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Why I Travel – How Losing My Mum Made Me Who I Am

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Why I Travel - How Losing My Mum Made Me Who I Am

An old, personal post about losing my mum as a teenager, how that experience shaped me, and how travel has helped me deal with grief.

This post was first published in May 2016. I’ve left it unchanged since then, but the sentiment remains as true today as it did when I first wrote it.

This is a post that I’ve been trying to write for a few weeks now, but every time I start I get cold feet or decide against it. Several times, I’ve written the entire thing out, then changed my mind and deleted it.

Because on the one hand, this is an incredibly personal story, a very private part of my life that I’m reluctant to share with anybody, let alone with strangers on the internet. But on the other, it’s something that people should know about me, because it has everything to do with who I am as a person and why I travel.

Ten years ago this month, I lost my mum to cancer. That statement already sounds selfish, because there are six of us, and we lost our mum to cancer. It was a collective loss, something that bound us at the same time as it drifted us apart.

This week I read a beautiful article by Ruth Margalit in The New Yorker (in part the inspiration for this renewed attempt at my own post) calling us the unmothered rather than motherless. “I had a mother, and now I don’t. This is not a characteristic one can affix, like being paperless or odourless. The emphasis should be on absence.”

We are unmothered, my siblings and I, and growing up that way makes you somehow different to other people. It’s not just the grief or the mourning, or the fact that certain dates and events are slightly tainted. The loss changes you almost physically, in a way I don’t think anybody who still has their parents can understand. It comes to define you. Externally, I define myself as a travel blogger, or a girl who loves to travel. Internally, I think of myself first and foremost as a girl without a mother.

Why I Travel

I am a girl without a mother. That thought still, a decade on, seems unbelievable. There are moments, even now, when I forget that she is dead, and think about calling her. Think of something I want to tell her. They say time heals, but that’s not true exactly. Time only made the pain more manageable, more forgettable. It’s something that I can put away inside of me, but I still carry it with me wherever I go. That pain is a part of me, and a part of who I am.

And that’s why I can’t stop travelling.

Since long before I can remember, I’ve daydreamed about adventure. More than daydreams; I fantasised obsessively, even as a very young child. Escape for me was as simple as closing my eyes or looking out of a window, and for years – especially when my mum got sick – I spent more time living in a fantasy world than in reality. It was when I discovered travel that I lost that lack, that sense of disconnect from reality. For the first time, I was living in a world where I didn’t need to escape.

Travel is the new escape. It’s a way for me to shirk responsibilities and hide from what I think of as the “real world”, the world of mortgages and marriages that my more grown-up friends occupy. Losing my mum when I was eighteen forced me to grow up fast, to learn how to deal with the huge and incomprehensible human condition of loss. But it’s also kept me in a suspended state of childhood. I feel torn between this Peter Pan side of myself, the one that never wants to grow up, that wants to keep on travelling and – let’s face it – playing and having fun forever, and the side of me that craves normalcy, stability. I envy all of my friends their solid, more permanent existences, while I feel myself drifting listlessly from adventure to adventure, always craving something intangibly other, something new, but at the same time wishing something would anchor me to a fixed point.

Why I Travel - How Losing My Mum Made Me Who I Am
Me in Istria, Croatia

The pain of loss that I carried with me in the years since my mum’s death turned me into a person I hated. An uptight, anxious, miserable person. Travelling moved me through that grief and turned me into a person I love. I’m more relaxed when I travel, I’m braver, I find it so much easier to meet and talk to new people. So I feel as though I can’t stop, because what if I never figure out how to be that version of myself in “the real world”?

The person I discovered on my first backpacking trip was more reckless than my real self. I’ve often said that travel makes me braver, but that’s not really it. It’s because since my mum died, I’ve never really been able to deny myself anything. Sometimes to my own detriment, because it makes me more selfish, fatter, poorer, and lazier than I maybe could or should be. If I want a second slice of cake, I have it. If I want to run away to Asia and burn every last penny of my savings, I do it. If I want to do a bungee jump – no matter how scared I am – I do it. I don’t worry about consequences, I don’t worry about gaining weight or about future heart problems or what I’ll do when I run out of money. If there’s something I want, I let myself have it. Because life is just too fucking short.

My mum was healthy. She was careful. She didn’t smoke, she rarely drank, she didn’t eat too badly, she walked a lot. She had six children who she loved. We weren’t wealthy, and she went without a lot of things she wanted. She was fearful and timid – like me – and because of that she went without a lot of things, too; although I’m not sure she noticed. She loved us, and she was happy, and we had the best of childhoods. But looking back I can see all the things that she went without in her life, and that causes me more pain than I can say.

Life is too short to waste it being careful. To spend it worrying about what other people think of you. To waste it on hating your body or doing favours for people you don’t like. And it’s definitely too short to let fear hold you back. So I travel when perhaps I should be doing something more sensible with my life. I take risks. I do stupid things and I eat too much, sometimes I drink too much, but no matter what I make sure I’m having fun.

Mount Batur Sunrise Trek Review

Why am I writing this post? These sentiments are nothing new, and I’m far from the first person to share them. We are reminded every day by everything from movies to inspirational Facebook memes that life is short and we should make the most of it. Perhaps I’m just seeking attention or trying to feel special. Perhaps I just want everyone to know what I went through, because the worst part of an old loss like this one is that no one else knows. Grief doesn’t leave its scars externally, and unless I choose to share them no one else can know just how many I carry. Or the special kind of strength it takes for me to not only keep going everyday, but to keep on being just as happy as I am.

Losing my mum is a huge part of who I am, and who I’ve become since. It’s made me stronger and more determined towards happiness than many people I know, but also lost, wayward. It’s the reason I travel, the reason I’m continually running away, or running towards something. It’s made me selfish and self-indulgent, unwilling to waste my life. These aren’t necessarily good or bad traits, they’re just traits. They are part of who I am. And, for some complex, shifting reason I could never articulate, I wanted to share that side of me with you.

Remember: life is fleeting and precious. Don’t let it go to waste.

30 thoughts on “Why I Travel – How Losing My Mum Made Me Who I Am”

  1. AndysWorldJourneys

    wonderful post – thanks for sharing all that! Sorry for your loss, looking forward to hearing about your challenge.

  2. Thank you for sharing this truly brave and honest post. Look forward to hearing more about your upcoming challenge.

    1. Thank you Naomi :) I don’t think of myself as inspiring at all – I’m sure I should be the opposite! But if I could pass on one lesson from my experience it’s that it’s so so important to keep on having fun and finding the joy in life. There’s nothing to be gained from letting sadness beat you :) x

  3. Despite my deepest condolences for your loss, I am very inspired and can relate to your article. I am sending lots of love and know that there will be many countries I finally had the courage to visit with the push this article gave me.

    1. Wow, Catriona. Thank you so much! I’m a little overwhelmed to hear that I’ve inspired you – but I’m very glad for it. If I could share one lesson with people it’s how important it is not to let fear dictate your life. For the longest time fear has held me back from a lot of things, from going places I wanted to or trying things, to silly things like telling a boy I liked him or asking a question I wanted to ask. No more, though – I am determined not to let life slip away from me :) I’m so glad to hear that you feel the same!

  4. Elizabeth @ Rosalilium

    Thank you so much for sharing your story Emily. Wish I could give you a big hug right now. Have donated! So good luck with the challenge.

    1. Thank you so much Elizabeth! I’ve just seen your donation, you are amazing. Thank you a million :) Stay tuned to see how I get on in August – already slightly starting to wish that I hadn’t signed myself up for this. But it will be FUN I’m sure. And worth it if I can hit my target :)

  5. This is a great post Emily. Keep living your life to the full and making amazing memories. Your mum was a wonderful person and I thank you all for the great memories I have spending with your family when I was a child, had some fun times :) xx

    1. Thank you so much Emma! Thanks for taking the time out to read this and comment – it really means a lot. We had a lot of great memories when we were kids didn’t we?! I miss my mum every day but I’m so grateful for the childhood she gave me :) Hope you’re well xx

  6. Hi Emily thank you so much for sharing this with everybody. I lost my father to cancer last year and my mum 13 years ago. I’m a girl without parents and it sucks big time. It is precisely why I travel. I feel blessed to have my passion to travel – it helped me stay sane all these years. But it also helped me to put things into perspective — i feel I’m a very blessed human being — and i don’t think I would realise this if it weren’t for my lessons learnt during my travels. All the best Emily — i’m sure your mum would be incredibly proud of you!

    1. Hi Tess. Thank you so much for commenting. I’m so sorry to hear about your losses, that’s so horrible. Sending all kinds of love your way.

      You’re right, travel does help put things into perspective massively. I’m reminded every day how lucky I was to have the kind of childhood I did, with such an amazing mum, and I feel like I was blessed to have her in my life for 18 years – even though I wish it was much more. Travel also definitely helped me stay sane. Or it gave me back my sanity. I feel more like myself this year than I have done in years. Which is part of what writing this post was about – sort of marking the end of ten years of grief.

      Best wishes Tess. Thanks again for reading my post and taking the time to comment :)

  7. Thanks so much for making this post! I can relate so much with you and it’s great to know I’m not the only one. Sometimes I’ve wondered if it’s wrong to have this ‘Peter Pan side’, indulging self by traveling and gaining intangible experiences when I could adult-up and do what others my age are doing. It’s like I’m just endlessly searching for something in life that I don’t even know what it is and can’t make others understand. Staying single and traveling around the world sounds more tempting to me in my twenties than settling down and have kids like my friends do.

    I can’t imagine what it must be like to lose a mother at such a young age but it must be a very difficult time and I’m really sorry that you had to experience it. For me, it started when there was a time in my life I was so depressed I felt there wasn’t much point in living and I wouldn’t care if I die tomorrow. I was in a toxic environment and I don’t know how to get out or stop those thoughts. But I know I needed to do something, and so I created something for myself to look forward to – planning trips to foreign countries every time I get a chance to. Ever since, I’ve never looked back. As you have put it, ‘Traveling turned me into a person I love’, that’s why I can’t stop traveling. I felt like if I stop, I would go back to how I was before traveling, miserable and spiteful to people around me. Really, life is too short, and if I die tomorrow, I don’t want to feel like there are things that I wished I had done when I have the chance to.

    1. Thank you so much for commenting Millestelle :) I know what you mean about endlessly searching, and I’ve spent hours doubting myself and wondering if I’m somehow in the wrong. But there’s just no need to fit yourself in to anything that you think is expected of you. I think it’s important to live life exactly as you want to and make yourself happy. And if that’s travel then we should just go on and keep doing it.

      Travelling is definitely a great help for depression, too. Looking back at how I was when I lived in London before I started travelling (way back in 2014!!!), I can see that I had some very real issues that I wasn’t dealing with. I was stressed all the time and unhappy, and I’d have terrible, black days where I felt miserable and depressed for no apparent reason. I was very anxious and would get afraid about stupid things like going out with friends. At the time I just accepted it, “this is the way I am since mum died”. Now I see that I CAN change it, because it was my situation making me unhappy, not some inherent unhappiness. I feel as though travelling set me free in many ways. So I’ll keep going as long as I want to :)

  8. Brought tears to my eyes Em. Wish i’d learnt as much about myself from my loss as you have. Beautiful post. xXx

    1. Thanks Sammi. I still can’t believe it’s been ten years. As you know I’d give everything to reverse it all and have her back – but was trying to focus on the positives in life I guess. There are lots, remember that :) xxx

  9. A bold post. I like it, and I liked it! Thank you for sharing.

    I lost someone very close to me, very suddenly, last year. Someone described grief to me as an enormous boulder blocking your way. Too big to climb over and too wide to go around. Little by little, you chip away at the boulder. Eventually you make it small enough that you can get round it and over it so that you can move forward. Little by little it gets smaller still, until it is just the size of a pebble that fits in your pocket. It never goes away completely but its small enough that it fits in your pocket so you can carry it around more easily. Sometimes you feel it in there and sometimes you don’t but you carry the pebble around with you always. It is just becomes part of who you are. I think sharing is just part of chipping some more little bits off your pebble.

    I am a big fan of escapism. I am very fortunate, to have a job that lets me escape (now with my boulder) and travel, then every few weeks dip a toe back in real life and engage with ‘normal’ people. Just enough to remind myself that I am happy with my own version of normal.

    It’s either that or I am addicted to airports. I haven’t quite figured that out fully yet?

    Enjoy your travels but don’t give up on the possibility of being a grown up, one day!


    1. Hi Stu. Thank you so much for commenting and for such lovely words. I’m very close to tears reading this.

      I think your analogy is spot on. After ten years, I’m fortunate to say that my grief is finally something I can carry easily. But as you said, it’s always with me and it’s completely a part of me.

      I’m so sorry to hear about your loss. As someone who has been through the same I can honestly say it will get better. Keep on escaping if that’s what works for you :)

      Thanks for commenting, and for sharing your own story.


  10. Anne Slater-Brooks

    Emily its nine years (ten years in December) since I lost my mum and everything you say resonates. It’s a pain like nothing I’ve experienced where it physically hurt every atom of my body, where life was a desperate struggle and frankly the love and support of my husband is what saved me from my own torture. Losing a mum is like losing a wheel off your car or a part of your foundation and I agree, time doesn’t heal. You just figure out a new way to live. Keep travelling and being selfish because in the end, that’s probably what your mum would have wanted for you. Xx

    1. Hi Anne. Thank you so much for sharing your story, and for your lovely advice. You’re exactly right – my mum would have wanted me to do my own thing and be happy. Although I suspect she’d be completely baffled by what makes me happy – ie perpetually travelling – and that she’d be constantly checking in / facebook stalking me to make sure I was still alive!

      You are completely right. After a loss as big as this you have to figure out a completely new way to live. I feel like I’ve had to figure out a completely person to be, too. It really does change who you are, how you see the world, and how you live your life.

      Sharing this post has been a huge step for me. It’s like part of the cleansing process – finally being able to talk about it after ten years, and also being able to let people know without feeling uncomfortable.

      Thanks again for commenting – it really means so much to me xxx

  11. I lost my mum to cancer on the 31st May this year. Whilst I’m still learning how to live in this world without the person who gave me life, I do know one thing: I am determined to live the width of my life now, not just the length of it. Because, as you say, life is too fucking short and my mum withheld her light that for so much of her life. I’m going to shine the qualities she gave me as brightly as possible and show the world she’s stil here – in me. Xx

    1. Hi Claire. I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s such a terrible thing to go through and I know exactly how you must be feeling.

      I love your outlook though – such a truly lovely sentiment. She made you the way you are so yes, by being the best version of yourself you are celebrating your mum in every possible way. I am sure she would be so so proud of you.

      Stu has left a lovely comment above that you should take a look at, too. His analogy is spot on – and soon I hope your grief will become more of a manageable size as well.

      Sending you a ton of good thoughts and virtual hugs. xxx

  12. Emily, this is such a beautifully honest and powerful piece of writing. It’s been almost eight years since I lost my mum, and that length of time still doesn’t feel right – nothing about it does, really. I’m always amazed by how many fellow travellers and bloggers have lost parents at a young age and how much it’s affected their outlook on life, but I’ve never thought about my own desire & need to travel as being a suspended state of childhood. It really rings true though! Thanks for giving another perspective to the healing process and it’s fantastic to see your positivity shining through :) xx

    1. Thank you Flora :) I think losing a parent really has a lot to do with leaving you feeling disconnected and struggling to “grow up”. All the people I know who have been through something similar at around the age I did seem to suffer with the same thing. It’s like, you’ve been forced to deal with something so huge and difficult at an early age, and that makes you grow up in a lot of ways – so then you resist it later on down the line. Something like that anyway. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment Flora :) xxx

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