Travel Self-Discovery – My Journey from Lost to Found
Updated on December 19th, 2022
Have you ever felt lost, like you don’t know who you are anymore? Ever been at a crossroads in your life and not sure which path to take next? Or had that realisation that life is short and it’s time to start living it differently? This is exactly how I felt after losing my husband eight years ago. Here I share my journey of travel self-discovery and how it helped me to heal, grieve and find a way back to myself again.”
Anywhere that feeds your soul
Next month marks eight years since I lost my husband, Terry and I’ve been reflecting on my journey since. There’s a lot to process when you lose your partner, the person you expected to spend the rest of your life with. Of course, there is the crippling feeling of grief and loss. The constant questions to the universe “Why me? Why him?” There is anger. There is pain. There is desperate loneliness.
But for me, there was also a feeling that I’d lost myself. I was at a crossroads in life. I had been part of a couple for almost 20 years. I had no idea who I was now I was on my own again. But there was also this feeling that I had to make the most of being here. I no longer felt comfortable in the life I knew. The more familiar something was, the more alien it now felt as there was always part of me that was missing.
Terry was just 53 when he passed away. I lost my Mum when she was 57. At the time I was in my mid-40s and so all this had an impact. On top of all the grief, I had to make every day count.
I was lucky to be here.
So, I turned to my passion for travel.
I stood as a lost woman at a crossroads in my life in search of the path ahead. I had no idea what the next chapter would look like. I wasn’t even sure I was interested in knowing.”
This is the story of how I got to this point and how I used travel to grieve, heal and find myself again.
So… deep breath. Here we go…
Travel Self-Discovery – My Journey from Lost to Found
The world is calling
I had never really traveled beyond the French campsite that was the destination for our family’s annual two-week holiday. My parents weren’t travellers. We never had a lot of money and France was very exotic in comparison to our previous locations, the Isle of Wight, Devon, and Wales.
But when I went to university, I felt like the world was calling to me. I worked two jobs to save enough money for my first big adventure. I had no idea where I wanted to go but somehow ended up on a three-month overland trip around Central and Eastern Africa.
This was a source of some amazing adventures. I met the Maasai in Kenya, the friendliest people in Uganda, and got attacked by lions in Tanzania (yes that really happened and you can read all about it HERE). I sat with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, got manhandled by chimpanzees in Burundi, and learned to snorkel in Lake Malawi. And then I explored the Okavango Delta in Botswana, white water rafted on the Zambezi in Zambia, and saw the mighty Victoria Falls from every angle in Zimbabwe.
It was an epic adventure and I came back wanting to see so much more of the world.
Falling in love with solo travel
After getting a “proper job”, I worked hard to gather enough money to then leave again. This time it was for 18 months and I embarked on a solo trip around Europe before heading to Australia, New Zealand, and Indonesia. I was in no way a loner and had never really spent any time on my own before. It wasn’t my plan to go alone, but none of my friends were available to join me. I was determined that it wouldn’t stop me. Little did I know this would be the start of my love affair with solo travel.
By the time I returned, I had grown in so many ways.
There is something about solo travel that nurtures your self-belief. I had got myself into situations (and plenty of them) and I had got myself out of them again. If that doesn’t give you confidence in your own abilities, I don’t know what would.”
I had found myself. Travel was in my life. I had plans to settle down only until I had enough money to go again.
And then I met the love of my life.
Terry and I were together for 18 very happy years. He was my best friend, my rock, my partner in crime, and my ever-faithful travelling companion. He was the person I always looked forward to spending time with. The one I laughed hardest with. The one I walked everywhere holding hands with. Life was a lot of fun.
And then it wasn’t anymore.
We heard the news that Terry would need open heart surgery. He had suffered an aortic aneurysm a few years before we met. Back then he had been given a small chance of survival and had to beg them not to amputate one of his legs. They thankfully lamented, leaving him with both legs, a stent in his aorta, a big dose of gratitude, and a huge desire to make the most of every day.
And that’s why I fell in love with him. Things were never dull. He lived every day like it was his last and I loved being along for the ride.
But then his last day came knocking.
The words nobody wants to hear
As he was wheeled off to surgery, I told him I loved him. I knew it would be a long road to recovery, but I also knew he’d be back. He was a fighter. He’d proved that last time.
So, I went about keeping myself busy while I waited for the message to say it was all over and they had taken him to intensive care.
And I waited.
And I waited.
And then, finally, I got the call. But it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. It had been a tough operation with a few surprises along the way. They would need another couple of hours to put him back together again. His sister came to join me in vigil at the hospital as we waited again for more news.
I felt numb. I had a sense of foreboding but an innate feeling that everything would be ok. After all, it was Terry. He had survived all this before. He had a lust for life and a fighting spirit like nobody I had ever met.”
Over the next few hours, the news kept coming and it kept getting worse. They were losing him, but it just wasn’t sinking in for us. Then came the words that nobody ever wants to hear.
“There is nothing more we can do.”
I had lost him. It was time for me to say goodbye.
How on earth do you gather yourself to say goodbye to the man you love?
I told him how amazing he was and what an incredible life we’d had. I told him how grateful I was to him. I told him how much I loved him.
And then they told me he had gone.
It was around 2am on 17th December.
I got home and pulled all Terry’s clothes out of the laundry bin. I just wanted to be close to him again. I can’t remember how much or even if I cried. But I did sleep. And then I woke up and remembered what had happened. I took a sharp intake of breath, yelping like a pained animal. And then repeated the cycle.
Sleep. Wake. Realise the horror that had just happened. Wail in pain. Cry. Repeat.”
Bearer of bad news
The next morning, I found myself more alone than ever before, but I had a job to do. Terry had written a list of all the people I needed to phone to tell them that the operation had been a success, and all was OK. So, I had to call them. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the message.
I was in a daze. As I moved down through the list, telling everyone I was on my own, but I was OK, a few friends just put down the phone after saying the perfect words “I’m on my way”.
I will never be more grateful for anything.
The first few days
My friends made a rota and were on constant vigil, never leaving my side. They were there to tell me when to eat, when to shower, when to sleep. Then after a week, my sister and family arrived from Australia and took over the reins of my care.
The world had stopped spinning. Overnight my life was unrecognisable. Everything that I expected in my future had suddenly disappeared.”
How do you even start to process what had just happened? My body took over and there are a lot of those first few weeks that I have no memory of. I was taking each day at a time. What the future held for me was irrelevant. I had no desire to find out, or if I was even interested in having one.
Back to work?
Workwise I was lucky. I had been a very loyal employee for nearly 20 years and had gained a lot of respect throughout the organisation. Everything that seemed so important before just felt so irrelevant to me now. I decided that I never wanted it to be important again. I applied to take a year’s sabbatical and they accepted. This gave me some breathing space to come to terms with what had just happened.
Want to come skiing?
It was then that one of my friends floated an idea. She had a skiing trip booked in Whistler, Canada which she had been planning on taking alone. She had a hotel booked and I was welcome to join her. I hadn’t skied for 20 years. But it happened to coincide with the day my family was reluctantly heading home to Australia (they couldn’t stay forever). It meant I could delay the inevitable moment when I had to be at home on my own. I said yes.
So, I went skiing in Canada. It was one of the best things I could do. The physical concentration required to stay on my skis was an escape. A release from all the other parts of my life I was trying to process at the time.
Where to next?
And that was the start of many invitations as friends and family harnessed my love of travel to help me through that first year. On my next trip in search of orangutans in Borneo, I got a call to say that the job I had been doing was no longer required. I was being offered redundancy.
I bit their hands off to accept.
It was on a boat heading down the Kinabatangan River that I reached my first realisation. I was at a crossroads in life and I had a choice of which way to go. I believed that the right path was not to go back to what I knew. I just had no idea where the next road would lead me. This started me off with a new mantra:
“When everything changes, change everything.”
Home (not so) sweet home
Home was no longer my sanctuary. It was a place where I had to be between invites to go elsewhere. Memories lurked in every corner. All of them were happy but that just made the loneliness even more deafening.
So, I continued to say yes to every opportunity to leave home. This was nights out as well as trips away. I think I surprised friends with how upbeat I was when we went out. However, this was my chance to pretend to myself that life was normal. It was when I returned home that the stark reality hit.
I felt a huge loss, but I also started to feel lost. I was in my mid 40’s and for the last 20 years had been part of a couple. It felt like I had lost myself. I had no idea who I even was anymore.
As that first year came to an end, I reached another realisation. Eventually, the invites would dry up. Eventually, everyone would go back to their lives and I would no longer be a priority for them. I heard that people start to lose sympathy after a year. I guess that comes with the belief that time heals and you eventually get over it.
But you never get over it. You learn to live with it. You grow around it. You become a new person because of it. But you NEVER get over it.”
I realised I needed to take control of my life again. I knew travel was my passion and up to this point had been my saviour. I started by writing out my Life List. It was basically a Bucket List but “things to do before you kick the bucket” was too close to home for me. I wanted a list to bring me back to life again. It became my roadmap for the next few years.
And it took me on a journey of travel self-discovery. Through travel, I was able to reconnect with myself again. To find out who I was 20 years on from when it had given me myself the first time. Travelling gave me time to breathe, to grieve, to heal, and finally to find my smile again.
I started this blog initially to inspire others who found themselves alone later in life to travel with the hope that they will take a journey of travel self-discovery too.
I have now visited almost 80 countries, across 6 continents and have first-hand experience of the restorative power of travel. It has helped me to find myself…twice. I believe it can do the same for you.”
What about you?
Whether you have also experienced the loss of a loved one or are coming out of a long-term relationship. If you are facing an “empty nest” for the first time in years, have experienced health challenges, or the rebirth that comes with recovery. Maybe you have just woken up feeling that somewhere along the way you have lost yourself too.
There are endless routes you can take to the point where you are at a crossroads in your life. Where you are unsure where you want life to go next. Maybe you are standing on the edge of that next chapter but not sure which direction you want it to take you.
It’s not about how much time or money you have. It’s not about how young or old you are. It’s not about how strong or weak you perceive yourself to be, either physically, emotionally, or mentally.
If you need time to refocus on yourself before making decisions on what to do next. If you want a similar travel self-discovery experience but don’t know where to start. If you need space to rediscover who you are and what you want now.
Whatever has brought you to this point. I believe I can help you.”
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You brought tears to my eyes, Sue! Such a poignant yet inspirational article. There is nothing worse than sitting, waiting at a hospital and waiting … except when the news is not what you expected. I sat for days in the hospital with my son and fortunately my news was far better. I am glad that you could pick yourself up, be a solo traveler AND be an inspiration for others. Well done! Keep at it.
Thank you Alma for your lovely words. I am sorry to hear that you went through that agonizing wait at the hospital too but very glad it turned out differently for you. Take care x
What a deeply personal and powerful story. I’m so glad you had such a great support system and one that really gave you the opportunity to start thinking of travel as a way of healing after what I can only imagine to have been the most difficult thing in your life to happen. I’m inspired by your story, by your experiences and by your love of travel. Wishing you many more incredible adventures
Thank you Emma for your very kind words. Travel has certainly been a real mechanism for healing for me & honoured that you find my story inspirational.
What a beautiful post. Thank you for being so vulnerable with us. You’ve done so much growing in a short time. You have much to be proud of and for becoming the wonderful person you are.
Thank you, Heather, that bought a tear to my eye. I really appreciate your kind words. x
Thanks for sharing your story Sue. And showing that we can move on when the time is right. I definitely felt that life was too short when I had far too many people in my life die at a very young age. I understand that losing people so young really makes you wonder. My mom died at 57 and when I passed that milestone I sighed a huge sigh of relief. By the time we lost the 4th person young, we seriously changed our life and travel was a large part of what we started to do for long periods. We had always liked to travel but we embraced it fully.
Thank you Linda & sorry to hear about your loss too but I couldn’t agree more. I lost my Mum at 57 as well & Terry was only 53 (my age now). It made me think very differently about life, especially when I turned 50 (pandemic allowing). It is interesting that you have taken action too & made travel a real catalyst for change. Thanks for sharing. x
This was such a vulnerable article and so touching to read. I can’t imagine the pain you must have gone through… I truly can’t imagine how I would feel in your shoes. I am so glad you found travel as a way to heal and bring happiness and joy into your life after the tragedy of losing a loved one. Keep on being an inspiration to all those with a similar story!
Thank you Brittany for your kind words & encouragement, and for taking the time to read my story. Much appreciated. x
What a lovely post. I agree that travel is healing. It has always been my reset button to help me keep life in perspective.
Thank you Kristin & I agree – travel has a way of keeping our perspectives in check. x
Thank you for sharing your personal story Sue. I can’t imagine the hard time you gave gone through … This vulnerable article really has moved me to tears. You’re so strong and such an inspiration!!!
Thank you Lina for your lovely words. Much appreciated x
When my other half went into the emergency room, I started planning what I would do if he didn’t survive. I kept planning, through the two days it took to get him sorted out and back on his feet. I have to look forward, have to have some options there just in case. He survived, I count my blessings, but it does mean those travel plans are mostly on hold again. I don’t doubt that, whatever my level of planning, I will have some of the problems you have ploughed through. Well done for coming through it, I’m sure it helps others to know how someone else has survived through it.
Happy travels for the future!
Thank you, Annie. I’m sorry that you went through something similar with your partner but very pleased to hear that he made it through. It certainly throws life into perspective when you have to start planning a future without them. It changes you too. I hope you get to fulfill those plans someday…without the pain of losing someone to catapult you into it. x
So powerful. Sometimes our lowest lows bring us to the realization of how strong we really are. And open us up to new possibilities. I love your story, your strength, and your honesty. Great read and thank you for sharing.
Thank you very much Laureen for your kind words as always. And unfortunately, sometimes you have to go through this stuff to realise how strong you are. Take care x
Thank you for sharing Sue. By being vulnerable you touch others in ways you might not even realize. We all bond together in a sense of loss. We’ve all experienced it, just in different forms. Those heartbreaking life experiences shape who we are- how we show up, how we spend our time and what we prioritize. It also helps us create that personal resiliency, and the importance of bouncing back. We won’t be the same, but we need to bounce back. Keep sharing your story.
Thank you so much Renee for your lovely words & insights. It’s always good to hear that by sharing things that are so personal it helps others in some way.