The Gift of Travel

We asked Mindy Stewart, a bereavement counselor with Hospice of the Western Reserve, to share her thoughts about travel as a way to heal from grief.

The days are longer, a summer breeze is in the air, songbirds are singing, and grief continues to hang on even through the transition of seasons. It seems as though one ought to have an opportunity to escape grief just like people vacation from work or the busy-ness of life. Some may even think if they just get away and can only focus on their grief, then they’ll “get over it faster,” or they’ll be able to better handle the variability of its emotions.

However, there’s a reason Carnival Cruise Lines does not advertise with “All for Grief, Grief for All”—nobody would travel with them! While it’s not uncommon to want to escape the emotions and daily grind of grieving, it can be common to experience feelings of guilt when considering getting away for a vacation, especially without your loved one. Planning your first family vacation while living in this season of grief may feel just as daunting or heart-wrenching as planning a funeral. Emotions and opinions of how to handle past traditions of travel can vary just as much as the details of the trip itself, but grief is a journey—emotionally and sometimes physically.

Traveling as a family while grieving can provide positive steps in moving forward through the grief experience. “Grief is an isolating experience. It’s lonely and quiet and it’s easy to sink into. Reminding yourself that there is a whole world out there still turning on its axis can be vital” (Clair Bidwell Smith, Psychology Today). Sometimes a trip around the world is not necessary to remember this, but many times a little more than a trip to the grocery store is required. Traveling can assist with getting the bereaved family out of the physical rut of an intense emotional experience.

This does not mean a permanent move from all that is familiar must take place, but purposefully placing oneself in a new setting (preferably one that is enjoyable to the family) can help break up the mundane routine of mourning. Finally, getting away can provide the family with time to allow some emotional healing to occur as well as including space for reconnection . Depending on the months or days leading up to experiencing the death of a loved one, the needs of other family members may have been neglected. Getting away as a family can reset norms and allot time to refocus on other needs without the busyness of a daily schedule. Creating a space where the family can eat three meals a day together, engage in enjoyable activities, and take the time to rest can provide a life-giving experience for the grief journey ahead.

Whether you’re ready to pack your bags tomorrow, or you still feel as though some time needs to pass before escaping, here are a few helpful tools to consider when contemplating traveling while grieving:

  1. Visit a familiar location or explore some place brand new. If you can’t bear the thought of returning to you and your loved one’s favorite vacation spot, it’s okay to try someplace new. This does not mean you are “moving on and leaving your loved one behind;” it just means you’re in a new season of life, and traveling to a new place could be an outward representation of exploring different emotions and feelings.
  2. Find activities everyone can enjoy. Hospital visits or doctor’s waiting rooms may have been a large part of the family’s regular activities leading up to the death of a child. Other “normal activities” might have even been placed on hold due to issues related to the patient’s needs, which may not have allowed other family members to participate in enjoyable activities. In reestablishing connection and making new memories, try to find activities everyone can enjoy.
  3. Consider a way to honor your loved one. The bereaved might find this difficult to do, especially if traveling to a new destination. Honoring someone can be as simple as going to a restaurant that serves his or her favorite food or releasing a balloon with a message. If you travel to a familiar location, creating some sort of memorial site you can enjoy on future visits may be helpful.

Using the analogy of “grief as a journey” may get old sometimes, but there is truth behind the colloquialism. Going on a journey, whether it’s one you pack your bags for or something as unwelcome as grief, can provide new and different perspectives, a break in the norm, and possible adventures and challenges. Figuring out exactly what items to pack in a suitcase for a trip can provide anxiety and frustration, so can thinking of taking a break from the grief cycle and creating new norms. However, it’s all about the journey, and hopefully the destination is beautiful too.

Mindy Stewart, LPC
Pediatric Bereavement Coordinator
Hospice of the Western Reserve