Updated on February 14th, 2020
“I felt triumphant. I had interacted with a stranger, told her my tragic news, the world hadn’t imploded around me & she had left without having her night ruined. It was a monumental step forward for me!”
Canada, Hawaii, Australia, Bolivia, Peru & Beyond
I started Sue Where? Why? What? a year ago this January, but the process started a long time before then. In my 20’s I travelled extensively, mainly solo because I didn’t have anyone available to come with me. I am stubborn & determined, so I went alone.
When I came home, I got a corporate job (which I loved), met my husband & for the next 18 years led a life filled with love, hard work, fun & the most travel anyone could possibly do with 25 days holiday a year.
We used to joke when my husband, Terry was feeling a tiny bit ill & he would plaintively say “But what if I die?” I would reply “Please don’t die…I’ll have nobody to go on holiday with!” We’d laugh together & move on to planning our next activity.
Then, in December 2014, Terry went in for heart surgery and never made it back to me. He was my best friend, my rock & my partner in crime. He was my travelling companion. The person who knew me better than I knew myself.
Travelling Through Grief
Reflecting on my journey (both literally & figuratively), one of the things that stands out to me is how my confidence has changed through the social situations I have encountered throughout the last 4 years. I know this can be a source of anxiety when you first consider the prospect of “going it alone” for the first time, so I felt I would share my stories & how I’ve grown.
There are many fears which surface when you think of being a woman on her own.
“The fear of loneliness, of unwanted advances from men, of meeting new people, the fear of striking up conversations with strangers, the fear of not meeting anyone.”
Often these drown out the beauty of potentially connecting with amazing people who will stay in your life forever. I can confirm that I’ve experienced all of these over the last 4 years.
What have I done?
When Everything Changes, Change Everything
The company I worked for were incredibly supportive when my world collapsed & I will never be more grateful. I had been a very loyal & committed employee for 18 years & built up a lot of respect. I had lost my beloved Dad 9 months before Terry (& my Mum 15 years before that), so it felt like everything had changed & I had no desire to go back.
“I know for many people doing the same thing would be comforting but for me, it was the opposite. I needed it all to change.”
I would occasionally look at my emails from work, despite my boss telling me not to (it’s hard to change the habit of a lifetime). Everything seemed so unimportant. I decided that if I went back to work these things would become important again & I never wanted to lose my perspective.
Being Dealt A Bad Hand
There is a saying that life deals you a bad hand. I felt like it was beating me over the head with a baseball bat, taunting me to just give in. But giving up isn’t my style & I eventually rose to the challenge. I literally pulled myself off the floor (I was sometimes to be found physically & emotionally drained or loudly & uncontrollably sobbing), brushed myself down and faced life head-on. My way out was to follow my passion. My passion was travel.
“I needed to find a way to get through & to survive. And I needed to discover who I was as a woman approaching 50 & on her own for the first time in almost 20 years.”
Travel was the path I chose as a way to find myself again. I believe it saved me. It certainly put a smile back on my face…eventually.
The First Weeks
When you lose your life partner it’s like everything you know about life and everything you know & expect in your future is gone. Overnight. It was just before Christmas, so my sister & family were already heading over from Australia. To fill the gap, friends kept a day & night vigil with me until she arrived. They told me when to eat, when to sleep & when to bathe. I’ve never been so obedient in my life.
I don’t remember much about that Christmas. It’s funny how your subconscious takes over & only allows in what you can cope with. One memory I do have was when my friend called. She was going to Whistler, Canada for a skiing holiday without her husband in January. In addition, she had a room all booked & paid for. Would I like to join her?
I hadn’t skied for 20 years (Terry had health issues which meant he wasn’t allowed). My sister was due to go home the same day I would be leaving. I would need flights, ski passes & kit. I said “Yes”. What else was I going to do once I was left alone? At least this way I could delay the inevitable.
What got me through that first year (along with all my wonderful friends & family), were all these “distractions”. I split the year into blocks of time. I would go away for anything up to a month & be back for 6 weeks, then knew I would be off again.
Skiing was the best distraction I could have wished for. When I was relearning my skills on the slopes, I could pretend that life was normal & I’d just come on holiday with my friends.
“What else was I going to do once I was left alone? At least this way I could delay the inevitable”.
Say “Yes” to Everything
From then on, I adopted my mantra. I said “Yes”. As a result, I became the go-to friend for anyone who was looking for company on their travels. At least that was the reason my friends gave. I suspect it was more looking for a way to for them to help by appealing to my passions. I loved them all & by the end of the year I had seen orangutans in Borneo, explored the Greek Islands, snorkelled with manta rays & relearnt to scuba dive.
I’ve always been confident in social situations. I spent my career in sales, where my job was to meet strangers all the time & get them to buy into me & my product. Often, I was the only person in the room who didn’t know anyone. My job was to “own” the room. To be the person that commanded attention but made them all feel listened to. Or at least that was the aim. Basically, by nature, I am a socially confident person. But there’s nothing like the slap in the face that life can give you to discover the new, socially awkward person beneath.
Sudden Social Awkwardness
When I first lost Terry, I was terrified of getting into conversations with strangers. I clung to my friends like glue & got slightly panicky if they were ever away from me or out of earshot. It’s hard to comprehend now, the fear I felt about having to talk about myself. What would happen if I was asked questions that made me have to answer with the truth? How would I be if I had to say it out loud? To get publicly emotional? Would I even tell the truth? To bring lovely people down & ruin their holiday? Clearly, I thought my grief would be infectious & only contained if I didn’t speak about it!
“Basically, by nature, I am a socially confident person. But there’s nothing like the slap in the face that life can give you to discover the new, socially awkward person beneath.”
This all worked absolutely fine. But I knew for me, that it was unsustainable.
Being the Elephant in the Room
I realised when I was at home in social situations I became the “Elephant in the Room”. There was an awkwardness around conversations. Should they or shouldn’t they mention Terry? If they did how would I respond? Friends made various decisions on this:
- They bit the bullet & asked me about my feelings, then had to cope with me being overly emotional (I’m British, that makes us very uncomfortable!).
- Some came for a chat & didn’t say anything about it, which suited me but led to a slightly strained conversation & felt just a little bit odd.
- Others chose not to say anything & carry on without much contact beyond a “Hello”. This was fine for me but I also felt like I had lost that connection with people I thought I knew well. It was like they no longer wanted to have my company.
Of course, this analysis was all going on in my head, so rightly or wrongly, it’s what I believed to be true.
“It meant that before any social situation I had to do a lot of emotional resilience training & build up to being able to cope. Sometimes I forgot to put the effort in which meant my emotions came along, bit me on the arse & led me to run from a few parties in tears.”
All of this together weirdly meant I actually found more comfort in the company of strangers.
Friends Versus Strangers
With strangers, I could be a normal person with a non-tragic history. At the end of my first year of widowhood (unfortunately, I think that is actually a word), I went to Australia for 2 months. I was determined to make future holidays different so decided to enrol & learn scuba diving. Terry’s health meant he was never able to dive so again, it had been out of my life for 20 years.
I met my fellow students, an international mix of twenty-somethings, backpacking their way around the world. They were lovely & the great thing about people in their twenties is that they don’t have a history, so they never actually ask about yours. It was perfect!
My first trip alone was to Kauai. I had spent a week in Oahu with my sister & family, I had a week on my own & then my friend was flying in to join me on the Big Island. It was a great reintroduction to solo travel & an excellent way to challenge myself into being alone in social environments. My favourite place was a bar in Hanalei Bay. I was there for 4 nights which meant I kind of became a local & developed measurably as a result.
Fear of Strangers
On my first night, I arrived at a packed house & found my spot at the bar. I was perfectly comfortable not to speak to a soul. The singer was a popular local artist & every other song brought the ladies to their feet for an impromptu hula demonstration. It was beautiful to watch.
Terry was a drummer & huge fan of live music & we would seek the top spots out whenever we travelled. The bar was busy but for the whole night but I had an empty seat next to me. A couple of times I was asked if it was free, I always said “Yes”. However, there must have been something about my vibe which said the opposite & nobody actually took the stool all night.
“I felt Terry was with me & was comforted as a result. I know he would have loved it.”
Face Your Fears
On the second night, again I took my place at the bar & another artist was performing. The food was great & I loved the atmosphere. This time I was next to a woman who was very drunk, along with the couple she was with. She immediately struck up a conversation with me. Initially, it was easy to engage without actually engaging or giving any of myself. I’m an expert at this now! Then she bought me a drink which as a Brit meant I had to buy her & her friends one too. She was telling me all about her partner, the issues she was having & how much she missed him (it was the last night of her holiday away from him).
She then asked the dreaded question “How come you’re here alone?”. For some reason, I decided to bite the bullet. As my eyes welled up, I told her a very brief synopsis of my history. She informed me that she was psychic & could see my aura. It was very strong & she knew Terry was with me.
“It was odd but fitting & it strangely made me feel comforted. We hugged, said goodbye, wished each other luck & I headed home.”
I felt triumphant. I had interacted with a stranger, told her my tragic news, the world hadn’t imploded around me & she had left without having her night ruined. It was a monumental step forward for me!
A Woman Alone
On my final night, I took my place at the bar again & for once there was no live music. Emboldened, I got chatting to a couple of guys who I recognised had been there for all my previous visits too (obviously they initiated the discussion!). They were drunk & it was the last night of a very enjoyable fishing trip for them.
“As a woman travelling alone, we are often a source of attention & speculation, whether we like it or not.”
As the conversation progressed, I realised this more & more. It started with the “So I’ve seen you on your own each night, what are you doing?” I used my well-practised & highly successful avoidance technique of explaining my trip, without actually saying anything about my personal situation. He persisted with the question (familiar for any women who travels alone) “So, do you have a husband or boyfriend back home & how do they feel about that?”
This was my moment. I couldn’t avoid it. He forced me to tell him what had actually happened, in as few words as possible. Again, I didn’t spontaneously combust. His demeanour physically changed as the words tumbled from his mouth “My God, you poor girl!”
The Kindness of Strangers
We ended up having a fascinating conversation about my story, his sister who was battling cancer & his career (an ex-homicide cop with LAPD). He offered to buy me a drink & for once I accepted. As I asked for my bill (9 o’clock is generally the witching hour when I’m travelling solo), he gestured to the barman that he would pay. I argued as I had eaten dinner. He insisted. The barman shrugged, smiled & that was that!
For him, it was a drunken conversation with a woman in a bar. For me, it was a triumph! If I could travel & speak to people without the sickening fear of where the conversation might lead, then the world was my oyster!
Sharing the Uncomfortable Truth
As my new travelling life moved forward & my healing continued, I faced my next challenge. I was off to discover South America via a couple of tours to Bolivia & Peru. The nature of these situations is to arrive as strangers but to leave as friends who have shared a fantastic experience.
In Bolivia, we had 11 days together & it was amazing. But as the time moved forward & we grew together it started to feel awkward to me. We spent hours on buses, talking & sharing our lives & stories.
“There’s only so far you can go with that while at the same time avoiding sharing anything that is fundamental to who you are”
It’s not something you want to blurt out on day 1. However, there’s only so far you can go with a friendship if you’re not willing to share personal details.
I opted for the “happy” medium. I told some of the group when it seemed appropriate and left others none the wiser. Then we became Facebook friends & of course I mention Terry quite a lot. I got a message from one of my fellow travellers sending her sympathy & the fact that she had no idea. She sent love & I felt like I had some way betrayed the friendship by not sharing. Had I also missed out on making a deeper connection which would benefit both of us?
Praying for Gossip
My next step was a 21-day tour of Peru. This was too long to hold back, I had to face my fears & do it early enough so it didn’t become a burden. The good news is that I don’t actually recall these conversations as well. For me, that means I was starting to feel more comfortable with spreading the word. What I did realise is that there is a tipping point. I pray for people to gossip about me. That way I don’t need to have THAT conversation with as many. However, others don’t like to talk about your personal business behind you back. I respect that.
You Are Not Alone
Here, I hope I have been able to communicate in some minor way my journey & challenges. I believe that I have survived these last years by following my passion for travel. In addition, I sincerely hope that nobody reading this has been through any similar experiences but I also recognise that it’s highly possible. If you have, my heart goes out to you. This blog is for you.
However, I felt it was also important to write. I know many women my age are going through major life changes. You may be contemplating travel or facing any social engagements with the same trepidation I felt and still feel today. So this is for all those amazing women who are splitting from their partners & going it alone for the first time, for those who are seeing their beautiful children becoming adults & leaving home, for those who have always wanted to travel solo but feel anxiety about taking the plunge. I wish you all the luck in the world & sit here as a testament to the fact that no matter how daunting it may seem, you can follow your dreams. Make the most of your family & friends but maybe also find your smile in the company of strangers.
What Have I Learnt?
- The destination is a small part of the beauty of travel. The richness of the experience comes from the adventures you have & the people you share these with. By not sharing your whole self, you may never discover how deep the connection could go.
- If you don’t want to talk about yourself, spend more time with young people!
- As you get older, everyone has a story to tell & we all have our own stuff to deal with. Talking about it brings you closer & makes connections where they may not exist before, in the most unlikely places. Embrace this.
- Be kind to yourself, life is hard enough. I’ve learnt to stop beating myself up about things & not to second guess how I will make people feel. Overwhelmingly, when I have shared, I have had richer connections as a result.
- People care more about having sympathy for your tragic circumstances than for you making their conversation slightly uncomfortable. It’s their choice whether to stay in or get out.
- Strangers can be a source of comfort. Sharing can make them friends. Some of them will be with you for a long time in the future & these relationships are richer because of the experiences & stories you have shared.
- Above all, follow your passions. I truly believe that’s what has helped me to survive & allowed me to smile again and actually mean it.
If you would like to read more about my experience then you can see my other blog Adventures, Mishaps & Tragedy. You can also see me explain my reasons behind Sue Where? Why? What? in my Introduction Video.
What do you think?
How has travel changed you or helped you to heal?
What have you done to overcome the challenges of solo travel?
Where have your defining travel moments happened?
To see more of my photos from my travels please visit my Gallery page!