrimage.
I spent time alone walking Omaha Beach, which was empty and quiet that day, just imagining what took place there on D-Day and also thinking about my father’s state of mind on the day he landed there. Did he know about the massive loss of life that had occurred just a few days before?
Participate in a ritual
Rituals can provide powerful opportunities for healing and release during a grief pilgrimage. Plan ahead to create your own ritual as you visit a war memorial site. You might also discover a scheduled ceremony or event you can take part in as part of your journey if you do your research in advance.
During my pilgrimage I visited the American Cemetery at Normandy where more than 9,000 American soldiers are buried. I saw the headstones of many men from my father’s division and wondered if he had known any of them. The burden of grief carried by soldiers who survived the war became evident to me as I strolled through those peaceful burial grounds and contemplated the enormity of the losses of World War II. Near the end of my late afternoon visit I had the opportunity to witness the flag lowering ceremony and the playing of Taps, which brought me to tears as I finally understood my father’s unspoken pain from this war.
If you decide to go on a pilgrimage to heal the grief from war be sure to plan ahead to make sure you get the most out of the experience, but also allow for spontaneity so that the unexpected can occur. May your travels bring you awareness and understanding so that you might find peace and comfort on the rest of your grief journey.