Grief Retreats Are the Year's Most Cathartic Travel Trend

Therapist Josh Dickson has watched many people struggling with grief find healing in an unexpected place: on a surfboard. He runs Resurface, a surf-therapy retreat in Morocco. His clients travel from all over the world to find relief, and Dickson estimates that 30 to 40 percent of them have never seen a therapist. "[They're] like, 'I'm not doing that, but I'll go surfing,'" he says.

Resurface is one of a growing number of therapeutic retreats that welcome travelers looking to process their grief in a new environment. As the travel industry continues to cater to niche interests, more programs are launching specifically for people dealing with major loss — so much so that "grief-related wellness" was one of Condé Nast Traveler's top wellness travel trends of 2024.

"[They] offer a supportive environment where [people] can share their experiences, their emotions, and coping strategies with others who understand the pain," says travel expert Stephanie De Santi-Davis. Social-savvy travelers are posting their experiences of these retreats on TikTok and Instagram, further spreading interest in the trend. Searches on Google for the term "grief retreats near me" are up 23 percent over the past year.

"The idea is to provide a place where people are given permission to feel all the emotions of the loss," says licensed counselor Rita A. Schulte. "These things can be very cathartic."

Although it can feel hard to leave your bed, let alone the country, when you're grieving, many people are booking trips specifically to deal with the dark emotions that can feel too difficult to handle at home.

Experts Featured in This Article

Josh Dickson, MSc, is the founder of Resurface, a surf-therapy retreat. He is a therapist, accredited EMDR consultant, and accredited drug and alcohol professional.

Stephanie De Santi-Davis is a luxury travel expert.

Rita A. Schulte is a licensed counselor, certified grief counselor, and author of "Shattered: Finding Hope and Healing through the Losses of Life."

What Is a Grief Retreat?

Grief retreats come in many forms. Ranging from one day to a week or more, they often revolve around individual and/or group sessions with professional therapists and workshops on topics like building resilience. Complementary activities like nature walks, reiki healing, or meditation round out the day. More often than not, these programs are set in tranquil natural landscapes like the mountains or near the ocean.

Some retreats treat grief generally and welcome those not only dealing with the death of a loved one but also people grieving the end of a relationship or the loss of a job. On the other hand, some programs are tailored to a particular kind of loss. For instance, Camp LIVIN in Minnesota caters to those grieving a family member who died of suicide, and Ohana Oasis leads child loss retreats nationwide. (Both of these programs are funded by donations in order to offer the experience to families at little to no cost.)

Grief travel can also be an opportunity to learn from another culture's mourning practices. For instance, the Lama Foundation hosts "Ecstatic Grief" retreats inspired by rituals from Burkina Faso like live drumming, singing, and co-creating a grief altar. Some programs, such as Earth Medicine hosted by Grief Space, include traditional plant-based medicine like psilocybin.

"I've had friends who have explored different traditions related to death and mourning, and it's really broadened the understanding of grief and provided new perspectives on the grieving process," De Santi-Davis says.

And for those looking to harness the power of religion, there are a number of faith-based retreats, such as While We're Waiting and Sravasti Abbey's Grief & Resilience meditation retreat, that cater to mourners of different faiths.

Others, like Resurface, take advantage of a particular hobby that can be healing, whether that's writing, yoga, hiking, or creating stained glass artwork. "Any activity that gets you into a flow state can take you into the therapeutic space," Dickson says. "I call it forced mindfulness — that's two hours in the day that you're not thinking about your grief."

Why Grief Travel Is Trending Now

As the importance of mental health has gotten more and more air time over the past few years, many of us are realizing that just shoving down our painful emotions can backfire. "Therapeutic outcomes have also gotten much better, particularly in the last 20 years," Dickson adds. "There's a lot more evidence-based approaches so people are actually able to make real, long-lasting shifts in their lives." Along with these changes, therapy in general has become normalized, not just something for people with something "wrong" with them. So a trip focused on grief therapy no longer seems so outlandish.

At the same time, in today's hyperconnected world, we're constantly bombarded with images of beautiful destinations posted by friends and influencers. And when you're going through one of the worst experiences of your life, that can make the temptation to escape even stronger.

"People want to explore the world, see the world, feel the world with these deep emotions that they have," De Santi-Davis says. Dickson also points out that since lots of people today have more disposable income than the average person did a few decades ago, investing in an expensive but therapeutic trip — for those with the means — is more feasible than it might have been for previous generations.

How a Dedicated Trip Can Help the Grieving Process

When you're dealing with the weight of grief, travel can help you get outside of your day-to-day life and provide dedicated space to process your emotions — and the effects can last long after you get home.

"Intense experiences are remembered much better than learning in very small increments," Dickson says. "The way memory is encoded very much depends on the emotional intensity attached — an intense experience around grief will help you remember the tools of how to move forward." A 2020 study published in Research on Social Work Practice showed grief-focused retreats could lead to significant reductions in distress that were maintained at a later follow-up.

That's not to say going to regular grief counseling at home isn't also useful. "But a good grief counselor will also say, 'You need to practice some self-care. You need to get into a different environment. You need to make some new connections,'" Dickson says. He adds that many of the clients who first experience therapy at Resurface end up seeking it out regularly when they return home.

However, experts say the most therapeutic part of a grief retreat may have less to do with the actual therapy sessions and more with connecting to fellow mourners. "When people are in grief, they tend to isolate themselves, and that's the worst thing we can do," says Schulte. "A grief retreat can provide a place to connect with others who understand what you're going through — you can be encouraged, supported, and walk alongside others." Schulte herself found that simply being with other people she could talk to was the most helpful way to process her own grief after her husband died of suicide.

"Shame dies on exposure."

Healing in community can be a particularly powerful way to move forward if you're struggling with guilt or shame surrounding a loss: "Someone might say, 'I couldn't wait for my mum to die because she was suffering. Is that really awful?' And then when five other people say exactly the same thing, you don't feel as alone," Dickson says. "Shame dies on exposure."

The relationships made at retreats dedicated to a particular kind of loss, such as suicide, can be especially invaluable, since most of people in your day-to-day life probably won't be able to understand what you're going through. "A pain shared is a pain halved," Schulte says. Those who've experienced a loss similar to yours may be the only ones you feel like you can relate to when you're really in the thick of it.

Who Can Benefit From a Grief Retreat?

Schulte recommends grief retreats to anyone who feels "stuck" in their grief and has a hard time moving forward. "They're not going out much. They can't think of anything else," she says. While those things can be normal at the start of the grieving process, if someone struggles to move beyond that stage months or years later, a retreat can give them the dedicated time, tools, and connection they might need. Those who are dealing with extreme grief due to feelings of guilt could also benefit, Dickson adds.

Of course, not everyone who travels to a far-off destination to address their grief will have a life-changing experience. But many do find it to be quite effective. "You can move dramatically forward in a week," Dickson says.

Jennifer Heimlich is a writer and editor with more than 15 years of experience in fitness and wellness journalism. She previously worked as the senior fitness editor for Well+Good and the editor in chief of Dance Magazine. A UESCA-certified running coach, she's written about running and fitness for publications like Shape, GQ, Runner's World, and The Atlantic.