Mourning the Loss of Travel

Stefan Stefancik via CC0

For many people, not being able to travel is a profound loss and the grief is real. Here's how to deal.

Kailey Schroeder was midway through her gap year volunteering in Nicaragua when she was forced to make a decision that no traveller wants to make: Should she stay or should she go?

It was March and the COVID-19 pandemic had just hit. She'd already been abroad for seven months and had three left to go, but international borders had begun to close. The 19-year-old decided to return home, leaving no time to emotionally process her departure.

“I was devastated,” says Schroeder. “I didn’t get to do everything one last time—the last time I’d wash my clothes by hand, the last time I’d eat gallo pinto. . .”

Leaving Nicaragua with unfinished business was just as unsettling as it was to return to a home that suddenly felt unfamiliar. Social distancing restrictions meant there wasn’t a group of friends and family waiting to hug her at the airport. Instead, Schroeder headed straight to her parents’ basement for 14 days of self-isolation.

“That first night, all I wanted was to be back in Nicaragua,” she sighs. “It was hard to grasp that I was home for good.”

Schroeder was just one of more than a million Canadians and permanent residents who prematurely returned from abroad in mid-March amid urging from government officials. As the pandemic provoked an indefinite suspension of “normal” life, travellers cancelled holidays and honeymoons, students deferred much-anticipated semesters abroad, and separated couples and families agonized over when they’d see each other again.

Whether you had to cut your travels short or cancel plans to work, volunteer, backpack or study internationally, you’re likely grieving—and you’re not alone. But mourning the loss of travel doesn’t have to mean mothballing your passport and binge-watching old travel shows—it can be an opportunity for profound learning.

Here are six ways you can begin to work through your travel grief.

Let yourself grieve

Grief is tricky. We tend to rank distressing life events, only reserving grief for those at the top of our hierarchy. We brush off the losses that fall at the lower end, invoking the “first world problems” trope or telling ourselves how much worse it could’ve been.

But Kelly Grace, a therapist based in Oregon, suggests that all losses—even those born of privilege, like travel—still deserve our grief.

“The things that we grieve are not in competition with each other,” she says. “Comparison just leaves us with shame, guilt and feelings of isolation.”

We are all grappling with loss right now. These complex emotions—as difficult as they are—aren’t meant to be bypassed. Our feelings are meant to be felt.

Schroeder did exactly that; she spent time writing, reflecting and letting herself cry. And although it was hard to reach out for support while everyone was caught in the tumult of COVID-19, she began processing by sharing with others.

“Talking with other people helped me realize I was grieving, and that I couldn’t move forward until I called it ‘grief,’” says Schroeder.

Replenish your mental and physical resources

“It feels like something’s been taken away from me. And I don’t know when I’ll get it back,” says Jill Morris, a Californian who works in victim services. She’d been looking forward to a much-needed restorative trip to Berlin and Copenhagen this year, which had to be cancelled. “I was living one life and all of a sudden, that life doesn’t exist anymore.”

Postponed or cancelled plans are inevitable parts of life. But not knowing when we’ll get to resume the activities and routines we once knew? That’s new and exhausting territory.

At first, our brains dealt with this new territory by activating our nervous systems. Known as “surge capacity,” these mental and physical adaptive systems are usually used for short-term survival in times of stress or disaster. It led to some of us cheering on frontline workers, while others stockpiled household items and baked reams of sourdough. Many of us even experienced a swell in creativity, innovation, productivity and resilience—at first.

We tend to rank distressing life events, only reserving grief for those at the top of our hierarchy. But all losses—even those born of privilege, like travel—still deserve our grief.

But surge capacity is meant to be a temporary mechanism, and a pandemic with no end in sight depletes our emotional and mental reserves. Exhaustion, stress and burnout are all normal responses right now, explains psychologist Ann Masten, who popularized the term.

“We don’t have a lot of control over the global pandemic, but we do over our daily lives," she said in an interview with Medium.

Finding ways to replenish our capacity is key to weathering this indefinite storm. Every time we do something replenishing for ourselves—whether it’s eating a nourishing meal, moving our bodies or giving ourselves compassion—we’re making a deposit in our resilience bank account.

For Morris, this involves practicing gratitude, readjusting her expectations and exercising regularly. She’s also found it therapeutic to put together photo albums of past trips as a way to relive and appreciate her travels.

Find meaning and opportunities in your loss

Many of us were taught that acceptance is the final of the five stages of grief. But author and grief expert David Kessler, who has spent his career teaching frontline workers about trauma, death and grief, offers a sixth stage: finding meaning.

“I believe we will continue to find meaning now and when this is over,” said Kessler in an interview with Harvard Business Review.

If we’re able to accept our circumstances, then we can move forward by finding ways to honour our loss, transforming our grief into hope.

This has been a powerful practice for Kevin Plett, who had planned to travel to Japan with his spouse in the fall—his first time overseas. Fascinated by Japanese culture ever since he was a teenager, Plett and his partner had even started learning Japanese to prepare for their trip.

When it became clear he wasn’t going to Japan this year, accepting these new realities was critical for Plett—but he didn’t leave it at that. He and his spouse decided to use some of the money they would’ve spent on their trip for something else they’ve always wanted to do: scuba diving lessons. Not only is he finding a way to honour the trip he couldn’t take, Plett’s investment is opening up new possibilities for future diving holidays.

Lean into your values

If you’re anything like me, not being able to travel right now is like telling a fish not to swim. But there is wisdom and value to be found in considering why you booked your trip first place.

“The trip you’d planned served a purpose for your wellbeing. There was something you wanted to connect with. There are clues in how that trip was life-giving for you,” says Grace.

We all travel for different reasons. If it’s about relationships, how can you find other ways to deepen the relationship with yourself or the person you planned to travel with? If it’s about learning more about a country, is there a cultural society in your community you can connect with?

Whatever it is, your “why” is where your values lie. How can this time be an opportunity to connect more deeply with the values driving your desire to travel?

Treat your home like a foreign country

The beautiful irony about travelling abroad is how it gently prompts us to appreciate where we come from.

Award-winning adventure travel writer Ashlyn George knows this well. She’s spent the pandemic doing what she does best: exploring her own backyard.

A peek at her recent Instagram posts gives the illusion that she spent the summer of 2020 hiking in rugged Colorado and romping in the sand dunes in the Sahara. Nope, that was all in Saskatchewan. Hiking 140km in the boreal forest, staying overnight in a luxury grain bin, and feeding horses from the living room of a B&B on a ranch are all adventures that didn’t require her to leave her province.

Even after working as the Government of Saskatchewan’s travel blogger and spending years discovering hidden treasures and offbeat destinations you wouldn’t expect to find in the Prairies, George says she’s not done exploring.

“I still have places in Saskatchewan to go,” she says.

Volunteer, intern or study abroad virtually

Some of us may feel that this year has cost us an opportunity we’ll never get again. Students who’d planned to study abroad, especially those in their final years of studies, are feeling crushed.

Nothing can replace the full sensory experience of being immersed in another country. But perhaps what this season offers is a chance to dip our toe in waters to see if they’re right for us—and when borders re-open, we’ll have new insights to guide our journey.

E-volunteering, for example, has become a popular way for students and professionals to invest their time and build their skills with a cause they care about. Organizations like CUSO, which seeks to eradicate poverty and inequality, offers a range of remote volunteer placements with partners in places like Peru, Cameroon and Laos.

Virtual study abroad programs may also offer an alternative to jumping on a plane. One option is the University Study Abroad Consortium’s (USAC) Global Perspectives program. Taught by instructors from 27 countries, students can study everything from ethnic conflict in Europe, to the caste system in India, to travel writing, all all while developing intercultural competencies as they interact with classmates from different countries. USAC also offers virtual internships in a variety of fields, such as journalism, social welfare, digital marketing, health and translation. Past interns have taken on engineering projects in Germany and led research on health and wellness in Thailand.

“It’s terribly disappointing not going overseas, but don’t give up,” says Alyssa Nota, president and CEO of USAC. “This is one moment in time, and this will end. Keep that dream alive.”

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Published in Travel Health
Katie Bergman

Katie Bergman is an avid traveller and the author of "When Justice Just Is," a compelling resource for non-profit workers and volunteers who are learning that taking care of others means taking care of ourselves, too. She has spent the last 10 years working for international development organizations, specializing in human trafficking interventions.


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