Just Do It: Widows Who Have Travelled Solo After Loss

Featured image: Sandra Hemmink in Egypt

A widow follows her intuition into a life of solo travel

By Amanda Burgess, Editor, JourneyWoman

Diving back into a life of travel after you’ve lost a partner or loved one to death or divorce can feel daunting. Your world has shrunken, and you feel adrift on the ocean of your grief. Going off into the Great Unknown on your own or at all seems…too much…too soon. It’s too big and too scary. You don’t want to be alone, even while travelling. Even if you loved it before. You’ve learned how scary and overwhelming alone can be. 

It takes guts and grit to allow the joy of travel to coexist with the pain of your grief – no matter where in your healing journey you find yourself. This is something I’ve experienced first-hand, as I lost my husband to pancreatic cancer in July 2018. While it didn’t take me long to begin travelling again, it wasn’t until January 2020 that I drummed up the courage to set out on a solo adventure in Bali, Australia, and New Zealand – and learned how travel promotes healing. Through the JourneyWoman community of the wise, experienced and well-travelled, I discovered other women like me, and have told a handful of their stories

Each time we address this topic, it resonates deeply with women travellers who have experienced loss. This month, I sat down with a different crop of JourneyWomen to glean when they began travelling solo again, what it took, what they learned, and how it helped them heal. 

“Solo travel can be so cathartic and revealing about oneself – there is more time to be self-reflective. We all have this amazing strength, and once we tap into it, the sky is the limit”
-Sandra Hammink.

A family of three standing for a portrait

Sandra with her husband and son

Reigniting the solo travel spark: Sandra’s Story

Before setting off on a solo journey after her husband passed away, Canadian Sandra Hammink had only travelled solo once – to Hawaii when she was 25. When she was young, she wanted to see and do it all. “Unfortunately, life got in the way, and I never followed through on that sentiment until after my husband died. That is when I decided life is too short and pursued my life-long dreams,” she says. 

It took her six months after her husband’s death to take the plunge. Her husband had loved his work, and she’d had to push him to take any vacations at all. The aftermath of his death was completely overwhelming. “I went back to work two weeks after he passed thinking that would abate the sorrow, but the wave of grief and confusion was so overwhelming,” she says. “I felt the need to escape from it all – otherwise it would consume me.”

After some time, Hammink went to her travel agent and requested the earliest flight to a tropical country. That country was Cuba. It had been a spontaneous and impulsive decision, and once she landed in Cuba, all she could think was: Now what? That’s sometimes what the first journeys following loss are marked by – a sense of confusion and helplessness. They tend to go by in a blur, but they are an important rite of passage for the grieving, and they help pave the way for the trips that truly change us.

“It didn’t stop me though. I was determined to follow through on my dreams of travel.  A year and a half later I booked a seven-week trip to Italy. I rented a car thinking I would drive all around Italy,” says Hammink. “Once I picked up my car, I headed out to the highway and froze at one of the traffic circles. With horns honking behind me, I sat there thinking: WTF were you thinking to do such a crazy thing?’”

Here she was, driving on an Italian highway with a tiny map in her hand and no real clue how to get to her accommodations. Since she didn’t speak Italian, she couldn’t read the road signs. Tears of frustration threatened to fall. That moment was the turning point.

Young woman looking at golden pagoda. Hiking at Asia.

Grief Journeys – Travel After Loss

Grief and loss are part of the human experience. Indeed, it’s something the world is feeling collectively right now, gripped as we are by a pandemic. Our stories have one common thread: We all found healing in travel.

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“I said to myself: You either trust your intuition and have faith that you will reach your destination or die at the side of the road crying! I eventually managed to find my lodgings, and that was the start of a journey that challenged my fears, highlighted my strengths and set me free from thinking I needed to depend on others to move forward with my life,” she says. “I learned that I was going to be okay on my own. Yes, it would be hard, sad, and maybe even overwhelming at times, but it was never going to be dull.”

Hammink urges all women travellers who have experienced loss to tap into their intuition, as it helps us to access our strengths and confidence.

“Solo travel can be so cathartic and revealing about oneself – there is more time to be self-reflective. We all have this amazing strength, and once we tap into it, the sky is the limit,” says Sandra Hammink. “I think when you trust in your intuition and strengths, you fortify your confidence and from there, achieving all your life desires is possible. To bravely challenge yourself to go out there, on your own, inevitably opens your heart to the amazing person that you are.

Her first trip to Cuba had been an act of desperation, but it had reignited the fire that had smouldered within her to travel since she was a little girl. Her experiences in Cuba and Italy sparked a deep love of solo travel and marked the start of a new life of growth and exploration.

“I realized because I had lost one of the most precious things in my life, I had nothing to lose. Subsequent trips taught me how strong, self-sufficient and independent I am – and let me tell you, those are such great gifts to receive,” she says.” The most gratifying thing I learned to love about travelling solo is the freedom it gave me to come and go as I pleased.  Equally gratifying was the opportunity it gave me to meet so many people and make life-long friendships. Something that, had I not been travelling alone, I would not necessarily have experienced.” 

Do you have an inspiring Travel After Loss story? Share it with us!

Blarney Castle and round tower, home to the Blarney Stone in Ireland

Next in the series: 

Travel After Loss: Getting back into the solo travel saddle: Denise’s Story

Vancouverite Denise Clarke married her American husband Tom on Canada Day in 2006. They eloped to Vegas. He owned a company in Oregon, and she commuted to and from her job on Vancouver Island. In 2013, while working in Canada, Clarke realized that she hadn’t heard from her husband in two days – and it was discovered that he’d passed away unexpectedly at home.

Read More

Amanda Burgess, a Toronto-based writer and creative strategist whose bags are always packed for her next adventure, is our Editor at JourneyWoman. She is a member of the Society of American Travel Writers (SATW), and a Certified Cancer Journey Coach who creates a safe space for cancer patients and caregivers to design their dream lives – while living with cancer, and on the other side of it.

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We always strive to use real photos from our own adventures, provided by the guest writer or from our personal travels. However, in some cases, due to photo quality, we must use stock photography. If you have any questions about the photography please let us know.

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