For the Widowed, Travel, Like Time, Helps Heal All Wounds


I like to think of travel as a cure for everything. But there is at least one problem it cannot correct: the death of a beloved partner. For the 2.6 million American men and 11 million American women who have been widowed, time is the true healer. Yet supportive families, hobbies and work often play a role, and I’d add travel to that list as well. Many widows have found that travel helps them redefine who they are, makes them feel strong and accomplished, and gets them out in the world.

For widows who often journeyed with their spouses, travel is an old friend. For others, homebound in the past by families or husbands who preferred to stay put, the urge to travel rises anew. But it isn’t always easy to get started, widows say.

Marilyn Mason, a psychologist based in Santa Fe, N.M., thinks “invisibility” is one of the biggest shocks for older widows who spent most of their lives in traditional marriages and learned to define themselves as someone’s wife.


“It’s easy to stay inside and get depressed, because they think no one will notice,” Mason says. The idea of taking a trip can seem intimidating and difficult, particularly if they’ve grown accustomed to having a man handle the money and luggage.

Jeanne Lauf Walpole, a travel writer from Reno, says her brain was like “oatmeal” on trips with her husband. She never worried about tipping or security until after his death four years ago, when she went to South America with three widowed friends. As they were leaving the Miami airport, an unlicensed cabdriver tried to hustle them into a car. She realized then that hucksters often view older women as easy marks.

Seventy-five-year-old Frances Weaver, who speaks and writes about reinventing oneself in old age, took a Panama Canal cruise after her husband’s death 20 years ago. An all-inclusive cruise is a good first trip for an older widow, she says, because you don’t have to worry about money and can decide for yourself whether to participate in activities or be alone. Elderhostel, which offers affordable educational trips for people 55 and older, is another good way to start seeing the world.

Marcia Isaacs of Brentwood got the travel bug after she was widowed 14 years ago. She took a tour of the Southwest with a wonderful companion: her 7-year-old grandson, Peter. The tour (which she repeated several years later with her 12-year-old granddaughter, Emily) was organized by Grandtravel, which takes grandparents and grandchildren all over the world. Founder Helena T. Koenig says widows who have toured with her groups find renewed zest for life in the company of their grandkids.

Like these women, many recent widows get a yen to travel. Jens Jurgen, founder of the Travel Companion Exchange newsletter, which helps singles of all ages find travel partners, discovered this in 1983, when Prevention magazine suggested the newsletter as a resource for middle-aged widows who wanted to get away. The short article generated 5,000 letters.

Finding someone to travel with isn’t an insurmountable obstacle for many older widows. After the Grandtravel trip, Isaacs teamed up with three friends (two married, one widowed, but all about her age) and rented a flat in London, to which they’ve returned often.

Travel writer Walpole also didn’t seem to have much trouble finding trip companions. She and her three travel mates to South America started out by taking short trips to Palm Springs. At first her solo status saddened her, she says. But the group ultimately had so much fun that she got over the sadness and now sees those jaunts as part of the grieving process.

Psychologist Mason advises recently widowed women to avoid revisiting places they and their husbands loved because such return trips tend to open up barely healed wounds. She also says it can be harder for young widows to start traveling than it is for older ones because younger women often must juggle finances, families and work to get away.

Copacetic travel mates may be hard to find. Judy Rawl, 59, of Calabasas, was widowed last summer. She wants to keep traveling, as she and her husband did, to such places as Africa and India. But lately, the only offer she’s gotten has been from another widow who wanted to go to Las Vegas.

Judy is an experienced enough traveler to strike out on her own eventually. For other younger widows, tour companies like Women Traveling Together, Wild Women and the Women’s Travel Club, founded in 1992 by Phyllis Stoller, are options. “We get women of all kinds--young, old, divorced, married--who want to travel on their own,” Stoller says. “It makes no difference why. So a widow is not going to be seen as the pathetic one who lost her husband.”

Moreover, by joining women’s trips, widows often get hooked on travel and meet other women who join them for future adventures.

There’s no need to worry about this addiction, though, because, as a friend of mine says, travel is a growth hormone. For widows, that’s the next best thing to a cure.

Elderhostel, 75 Federal St., Boston, MA 02110, telephone (877) 426-8056, Internet

Grandtravel, 6900 Wisconsin Ave., Suite 706, Chevy Chase, MD 20815, tel. (800) 247-7651 or (301) 986-0790, Internet

The Travel Companion Exchange, P.O. Box 833, Amityville, NY 11701, tel. (800) 392-1256 or (631) 454-0880.

The Women’s Travel Club, 21401 N.E. 38th Ave., Aventura, FL 33180, tel. (800) 480-4448 or (305) 936- 9669, Internet https://www.womens

Wild Women Adventures, 152 Bloomfield Road, Sebastopol, CA 95472, tel. (800) 992-1322 or (707) 829-3670, Internet

Women Traveling Together, 1642 Fairhill Drive, Edgewater, MD 21037, tel. (800) 795-7135, Internet