Travelling Through Grief & Overcoming Social Awkwardness

Travelling Through Grief & Overcoming Social Awkwardness

“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!”

Where?

Canada, Hawaii, Australia, Bolivia, Peru & Beyond

Why?

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.


So, after sharing a lot about my travels & the result of my “situation”, I now feel ready to talk about how I have used travel as a way to grieve because I think that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.

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?

Finding Distractions

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?

My Gallery

To see more of my photos from my travels please visit my Gallery page!

Travelling Through Grief & Overcoming Social Awkwardness. The challenge of travelling solo as a woman while healing from tragedy. How did I use my passion for travel to create distractions & help me grieve? Overcoming the fear of social interactions while on the road.

24 Comments

  1. Hi Sue,
    I’ve experienced loss from choosing to leave the cult I grew up in at 18 years of age. Everyone I was close to stopped contacting me or ostracized me as I chose to move away from the secular Christian group. I experienced great loss when I broke up with 2 different men I was in a serious relationship with for 4 years each. One in which we were engaged.
    Grief has been dealt with only now, especially since becoming sober. Your experiences and questions trigger the past so I will answer them below:
    How has travel changed you or helped you to heal?
    Travel is life. 🙂 Travel never fails to widen my perspective, bringing insights and understanding of myself and others’ situations. It’s helped me heal every time I step away from my regular routine, from going on a new mountain path, to visiting neighboring towns, to exploring incredible sights in dusty corners of the globe. I’ve joked that most neuroses are left behind when I’m far from home. Travel brings a sense of freedom and being in the moment, observing life, and facing new challenges that empower and educate. Of course, there are mishaps, but they too can be gems.
    Travel heals. Recently, I’ve been more house-bound with health issues. I still travel with my heart and mind.

    What have you done to overcome the challenges of solo travel?
    I’ve learned to smile more and strike up conversations in unlikely places — at the market with the old farmer lady, at the shop with the attentive clerk, with the cab driver, etc.
    There are challenges with sticking to a schedule and budgeting… but those will be overcome with more practice. I like to pretty much go with the flow.

    Where have your defining travel moments happened?
    When I was very alone in India, I realized I wasn’t.
    When I walk through forests, I realize a connection to other living things. Coming from a hard cynic, it’s a pretty odd thing to feel.
    There is sincerity and honesty, good intention no matter where you are.
    Amidst the ugly, chaotic and forgotten areas in the world and societies, there is also great beauty and serenity.

    (I’m not sure if there was a reply to my last comment. Let me know if there’s an email I should save in my contacts list so I can get an email reply. OR, you know where else to find me.)

    1. Allyria, Wow – what an amazing & beautifully written response, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions & you have inspired me. I send love for everything you have been through in life, you are a strong woman to have challenged yourself in all these ways to change your path. I admire that hugely. I love your answers to these questions & I couldn’t agree more with all the observations you have made. Connecting with people especially for me is the joy of travel when you have seemingly nothing in common & don’t even speak the same language but can share a smile or a joke is a magical experience. Thank you so much again for such a thoughtful response. Safe travels & I hope you can get back on your feet & on the road again soon. Love Sue xx

  2. Hi. I love your story. It’s very inspirational. One thing though. Unfortunately there are people in their twenties with a story to tell. I lost the Love of my life in an accident and I am 25. Honestly, I think many of us in our twenties are just too self obsessed to bother with other people’s stories 😂😂😂

    1. Annemijn, Thank you for getting in touch & I am so sorry for your loss – that’s just a tragic story & way too young. I send love to you. And I do agree with your comments. I love spending time with people in their twenties & find the women especially inspiring for their decision to travel. I have met plenty who are going alone for the first time. The fact that I did it as a (self-obsessed;)) 22 year old doesn’t change the fact that anyone taking this leap is to be admired. I have met plenty of people your age who have had life experience & have learnt a lot from them along the way! I wish you safe travels & thank you again for putting me right. I stand corrected 😉 Sue xx

  3. Wow Sue what a magnificent and healing blog. I can imagine this must have been quite cathartic for you to have had the courage to write this. We often have conversations about ‘life after’ either one of us dies and we are both determined to carry on travelling. Although of course that is merely a conversation – the reality may be very different. Thank you for sharing your heart-felt emotions and the journey you have been on since Terry’s passing. I hope that travel continues to help you heal and I am sure that he continues to travel with you in spirit. Kx

    1. Karen, What beautiful words & thank you so much for your comments. Having taken the decision to write this post, it was cathartic & worth all the self-questioning when I hear it has touched others like this. Safe travels & sending lots of love. Sue x

  4. Glad to read the fullness of this post–sadness, confidence, creating your life anew. Very inspiring. My mother was on a similar journey when I father died of a heart attack at age 61 just before their 30th anniversary. She created a life through travel and it didn’t erase the loss, but enabled her to grow and do new things. She had 20 years of travel between 60-80 years old. This post was an important way for all of us to get to know you.

    1. Sue, Thank you so much for your comment. I read your blog post about your mother & her travels & found it a truly inspirational story. Thank you for sharing with us all – shows that it doesn’t matter what your age, it’s all about your attitude & there is always a way if you’re determined enough. I have so much admiration for women like your mother. I wish you safe travels. Sue x

  5. My heart breaks for your loss, but admire your attitude. “When everything changes, change everything” is a great mantra. And you know I’m already a huge fan of your “Life List.” <3

  6. A wonderful story of inspiration, courage, and a positive outlook on life beyond what hand is dealt us. I too used travel to deal with grief and would highly recommend this to anyone who is going through a similar experience. Thanks Sue for your heartfelt writings.

    1. Thank you, Ruth, for your lovely comment & for taking the time to get in touch. I am sorry to hear about your loss but interested that you have turned to travel too as a way of dealing with your circumstances. I wish you safe travels & sending lots of love. Sue x

  7. You are, quite frankly, one of the strongest women I’ve ever come across. A beautifully written post and a heart-felt story. I am in awe. I too started to travel due to family tragedy- funny how death suddenly makes you want to grab life and shake it up. However, even on my blog, I rarely mention the tragedy, opting instead to keep it light. Perhaps that’s a mistake?? Keep on inspiring others and thank you for sharing.

    1. Kat, What an amazing thing to say! Thank you. I’m sorry to hear about your loss & agree that it can make you realise that life is too short to procrastinate on what you would like to do with it / wish you had done. It’s interesting to hear that your tragedy also inspired you to travel. It’s always good to connect with people who have similar stories. I made a conscious decision to share as I think thought it may help to explain a little how I am able to do this & create a new life. I also believe that people can look from the outside & see a very glamorous life & that is rarely the reality. For me, it comes from a place of deep pain & sacrifice. It’s not something I would wish on anyone. Thank you again for your kind words & I can encourage you to share your story as it can be cathartic & seems to really allow connection in a way that my travel stories don’t quite achieve. Safe travels & sending love, Sue x

  8. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your story and the lessons you’ve gained from traveling solo after a traumatic loss. I’m glad you’ve found comfort and regained your confidence through travel and conversations with others. Some of the discussions with strangers have stayed with me longer than those I’ve had with family or friends. Sometimes the right people come along when we least expect it.

    1. Brooke, Thank you so much for these lovely words. I couldn’t agree more with your thoughts about conversations with strangers. Sometimes they can have quite a profound effect that family & friends can’t. I believe in fate too & things seem to happen & people come along when you need them most. Sending love, Sue x

  9. What would we do without travel (and blogging)? I’m so glad that you could find yourself and your confidence again through your travels and writing about it. I think it takes even more courage to put those thoughts in your blog. Well done! May you have many more happy travels.

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