A healing journey: travel and coping with grief

By Anna Brech

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Coping with grief is no easy thing, but travel might help heal after losing a loved one, offering perspective and the chance for new beginnings 

When you suffer the loss of someone you love – a friend, partner or family member – your entire world pivots as you go through the many stages of grief. It’s a shattering, visceral experience that takes hold of you with an unstoppable force. Why then, would you choose this time to travel the very world that’s changed beyond recognition?

As a coping mechanism for dealing with the grieving process, travel operates in a myriad of emotional and practical ways. All journeys involve an element of reflection, but no more so than when you’re bereaved.

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Travel in this context gives you the head space to process how you’re feeling; to let the sadness happen, and be at one with it. Simultaneously, it also distracts you with small, incidental decisions that pull you shy from a vortex of sadness. It provides a physical escape – a space to shed tears that nevertheless is removed from familiar scenes etched in memories. Most of all, it’s an apt reminder that you hold an irrevocable connection to the world and its people.

There is no simple answer for getting over the death of a loved one and there are no right or wrong ways to cope with grief. Travel can provide a much-needed distraction, and let you start to begin healing yourself.

“Grief is an isolating experience,” says Californian therapist Claire Bidwell Smith, who travelled as a young adult after losing both her parents to cancer. “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.”

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“‘Travel, like life, throws up important questions about how we cope with change, loss and the unknown,” adds counsellor Emma Brech. “Often, when we’ve experienced personal loss or grief, the trauma of it can make those concepts feel unbearable, overwhelming. And yet, with careful planning, a world adventure can restore our sense of autonomy, broaden our perspective, build our resilience – and quite literally, open up new landscapes in which we experience ourselves in new and exciting ways.”

Below, we hear from two people who used travel to cope with the death of someone close to them – and what they learned along the way…

“I walked through Athens bawling”

New Yorker Kelley McVay had a month-long adventure to Europe and the Far East planned when she lost someone who was dear to her – John – quite unexpectedly. His death changed the purpose of her trip

My solo round-the-world adventure was planned well before John died. It was meant to be a celebration for my 45th birthday. My father had died when he was 45, so I wanted to celebrate the life I was living. I had a month booked off to travel from Dublin to Hong Kong via Athens, Istanbul, Cairo, Agra and many other cities. A few weeks before I left, in July 2016, John passed away. His death sent me into a tailspin, and the only thing that kept me moving was knowing I had a month off. Just walking through the city brought up memories, which – no matter how good – caused me sorrow.

Escaping helped ease the pain in a couple ways. There wasn’t anywhere familiar where I had a memory with him. The restaurant that we liked, or that one pub around the corner from the apartment. When travelling everything was new, which made it easier. And it also helped that I packed each day so full that I fell asleep at night as soon as my head hit the pillow.

I didn’t allow myself to think, which was easier on the road. And when I did think, I didn’t care where I cried. At the beginning of the trip it happened often. I remember walking through the Plaka in Athens bawling. I would never let myself do that in New York.

I felt stronger as the trip continued, I did feel the weight lift. I wrote this post halfway through: “I know that 30 days is not enough time to heal my heart, but this time will allow me to grieve and start healing. It will take time, but I do know that each day I am closer to where I need to be.”

kelley loss

If you are going to travel after a bereavement, you have to commit to it. And commit to the process of grieving and letting it happen. Give in to the process.

When I returned to New York, I was stronger and I really felt like I was in a better place. I decided to leave my job and move to Cambodia, to help my friend run his new guesthouse – The Butterfly Pea Hotel in Siem Reap. This gives me a small income stream, but it also allows me to work remotely when I travel, and to have the flexibility I need.

Since I’ve been here, I’ve thought of John often, and felt him with me. I wonder if I would have left New York if he were still alive. He was supportive of anything I did, and he thought my independent round-the-world trip was great. But, regardless of how supportive he was, I still wonder if I would have stayed there instead of moved.

My trip really did transform me and set me on the path I am currently walking down. I remember landing in Bangkok and feeling complete and healing. And when I landed in Siem Reap, I took a breath. A deep breath… it felt like it was the first breath I had taken since John died.

“My grief shifted to a better place”

Jewellery designer Arabel Lebrusan decided to travel the world with her family after she and her partner, Philippe, both lost one of their parents within six months of each other

We lost my dad in the middle of the summer 2014, to a totally unexpected stroke. My partner’s mum, Lin, had been diagnosed with cancer years before that, so we had been going through the painful process of chemotherapy with her. Unfortunately, her state was deteriorating and we feared the worst. So, when my dad suddenly passed away before her it was a total blow. It was really difficult. Six months later, at the beginning of 2015, Lin left us too.

Throughout the process of chemo, every time we went to Lin, she would tell us to enjoy our lives, to be happy, to make the most out of it. So, it was during that period that the idea of taking some time off and go travelling started forming in our minds. I still remember one night going out for dinner with Philippe. While drinking a rum and coke, we asked the waitress for a piece of paper and made a drawing of a timeline for our adventure. Last September, we put the plan into action. Along with our five-year-old son, Jojo, we travelled for seven months around French Polynesia and central America.

We didn’t go away to deal with grief, although I’m sure it has helped. We went away because one of the most important person in our lives had told us to enjoy life as much as we could, because she couldn’t do it anymore. Losing someone gives you a shock: first is the loss. But after dealing with the big hole left in your stomach, you have the realisation: “oh my God, it can happen to me any time. I better enjoy it then and not leave it for when I retire!” It really put perspective on what is important in life, and what are we here for.

I missed sharing my latest adventure with my dad. I have been extremely lucky, I used to travel a lot with my parents when I was young. We would then go for two weeks to a different country each year. I have lovely memories of New Year’s Eve in Rio de Janeiro, Egypt, Ushuaia and San Petersburg, to name just a few. When I went travelling again last year, I remember thinking it would be so nice to share images and conversations with him about the places I was visiting. He would have thought I’m crazy, but he knew I have always been was a bit spontaneous. But above all, he would have been proud that I live the life I want to live.

Travelling after bereavement will give you the time and space to just be, and BE with your loss. Normal life in a Western country is busy and always on the go, so changing that for a slower approach is good for your soul. It is also a way to associate the loss with something more uplifting, so you don’t feel so heavy. I think I am in a happier place now, and the loss of my dad is in a better part of my brain. It has shifted to a more relaxed area, surrounded by colourful fishes and palm trees.

Images: Kelley McVay, Arabel Lebrusan, Shutterstock

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