Aislyn Greene, host: We turn to travel for a thousand different things: Connection, adventure, vacation, learning, family, the list goes on. One element of life and travel we don’t often discuss is grief. But today, we’re going to.
I’m Aislyn Greene, associate director of podcasts here at AFAR. And this is Unpacked, the show that unpacks a tricky topic in travel every week.
And this week, we’re handing things over to Erin Hynes, host of Curious Tourism, a podcast about responsible travel. Erin doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects on her show. But when we were chatting recently, she mentioned that she has a personal story about travel and grief. One that she hasn’t shared before.
Every one of us has, or will be, grieving something or someone at some point in our lives. I’ve certainly had my fair share and I’m sure you have as well. Until Erin brought it up, I hadn’t really thought much about using travel as a tool to navigate some of the more difficult elements in life. So today she’ll be sharing her story and talking with two people with very different experiences around grief.
It brought me some comfort and solace and inspiration, and I hope it does the same for you. Here’s Erin.
Erin Hynes: For most of my life, flying was something that excited me.
I would walk through the airport with my headphones in, feeling like a main character in a movie. As I buckled into my seat on the plane, I’d excitedly text my parents to tell them I was about to take off.
I was always one of those people who didn’t sleep on planes. I mean, how can you sleep when you’re busy anticipating future adventures?
But in 2016, that changed. For the first time in my life, I wasn’t excited to fly. It was February 11. My birthday. I was boarding a flight from Toronto to Cuba, to Varadero.
I held back tears as I walked onto the plane because 13 days earlier, my friend Jordan had passed away.
Jordan and I had met working in an Italian pizzeria. We quickly bonded over our love of trash reality TV and our love of travel.
Jordan was sweet and incredibly kind. He could make anyone laugh, and he gave the best hugs. He loved a good book, and he loved a good negroni.
We could talk for hours sitting in Clinton’s on Bloor Street in Toronto. We’d sit there swapping stories about the places we’d been, and we would dream together about the places we both could go in the future.
Flying to Cuba was meant to be exciting. I’d always loved traveling for my birthday, because what better way to celebrate? But instead of the usual anticipation, all I felt was grief.
That grief had hit me like a truck. Jordan’s death was sudden and unexpected, and so I’d been plunged into a state of shock. In the two weeks leading up to the flight, I had struggled to get out of bed, to eat, to talk. I was experiencing panic attacks and barely sleeping.
I’d thought about canceling the trip to Cuba. It was booked months before, with another friend. But as our departure day inched closer, I told them there was no way I could go.
But they challenged me. That friend said to me, “I think traveling will be good for you. It will help you heal.”
This idea, that travel can help us heal from grief, isn’t new. In my community of travel influencers and bloggers, I see it all the time. Many travelers I know admit that they sometimes turn to travel as a way to escape.
When you think about it, travel literally is an escape. You physically move yourself to a different location, leaving something behind.
But grief can’t be left behind. Our emotional and mental state isn’t something we can escape, no matter how far we fly. As I boarded that plane to Varadero, I knew I wasn’t going to escape the reality that Jordan was gone. But I was hopeful that maybe, just maybe, travel would help me experience happiness and joy again. That it would help me find a way to balance loss with life.
Grief is a natural part of humanity. But what is grief, really? Is travel a way for us to cope with it? And is it healthy to turn to travel in these moments?
To unpack these questions, we’ll chat with psychotherapist Zac Schraeder and podcaster Andrew Steven. We’ll explore experiences of grief and travel and learn about traditions of grieving from around the world.
I first connected with Zac Schraeder, my friend, who is also a registered psychotherapist in Toronto, Canada. I wanted to ask him how he would define grief and his personal experiences with it.
Zac Schraeder: I think a lot of people think that grief is a reaction to a death, which is true. But I like to articulate it as a very subjective reaction to a loss that you have, and it often manifests in anguish. And it can cause a lot of symptoms, let’s say. So, distress is one of them. A lot of maybe separation anxiety, especially with death or something like divorce.
It can be a deep yearning. It can be kind of a fixation on the past a little bit that kind of prevents you from being in the present. And it can manifest in a lot of different ways that are concerning like, for example, self-neglect. You know, we hear a lot of times people not looking after themselves while they’re grieving.
It can have a lot of physical symptoms like, you know, heart problems or difficulty breathing, sometimes panic attacks. Where I’m concerned, one of the biggest sort of worries for me is in suicidal thinking as well. When somebody experiences a loss, how do you continue live?
And so, it’s very, like I said, subjective. It depends on who it’s happening to and where people are in their lives. There are a lot of experts out there who would characterize grief as kind of like a protective process that has kind of evolved along with us humans. It’s something that allows us to continue on with life in a lot of ways as well, even amidst a lot of pain, a lot of questions, a lot of inability to see a happy future. It allows us to do that. So, I often look at it sometimes as a traumatic life event, like we’re talking about trauma and how to as a therapist be with someone as they have experienced trauma and to help them work through it.
Erin: From your experience, what is the feeling of it?
Zac: I think for me, grief manifested most in terms of a divorce that I went through. And that was really challenging because it’s not just something you’re saying goodbye to. You’re also saying goodbye to the construct that you’ve sort of built for yourself in your own mind and your heart about what your future looks like and how you do that future and who you do it with.
And so, it’s not just losing a person, but it’s losing an idea of who you are and how you spend your life. And that was really challenging for me. It left a big blank and it took quite a long time to kind of work through. And I would say travel helped a lot with that. But in my experience, it’s very much that like how do I envision a future for myself now and how do I find hope in that?
Erin: Have you ever turned to travel?
Zac: Oh yeah. I mean, you and I go way back talking about how travel is meaningful to us. And at least in my own experience, I think there’s lots of articles we could read about this, like blogs and stuff. From what I have read, there’s not a lot of like hard research on this, but I think a lot of people kind of understand it.
When I was going through my life changing as a result of divorce, for example, I think that it helped me hone in on a purpose, like in light of that whole construct I had built for myself, I didn’t really have anything. So, kind of latching onto something like travel was really meaningful for me in that moment.
It’s kind of like a good Band-Aid in a lot of ways, right? It helped me in the moment when I was feeling really sensitive and overwhelmed. It also, I think, helped calm a lot of the angst I was feeling in light of what had happened and the sadness I was feeling. It’s a really wonderful thing for me at least, to contextualize yourself in a really big, beautiful, nuanced world and to realize that you’re actually not that significant. I think that can depress some people, but for me, it’s quite empowering. It shows me that my grief is not the size of the world. It’s not that big. It’s important and it requires a lot of work to get through, but it made it feel less overwhelming.
I was able to focus on what was around me and it just makes you feel connected. I don’t know, travel just makes me feel connected to the world a lot. And that connection in light of one being broken was really liberating for me. And two, I mean, my former partner and I, we traveled a lot and that was one of the things that I really enjoyed doing.
So, I was worried that it wouldn’t be something that I could do in the same way. And so, I was kind of teaching myself that, you know, life can go on in the way you want it to in a lot of ways, and that’s OK. And to make peace with that. So, it showed me a lot of things.
Erin: Zac’s story of traveling after divorce is relatable to me. Although what we were specifically grieving in those moments of our lives was different, the benefits that travel brought us are pretty similar.
After Jordan passed away, I remember feeling like life had just stopped. Just like Zac, travel gave me a purpose. Dancing salsa with our Cuban homestay hosts in Vinales, for example, reminded me in a tangible way that life, and joy, could continue.
My grief, in the context of our big beautiful world, was so small.
Maybe this sounds silly. At home in Toronto, could I not see that life would continue as I grappled with grief? The difference was that, at home I could see my grief in everything around me. I saw it in my apartment, where Jordan and I had hung out.
I saw in my favorite café where we’d sometimes go for breakfast, in the restaurant where we always ordered negronis. And I saw it in the faces of my friends, who were also grieving Jordan.
In a way, travel was a distraction.
Zac: I think a lot of people view distraction as somewhat negative. Like, you know, our teachers in school always told us, you know, you’re so distracted, that’s so bad. But I mean, distraction is a very common intervention for depression, for example, and of course it is for grief.
It’s OK to distract yourself from pain. You don’t always have to sit there with it all the time. It’s OK to distract yourself and let that sort of natural healing process happen. Yeah, absolutely.
Erin: Backpacking Cuba after Jordan passed away was definitely a distraction, especially compared to being at home in Toronto. But there were moments, every day, when even travel couldn’t distract me.
I found myself telling other travelers I met about what I was going through. I didn’t know these other travelers at all, but they always listened, sometimes giving me a hug, or telling me that they’d been through a loss as well.
Zac: It’s a testament to that universal experience that we all on this Earth have when we lose something. And I think that’s an important aspect of traveling while grieving is anyone from any culture in any language understands what it feels like to lose something really important, and to have that comfort extended to you anywhere can be profoundly healing for sure.
And I think that’s a part of grief, too, is when we talk about it, we often go back there. But I think it’s really important, Erin, to remember that you let that process that is innate to us unfold and it helped you get to where you are now. The sadness is OK, but you got here because you let that unfold and travel helped with it, which is a wonderful thing. So, feel the sadness. It’s not gonna last forever. And know that this is part of that process.
Erin: A few months after traveling Cuba, I set out on a nine-month journey through Asia. I so clearly remember the first New Year’s Eve, nearly one full year after Jordan’s death.
I was celebrating with my partner in the streets of Tokyo. We had been drinking sake and champagne with local folks we’d met in a microbar. I was so happy, but I was simultaneously sad. I could travel to the other side of the world, but I couldn’t escape the memories of the New Year’s Eve prior, which was one of the last times I’d seen Jordan before he passed.
During those months traveling Asia, I found that my own grief made me acutely aware of other people’s grief. I found myself noticing in detail the rituals and traditions around death that I was encountering in other cultures.
Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest and holiest cities, and it’s known as the place that people come to, from all over the world, to pray, bathe in the holy River Ganges, and even to die.
Hindus believe that if the ashes of a person are laid in the Ganges at Varanasi, their soul will be transported to heaven and escape the cycle of rebirth. Bodies are paraded through the streets of this city, dressed in colors, and then cremated at ghats that are all along the edge of the holy river.
My partner and I spent several days in Varanasi, and we walked down to the ghats to see the cremations. Watching them, it wasn’t the fire that captured my attention. It was the families that were there to send off their loved one. Hearing people wail as their person burned, it was impossible not to feel their sadness. I understood their pain.
A few years after my travels through Asia, I went to Mexico City during the Day of the Dead. This annual holiday is celebrated on November 1st and 2nd every year. It combines the ancient Aztec custom of celebrating deceased loved ones with All Souls’ Day, a holiday that Spanish invaders brought to Mexico in the early 1500s.
There are many traditions surrounding this holiday, but there’s one in particular that I love. On the night of the Day of the Dead, families go to their local cemetery to visit their loved ones who have passed. It’s almost like a big family reunion. People of all ages and generations gather around the tombstones, lighting candles, decorating graves, eating, and drinking.
On that trip, I went walking through a cemetery on the night of Day of the Dead. The entire cemetery glowed from the light of thousands of lit candles, and it felt alive with the energy of happy families.
Day of the Dead in Mexico is an annual opportunity to remember, talk about, and celebrate people who’ve passed. And I think that not only makes death as a concept less scary, but it normalizes long-term grief.
In India, Mexico, and other countries I’ve traveled over the years, learning about traditions of death as I worked through my own grief was formative.
Watching cremations in Varanasi validated my anguish. It reminded me that it’s OK to feel and show grief, even in public. And seeing cemetery celebrations in Mexico City reminded me that grief doesn’t always have to feel sad. Sometimes, it may come in the form of a story or a happy memory of a person.
While travel itself has helped me in my ongoing process of healing, experiences and learning that have come from seeing how death is treated globally—that has helped my mindset shift. Mainly, I’ve realized that while we have traditions around grief, there isn’t a right or a wrong way to grieve.
Death rituals can be based on our culture, our beliefs, or our spirituality. Although our traditions are shaped by various factors, one thing is true. Each and every one of us has the freedom to create our own traditions. And for some of us, travel might be the tradition or ritual that leads to healing after loss.
Travel, of course, comes in many different forms. For some people it means hopping on a plane to fly across the world to big, bustling cities. But it can also mean hopping in your car to drive out into nature, embarking on a backpacking trip through forest and mountains.
The latter is what Andrew Steven, host of the podcast Trail Weight, found himself doing as he navigated grief.
Andrew Steven: You know, I think a lot of people have been going through some hard times the last few years and, I am no exception. In 2019, my mom passed away and then two years later my brother passed away. And I think it’s—I was gonna say interesting, but that’s boring. What I found interesting about the two is because they were so close, without planning to, I found myself sort of comparing each of them and with my mom, she had been battling cancer and so if death can be expected or grief can be expected, hers felt that way.
Whereas my brothers sort of had a very quickly, rapidly escalating medical situation and so it was unexpected and so, you know, two sides of the same coin sort of thing. They felt very different in my experience with each.
Erin: I wanted to talk a little bit about how you have coped with your grief. I know a little bit about that because I have listened to your podcast, but for people who haven’t, what’s something that you’ve turned to that has helped you?
Andrew: Yeah, so after my mom died—it wasn’t because she died, but it did coincide that I would be embarking on a month-long backpacking trip through the Sierra Nevada mountains in California. When you’re in nature, when you’re hiking, when you’re outside, you can’t not be in the moment. The analogy I always go to is when you’re hiking on dirt, on loose gravel, just being conscious of how your feet step and move and twist and turn, it’s forcing you to be present in that moment, and it can be hard to think about other things. And if you do, that’s when accidents happen. That’s when you trip, that’s when you fall, that’s when you take the wrong turn. And so, by default, a lot of people find themselves . . . I find myself being hyper in the moment. And then throw in the fact that I went on this backpacking trip and was miles away from the nearest town, days away from the nearest town, miles away from the nearest road.
You have a lot of time to think and be alone with your thoughts. And so, of the things I’ve taken from that experience is you don’t need to go on a month-long backpacking trip, but there is something very real about just getting outside, being in your body, moving around. There’s something about literally the color green and how that affects—you know, I got to talk with a lot of cool people, and I talked with people who were studying sort of nature’s effect on the body, and they just talked about, you know, the air you’re breathing is cleaner because the leaves and stuff are cleaning everything. The way even that sunlight affects our bodies. You know, we’ve heard that cliché a million times before, how light and filtered light through, through shadows and through trees can affect us. Literally, the color green can affect us. These are all things that subconsciously, I didn’t know were happening, but were helping my body along with the things I was aware of—like being hyper-focused.
Erin: I wonder if there’s an escapism aspect to it for you. Because something I’ve noticed about myself is like I turn to travel, not just when I’m grieving, like the loss of a person, but in the past, grieving relationships or grieving periods of my life, I have turned to travel. It’s my go-to coping mechanism.
And I think a lot of it is admittedly because escaping the routine of my daily life helps me reset in a sense. So, going out to nature, like do you experience that as well?
Andrew: Yeah, I’m a 100 percent the type of person who thinks the next thing will fix all my problems. I just bought a new microwave and I’m convinced like once it arrives in the mail, everything’s gonna be great. You know, I want to one day have a cabin in the woods somewhere, and I’m nowhere close to making that be a reality. But you know, probably later this afternoon I’m gonna be on some website scrolling, looking at like, Ooh, that’s a fun one that I can’t even afford. So, I do think there’s a 100 percent an escapism thing happening for me, and when I get outside—it happens even before I get outside. It’s planning some of these trips, planning some of these things. There’s a big part of it that’s a distraction. And that goes back to what we were talking about a little bit earlier, where it’s like, I do think some of this distraction, for lack of a better word, is good.
It’s healthy—you don’t want to take all this in one blow. Like it’s a lot. It’s heavy. You can’t carry it all in one go. And so, spreading it out over time, finding moments to be distracted, it’s that balance that’s so true in so many areas of life. Of just finding the moments to be in it, finding the moments to get away and escape. Finding the moments to process, finding the moments to forget, finding the moments to remember. There are moments when I still go like, Oh, I should ask my mom that; she’ll know the answer. And it’s bittersweet. I mean, there’s no other way to say it. It’s bittersweet. There’s a sadness when I realize, Oh, I can’t ask her those questions anymore.
But there’s also a sweetness in knowing that I’m still thinking of her as if she is.
Erin: For me, it’s funny that you say that because, especially for my friend who passed away and for my Oma [grandmother], travel was a big part of those relationships, both those relationships. For my Oma, especially the last few years of her life when she was living in long-term care. I was in a period of like a lot of travel. I was going to many countries a year, and I traveled for almost a year straight during that period. And I sent her a postcard from every single location I went to. And I remember when I came back from that big trip, going to see her and just stacked on her bedside table were like 100 postcards that I had sent her.
And so now I find when I travel, I almost think about her more when I’m traveling than I do at home, because I’ll be in a place and I’ll think like, Oh, I would love to send Oma a postcard. And even though I can’t, just like you’ve said, the fact that I think about this and have this memory tied to her feels nice. It feels special.
Andrew: Well, yeah, and in some way that is true—you are.
Erin: In wrapping up my chat with Andrew, I wanted to know how hiking has helped him in healing from the loss of his mother and brother and other moments of grief.
Andrew: Grief is this confusion of not knowing why, or what, or how, or what this means. And so, I feel like I’ve controlled something. I sort of get that serotonin boost or whatever, but I also become OK with the unknown chaos because there’s no way to avoid it when you’re in nature.
Don’t let traveling or the cost or the difficulty or the planning needed and necessary, or the [ability] to able to have time off, etcetera, to travel, be the thing that keeps you from getting outside. Because truly I do think that just getting outside, like I said, going around the block, getting some fresh air, finding just a city park—you know, there’s, there’s some sort of state park or national park that’s, you know, within an hour or two drive from most of us.
But even the park that’s down the street from where you live, like that is a huge thing to do. So, don’t let good be the enemy of the dream. No. What’s a better way to say that? Don’t let the idealized romantic Instagram version be the enemy of a thing that you can actually do and accomplish right now today.
That being said, if you have the means, the ability to travel, the more you can get out of your comfort zone and still feel safe and OK, the more you’re gonna have these big experiences where you are constantly toggling back and forth between feeling in control.
Erin: A few years after Jordan died, I sat in the courtyard of a riad in Fes, Morocco, with my big blue backpack. A few other travelers shuffled in, sitting across from me.
One of them mentioned they loved my pack. I looked up, smiling, and explained how the pack belonged to a dear friend of mine who also loved to travel. Now that he’s gone, I explained, I take it with me sometimes so that his spirit can continue traveling, too.
Over the years since Jordan died, his backpack continued to travel. Thanks to an online group, friends and family have passed Jordan’s backpack around, bringing the bag, and Jordan’s memory, on world adventures. Jordan’s backpack has been to Vietnam, Nicaragua, The Netherlands, Ireland, and all around Canada and the U.S.
As we’ve learned from Zac and Andrew, travel can be a means to navigate all kinds of grief and in all kinds of ways. For some it might be a way to escape, or to distract, and for others it can be a way to find joy again. For me, it’s been all those things and more.
When Jordan first died, backpacking through Cuba helped me to start my healing journey. But over time, travel evolved into a way to memorialize him. Now when I travel, I often think of him. And when I do, I always try to find a place to order a negroni in his honor.
Aislyn: I love that. Here’s to Jordan. Thanks for sharing your story, Erin. If you’d like to hear more from Erin, follow Curious Tourism on your favorite podcast platform. You can also explore her website, pinatravels.org, and follow her adventures on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter. Her handle is @pinatravels.
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This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.
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