Travel as a Form of Grief Therapy

September 18, 2018, my dad died suddenly. He was 76. He was living with atypical Parkinson’s, but contracted a common infection. His health deteriorated rapidly and just a few days later, he passed.

Like many Americans with professional jobs, my benefits included 5 days bereavement leave. It wasn’t enough. When it happened, I was actually due to vacation in Ireland just 10 days later — perhaps bittersweet timing, since I definitely wasn’t in the right headspace to go back to work and be effective. The previously-planned solo travel turned out to be a blessing and the best thing I could do to distract me from, and help me process my father’s death, while paying tribute to his life. 

Travel as a distraction from grief

Traveling is highly stimulating for the senses. Where should I visit? Where should I sleep? How do I get there? What should I eat? When I travel solo, I rely mostly on myself (vs. tour guides or booking agents) to make decisions such as these — and let’s be honest, planning and decision-making takes up a lot of brain power. When dealing with the permeating feelings of loss, managing all the sights and sounds of being in a new place can be a welcome escape.

Travel to help process grief

While travel can distract from your grief, focusing on your grief can help you process it. The additional time to myself — eating alone, walking, sitting on buses — allowed me quiet periods to dwell and reflect, a necessary part of the grieving process. Ireland was literally the perfect place for this — it suited my mood. The gray, misty skies and lush landscapes gave me a sense of peace and comfort. Plus, given that I have a sliver of Irish heritage (from my dad, naturally), I felt closer to him.

Travel to pay tribute

I went to many an Irish pub (as one does in Ireland) while passing through the cities of Dublin, Kilkenny, Cork, Killarney, and Galway. When given the opportunity, I would ask the musicians to sing a song of remembrance and commemoration for my father. The (unknown to me) Gaelic words combined with melancholy tunes somehow soothed my heart and soul. Gatherings were generally not raucous, and people were kind.

Now, the pain is no longer fresh, but it still lingers (and probably always will). But solo travel is therapeutic, and I believe it’s played a big part in my healing.

Ever since, in every country I travel to, I’ve made it a personal tradition to find an (open) Orthodox church, light a candle, and say a prayer for my dad. In that way, he becomes a part of the trips I take and the memories I make.

Memory eternal, Dad.

Has travel helped you heal or manage a family member’s death? Feel free to share below.

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