Three Women on How Traveling Helped Them Heal After Traumatic Loss
On September 16, 2011, Kathryn Baisden's older sister, Sarah, went to a comedy show in Bellingham, WA, with their cousin. After the show, as she was driving home by herself, she was hit by a drunk driver and killed instantly. She was just 20 years old.
"I was 18 when Sarah passed, and I didn't have the faintest clue of how to process a loss that "I was 18 when Sarah passed, and I didn't have the faintest clue of how to process a loss that significant," Baisden tells Travel + Leisure. "To be honest, I went into shock after receiving the news. It didn't seem real. It didn't seem possible. I couldn't imagine her dead. I couldn't fathom it. I barely even cried. Instead, I went entirely numb."
Baisden, now 28, says she remained numb for a string of months before realizing that it wasn't serving her not to process the poignant pain she was shouldering. And so she started seeing a Baisden, now 28, says she remained numb for a string of months before realizing that it wasn't serving her to avoid processing the poignant pain she was shouldering. And so she started seeing a therapist and was promptly diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. It was a lot to digest, though not a surprise to hear. In the context of therapy, Baisden had the space to fall apart and, as a result, sank into the complexity of her feelings. Her sister's ashes were divided amongst her closest friends to be scattered or buried in places they felt she belonged, and it was then that Baisden found not only a mission, but a way to heal from the trauma of her sister's untimely death.
"In her senior year of high school, Sarah participated in an educational trip to Vietnam," she explains. "When she came home, we honestly never heard the end of it. In every conversation, she would insert details from her time in Southeast Asia. The trip inspired her to continue to see the world — not just a few cool touristy destinations, but as much of it as she possibly could explore in her lifetime."
Sarah's shortened life and the perspectives she gleaned during it, inspired Kathryn. "I wanted to live a large life," she says. "I wanted to experience the things I know she would have pushed me to experience." Baisden booked a flight to Vietnam — the first time she had ever left the continent — and, as she felt her sister's presence during her journey, began to heal.
Studies have long-touted the healing properties of travel. One 2018 study found that even taking a short trip can lower a person's stress level and improve their overall wellbeing. Another study found that women who take frequent vacations are less likely to become tense, depressed, and tired. And while traveling can be one of many important necessary distractions to cope with a traumatic loss, it can also provide respite and opportunities to simply relax and rejuvenate — also necessary parts of the healing process.
Karen Wyatt, M.D., a hospice physician, suggests there are six types of grief travel: restorative, contemplative, physically active, commemorative, informative, and intuitive. For Baisden, a commemorative grief trip, where she could honor her sister's thirst for adventure while strengthening the feeling of an ongoing connection, was a way to heal.
For Mecca Huston, 34, deciding to travel in the early moments of her grief was an attempt to simply get her basic needs met. In 2016, her son, Charlie, was stillborn at 33 weeks gestation. After a few weeks of mourning their loss at home, her husband, Sam, suggested that they travel to Cuba to "get out of our heads and connect" as a couple.
"I was desperate to do anything outside of feeling sad and traumatized, so we headed out of town shortly after our son died," Huston tells Travel + Leisure. The trip was hard. It was difficult navigating Cuba amid profound grief, and it was hard every time my thoughts came crashing back — taking my breath away on more than one occasion."
Even in the throes of the ongoing, debilitating waves of grief, Houston says traveling allowed both her and her husband to be "totally away from all the sad eyes of our friends and families," while simultaneously allowing the couple to emotionally connect, both as individuals as well as within their relationship.
"We could see we were sad and broken, but we could also see that we had more of a partnership than we ever had before our grief set in," she adds. "There were definitely moments when I could feel myself just shut down and go into robot mode, but Sam would take my hand and lead me to safety. That trip made me love my husband all the more."
Huston's trip also forced her to put her innate, expressed need to feel in control on the proverbial backburner. "Like most women in a crisis, I default to trying to control things as much as possible," she explains. "Taking out the urge to control my situation opened me up to riding the waves of grief, and I believe ultimately helped me survive our loss with my head still attached. I came out of my grief stronger and more in touch with the unpredictability of life."
Alicia Lee, 36, sought a contemplative trip in an effort to process her grief soon after her 8-year relationship abruptly ended. She and her former boyfriend were smack dab in the middle of planning their wedding — what she now knows to be their last-ditch effort of salvaging the relationship — when her relationship ended and, as she describes it, "her world turned upside down." Her immediate family was planning a trip to Egypt, and so Lee decided to join, wanting to "run away and escape" the realities of her life.
"What I didn't anticipate was that an 'escape' would actually allow me to return to my life in such a healthier, more complete way," Lee tells Travel + Leisure. "I also craved the comfort of being with my family, and this was a chance for me to spend time with them." While Lee did have the chance to experience revelatory moments during her travels — to "steal away to reflect" on where she was in her life and how "things had turned out the way they had" — her trip turned into more of an informative one, where she had the ability to learn about her mother's homeland and, as a result, herself.
"My mother tearfully showed us the apartment she'd grown up in, and the church she loved to visit as a little girl. I ate the incredibly delicious and comforting Egyptian food of my childhood, and heard beautiful Arabic phrases I used to hear my mother and grandparents speak," she explains. "I realized that not only was the world so much larger and more magnificent than the relationship I had lost, but that I was more magnificent, too. I was a human with a history from before my ex had ever entered my life, and I had a rich identity with cultural ties to one of the most magical places."
Lee says the trip was a profound turning point for her, which inspired her upon returning to the U.S., to leave Portland and move to San Francisco. "It was exactly the fresh start I needed, coming back to the comfort of friends and family," she adds. A week later, she met her now-husband, after her boss, at the time, took her to happy hour in what turned out to be a "sneaky casual set-up."
"I can't help but reflect on how transformative it was, that I was in such a different place emotionally and mentally because of my time in Egypt," she says, "and how that allowed for the universe to help me usher in the next phase of my life."
As for Baisden, who continues to travel as a way to honor her sister, her trips are now less about mourning and more about feeling closer to Sarah.
"I don't mourn her on trips. I feel her on trips. My grief is always present, but it never interferes with me fully enjoying myself on trips," she says. And while she says there's always a nagging thought in her mind that her sister should be there with her, she is also often reminded that, in so many ways, she is.