How ‘Griefcations’ Helped Me Heal from Loss and How Travel Could Help You Too

Relaxation

“To travel is to take a journey into yourself.” ~Danny Kaye

The brochure read, “Mermaid tail, optional.” What forty-something mom doesn’t have a shimmering fish tail tucked in her closet for just the right occasion? Not me. I live in Minnesota. I’d borrow one when I got there.

I took a flight from Minneapolis to Panama City, and then a water taxi to a backpackers’ resort. Not the kind with frozen cocktails and bad DJs. The next thing I knew, I was on a sailboat, swinging from an aerial circus hoop suspended over the sparkling Caribbean Sea, dressed as a mermaid.

I felt free and alive and playful in my body.

How did I, a grieving daughter, sister, and mother, end up there? That’s what I was asking myself. It’s both a long and short story.

After a few years marked by death and loss, an “aerial and sail” retreat called to me. It would be a gift to my wounded self. That’s the short take.

The longer explanation is the most painful, but probably speaks to why so many of us chase adventure or time away from our routines and responsibilities. We’ve got to work on ourselves outside of our regular lives. I certainly did.

After losing my dad to cancer and my brother to suicide within a span of six months, I then had to say goodbye to the daughter we’d made part of our family for four years. We thought we would adopt her, but she went to live with another family.

In my grief, I’ve redesigned my approach to life.

It’s grief that pulls me to say, “Yes, I’ll try that.” Travel. The flying trapeze. Mermaid tails.

An unexpected gift of grief is being cracked open and feeling the urgency of these opportunities. They are too fleeting and too precious to pass up. I’ve also embraced play and movement and taken up circus arts. The retreat offered some of the best aerial coaches out there.

But aside from honing a skill, I craved an escape from the underpinnings of my everyday life and the frequent reminders of my missing family.

Losing loved ones is something we will all experience, no doubt many times over. How each of us grieves is individual, but what I can say from experience—as a trauma psychologist and as someone living in grief—is that taking a journey out of one’s comfort zone can be profoundly healing.

A “griefcation” won’t cure the pain, but meaningful travels can help us cope, possibly even heal.

When I last Googled “griefcation,” it appeared just over 400 times on the search engine, with the earliest hits dated from 2017. That’s not a lot when you compare it to “staycation,” which appeared in more than 100 million articles. But I believe that travel is a conscious way to grieve that yanks us out of a funk of isolation and provides an opportunity for relief, insight, healing, peace, and transformation.

Travel forces us to be in the moment, hyper-aware of new surroundings as we read a map, find a hotel, hail a cab (or look for an uber), and mentally calculate currency exchanges. All of this is a welcome reprieve from the overthinking and overwhelm that comes with grief.

These days there are “grief cruises” and bereavement boats, with a chaplain on call. If you want to dip your toe into a travel experience, instead of fully diving in, retreats—mini-vacations, if you will—can be a good and less pricey alternative.

I’m living in grief, but I am also lucky and privileged to work for myself, with flexible time off and enough travel points accumulated from business trips to orbit the planet. For others, your grief vacation might be closer to home or shorter in duration.

I first sought out a short griefcation in the year after my dad and brother died. I had an urge to be with others who were grieving: those who would just know that I had no words for how I was feeling. I found a “Grief Dancer” retreat in Big Sur with a description that spoke to me: We invite you to a weekend retreat to hold together what should not be held alone.

I flew to San Francisco and then drove the Pacific Coast Highway to what I affectionately called a “hippie’s paradise,” where primal music, soulful rhythm, and unselfconscious dancing helped me find joy in judgment-free movement.

Ever since my dad and brother died, I’ve sought out places to travel, sometimes to escape traditions that now trigger me.

My dad loved the gaudy, over-the-top nature of Christmas celebrations and would string twinkly rainbow lights all over our house in southern California. He collected singing snowmen from Hallmark, too. He had a dozen of them. He’d terrorize us, his grown children, by switching them on all at once so they’d each sing a different Christmas carol, competing for cheery seasonal supremacy.

My dad died from cancer in November and after an early December memorial, my mom and my surviving brother retreated to our respective corners of the country to grieve alone. I hunkered down with my husband and two boys, hibernating in the dark cold of Minneapolis.

And just like that, my family stopped gathering for Christmas. In its absence, I’ve worked to build a new holiday tradition for my sons that has a travel experience at its core. We now routinely head to sunny beaches to relax, read books, play together, and create special moments to remember those we’ve lost. No matter where we find ourselves on Christmas Day, we always set a place at the table for my dad and brother.

I’ve learned that it’s possible to be living in grief, but also experience profound joy. Grief is an invitation to deeply value the moments of your life and find joy where you can, because of a renewed sense of how fleeting they are.

We can travel to escape our grief, or we can focus on our loss as a significant component of the travel experience, creating activities to honor the lives of those we’ve lost.

Dr. Karen Wyatt, a hospice physician and the founder of End-of-Life University Blog, has written extensively about the “safe container” that travel can provide to heal grief and loss. She defined six categories of grief travel to consider when making plans. Restorative. Contemplative. Physically active. Commemorative. Informative. Intuitive.

Before a significant grief anniversary, I took another retreat, this time to Morocco with my husband and other entrepreneurs, to experience “radical self-awareness while leaving our comfort zones in a wild, extraordinary place.” While I wasn’t there to grieve specifically, I am always on that journey. There, my experience—to borrow categories from Wyatt—was contemplative, intuitive, physically active, informative. And commemorative.

In the Sahara Desert near the border with Algeria, I honored the fourth anniversary of the death of my dad. It was a day of beauty and reflection. The shifting sand was a meditation on the transient nature of life. The stark nature of the landscape was an affirmation that life is never guaranteed to be long, and survival is not assured.

The stunning beauty of the place, and the company I was with, was an invitation to honor the magic of this one “wild and precious life”—to borrow from poet Mary Oliver. It was both an embodied and soulful experience to dwell in grief. To hold in my body and spirit the importance of Dad’s memory. I grabbed handfuls of his ashes and sand and flung them into the air. Releasing. Weeping. Celebrating.

You can’t live every day like it’s your last—if I did, I’d be broke, exhausted, and probably in prison—but you can do what makes you truly happy as often as possible.

Travel, like grief, takes you to different lands, where life seems more precious and urgent. If you’re lucky, you will find joy amid the sadness, as I did. The memories stay with you forever.

About Sherry Walling, PhD

Sherry Walling is a clinical psychologist (PhD), speaker, podcaster, and entrepreneur. Her life’s work is helping high-achieving people navigate painful and complex experiences, including loss. Her podcast, ZenFounder, has been called a “must listen” by both Forbes and Entrepreneur magazines and has been downloaded more than 1 million times. Her book, Touching Two Worlds (Sounds True 2022), is part memoir and part psychological reflections on grief.

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