6 Types of Grief Travel – Which is Right For You?

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 categories of grief travel for you to consider:

  • Restorative
  • Contemplative
  • Physically active
  • Commemorative
  • Informative
  • Intuitive

Read more about each of them below to see which type might be best for you during your own experience of grief:

Restorative

A restorative 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 and I left her home feeling much stronger than when I had arrived.

Contemplative

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 in the mountains 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.

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.

I once 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. Through that walk  I reached a new level of spiritual understanding about death and loss that helped me immensely over the years that followed.

Read the full story of that grief travel experience here.

Commemorative

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 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 that our connection 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.

Informative

Travel that includes historical research can be very therapeutic for grief. If you have questions about the past you might find that an excursion to a particular place to discover new information 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 stories 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.  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 with the help of a knowledgeable guide.  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 him thoroughly for the first time in my life.

Intuitive

This final type of grief travel requires an adventuresome spirit and a willingness to take a bit of risk. To travel intuitively 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!

 

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Tips for Planning Your First Grief Travel Experience

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.

Plan ahead

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 gentle 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!

 

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How to Find Comfort for Grief Through Travel

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.

 

 

 

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Flowers for Mom

Finding an unlikely way to remember my mother on her birthday…

The email arrived today, just as it always does, 5 days before my mother’s birthday: “It’s time to order flowers for Margaret!” The florist that sends this reminder has been in business in my hometown for over 100 years and has provided flowers for every birthday, wedding and funeral in my family for as long as I can remember.

I search through the available bouquets featured in the email: Sunny Siesta, Fields of Autumn, Country Sunrise, Butterfly Effect. I think Fields of Autumn is perfect, with orange lilies, green hydrangeas and yellow dahlias. Mom will love the colors and the wild, just-picked look of the arrangement.

But this year marks the fifth year that I won’t be sending mail order flowers to Mom; the fifth birthday when I won’t be calling her and hearing about her special celebrations with friends; the fifth year since her death, when I mark her special day by lighting an orange candle in a private celebration of my own.

Each year when the email reminder arrives I feel a familiar twinge of pain and loneliness as I imagine Mom’s face lighting up when she opens the front door to receive the flowers I’ve chosen for her. I see her placing the bouquet on her kitchen table, near the window where she always looked out to watch me play in the park across the street.

I wonder why the florist doesn’t know that Mom has died? They provided all of the flowers for her funeral, including the casket spray she had ordered and paid for several years earlier. I’m sure some people would be upset about the emails they send every September, but somehow I’ve grown to cherish them.

Choosing a special birthday bouquet for Mom is a long-held ritual for me and one of the last connections I have to our relationship. There’s an indescribable emptiness that occurs with the death of the only person who loves every school photo of you, including the ones with missing teeth, pigtails, and geeky glasses; when the only person who would save your report cards and crayon drawings in the bottom of her lingerie drawer is gone; when you can never again feel the relief that comes from the sound of her voice calling you “honey” over the telephone.

Mom’s belongings, the special treasures that she had gathered over her lifetime, were sorted and scattered within a few months of her death. And her house, where I spent my childhood, has been remodeled by its new owners. The kitchen window no longer exists and the bedroom where she died is now unrecognizable. The cabin in the mountains where we used to camp and fish is now the playground of some other family.

But in my memory Mom still opens the front door for the deliveryman and claps her hands with joy over the Fields of Autumn bouquet he holds out to her. She still clears a special spot on the table where the sunlight will show off the orange and yellow blossoms and arranges the attached card so that everyone can see who sent her birthday flowers. She still sits patiently in her reclining chair with the telephone in her lap, waiting for my birthday call. And I still whisper “I love you Mom,” as I celebrate the fact that she was born to one day be my mother and raise me to be a mother myself.

So this year as I study the floral arrangements available to order and choose the perfect flowers for Mom, I have one lingering hope: that the florist keeps sending my reminder email every September. To them I say: thank you for still remembering my Mom’s special day, for helping me maintain my last remaining tribute to her and for the way my face lights up with joy when I see the orange and yellow colors of the Fields of Autumn bouquet.

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A Simple Ritual to Ease My Grief

The Aramaic word for grief can also mean “to wander.” When I was left wandering and bewildered after the death of my niece a small ritual helped me find my way again.

A few months ago my niece died of breast cancer at the young age of 47. I was somewhat prepared for her death because of her 14-year journey with cancer and the inevitable decline she had been experiencing for several months. Yet in reality death always arrives like a lightning bolt that pierces to the core.

There is no way to prepare for death’s appearance or to be unmoved by the jolt: your loved one is next to you in one moment and then gone after a single breath. You don’t know you are at the end until the end has already passed.

So the news of Tracey’s death hit me hard with a mixture of emotions—disbelief that she could really be dead at such a young age, pain for her son and her parents as they coped with this loss, guilt that I hadn’t done more to help, and a trace of relief that finally there was no more uncertainty and no more agonizing over what suffering the next hour or the next day would bring to her. Her journey here was finished.

As life would have it, with its curious synchronicities and juxtapositions, I was scheduled to do an interview with two women who had written a guidebook to end-of-life rituals just a few hours after news of Tracey’s death reached me. I didn’t even consider postponing our conversation because I knew that this timing, though difficult, was perfect.

My guests, Donna Belk and Kateyanne Unillisi, talked about the importance of rituals for making sense of life’s tragedies and painful events and they shared their suggestions for creating our own simple rituals. I understood deeply the importance of this subject and that I needed to somehow find a way to mark this day with some special ceremony, though I had no idea where to begin.

The next morning I took a long walk on a path next to the Blue River and thought about Tracey. I was filled with regrets – Why hadn’t I visited her one last time? Why hadn’t I called her for that talk about forgiveness that I knew she wanted to have? Why hadn’t I been there more for my brother?

As I walked more and more slowly, weighed down with all of the guilt I was heaping on myself I suddenly heard laughter—and it was unmistakably Tracey’s laugh. I felt as if she were standing right next to me and I heard her say “I understand everything now! It’s all okay.”

In that moment I was surrounded by joy, peace and love. I looked down and saw beautiful flowers I hadn’t noticed before at the side of the path: fragrant wild roses in bright pink, Tracey’s favorite color. I instantly knew what to do next and asked Tracey to join me.

I began to gather wildflowers from the banks of the river and was surprised by the variety I found growing there when I really stopped to look: mountain lupine, bluebells, yellow daisies, poppies, chicory, cinquefoil, wild geranium, blue flax, columbine and more.

By the time I reached a small stream that flowed gently into the rushing river I had a handful of blossoms of many colors. I spread them out on a tree stump to create a mandala of sorts—an array of beauty and a reminder that life changes constantly but ultimately continues on.

I said a prayer for Tracey and for all of our broken hearts that were missing her so dearly on that day. Then I dropped each blossom—one at a time—into the stream and watched it drift gently away. With each flower that tumbled into the stream I felt a lessening of the burden of grief and a gradual influx of peace. And all the while I heard the faintest hint of laughter floating on the breeze.

 

 

 

 

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How I Found Joy Again After My Father’s Suicide

Since my father’s suicide death 28 years ago I have been on a long journey of grief with many twists and turns, detours and dead-ends, which I have chronicled in a series on my End-of-Life University podcast. After the devastation of his death I wondered if I would ever be able to feel joy again in my life. But I am here to say now that it is possible to feel joyful, alive and grateful after enduring such trauma, even though the grief will never disappear.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of blog posts that warn readers “What Not to Say” to a person who is grieving. The authors advise against such platitudes as “Grief is a process,” “You’re on a journey,” “It will get better one day,” and “You’ll learn something from this.” I’ll admit that in the first few years after my father’s death I couldn’t even bear to hear the word “suicide” and I too ran away from well-meaning friends who tried to console me.

But so many years later … after a great deal of work and struggle … I have to say that for me, grief has been a process that has taken me on a journey and things have gotten a great deal better as I have learned many lessons about life and death. For me there has been “a light at the end of the tunnel.” And while I would never push my current perspective onto someone else who is grieving, I can wish for that person to find solace and comfort as they deal with the pain in their own unique way.

I do believe that there is value in sharing my process and what I have learned through years of grief and guilt. So these steps of mine are not meant to preach to others who are grieving, but simply to share my experience of what it has taken for me to find joy once again.

Patience

I had to learn right away that my grief would not be resolved quickly (or ever) and that it was important for me to allow plenty of time. As much as I wanted to be done with the pain and go back to living my old life, I had to slow down and wait patiently for tiny glimmers of hope to appear. Each time I tried to take shortcuts through my own healing I ended up prolonging it and having to start over again.

Grief has its own timing and cannot be rushed.

Stillness

While my mind was busy racing with “What ifs” and “Should haves” about my father’s death and my emotions were erupting on a regular basis, I wondered why I could never feel joyful. But over time I gradually recognized that joy arises from stillness. I learned to create quiet spaces in my life and in my thoughts. Eventually I spent more and more time being still and allowing glimpses of happiness to appear within me.

Create still spaces inside that joy can fill.

Facing Emotions

Many of my emotions during the years of heavy grieving were chaotic, frightening and destructive so I constantly tried to hide or ignore them. But I slowly learned that healing would come only after facing up to those feelings and going through them. I had to embrace all of my emotions as a natural part of who I am in order to soothe them and eventually lessen their intensity.

Learn to face and accept all of the turbulent emotions of grief.

Allowing Change

For several years I would say to myself every morning “Some day I will wake up and be like I used to be before …” I kept expecting the pain to just disappear so that I could go back to who I was in the past. But grief is an experience that is meant to change us. Grief holds the keys to who we are right now and who we are going to become. There is no going backwards; focusing on the past just prolongs the pain.

Grief transforms you into who you really are.

Letting go of expectations

Ultimately in my long process of healing deep grief I had to adjust my expectations. I had to recognize that life would never be the same again, I would never be the same person again, and I couldn’t expect anything to turn out the way I wanted it to be. There was a “new normal” for my life and that included finding quiet joy in small moments each day rather than over-the-top jubilation. I would learn to connect together moment after moment of simple happiness until my life became filled with what I though of as “Buddha joy,” with the slight smile and the calm presence that Buddha statues exhibit.

Real joy is simple and serene.

So after 28 years of work on my own grief, this is what I have learned. But I am still growing and changing every day so I don’t doubt that there are many more lessons ahead for me. Now I wake up every morning grateful to be alive, looking forward to what the day might hold, and in awe of the mystery of life. Grief has led me here and I honestly would not go back.

This place … this moment … this stillness … is perfect for me right now and I am in need of nothing more. For everyone else struggling with grief at this time … I see you, I honor your experience, and I hold you in my heart with love.

About the Author:

Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the author of the award-winning book “What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying.” Connect with her at karenwyattmd.com, on Facebook at fb.com/WhatReallyMattersWithKarenWyatt and on Twitter @spiritualmd

 

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