Living With Loneliness
The James Reid Funeral Home
Bereavement Support Program
Monday, September 10th, 2018, 7 pm
This is the first of our season of Public Information Evenings. If this is your first time being here, welcome. Each month we will address a particular aspect of the grief process. Many of our topics include the several emotions of grief, since these are what people struggle with the most after a loved one has died—the difficult feelings which they go through
As we mention every single time we meet, there is no timetable for your grief. You will not “get over it” as though it is an illness. Grief is a normal reaction to the death of someone we loved. Though you may feel physically ill after a loved one has died, grief is not an illness or a psychiatric disorder. Grief feels differently to every person. And there are no set stages you have to go through in order to finish grieving. The experience of loss will always remain, but your grief reactions will change over time. You will learn to adjust to a new kind of reality, one without your loved one in it. Your grief will ebb and flow—one day you may feel a quiet peace, and the next your emotions will wash over you like the waves of the ocean. So, be patient and kind with yourself, the way you would be with a good friend who is going through a similar loss.
In my six months of being a Bereavement Support Provider, the # 1 feeling I hear most often from the people I speak with, is Loneliness. No matter what the loss, if you were close to the person, you will most likely experience a great deal of loneliness. We hear about the loneliness of the widow or widower most often, but you will feel loneliness whether the person who died was your parent, your child, your best friend, your sibling, or your grandparent or grandchild. If you felt close to this person during their lifetime, you will probably struggle with some degree of loneliness.
By a show of hands, how many of you have felt some degree of loneliness since your loved one died?
Loneliness is part of the human condition. Because we are relational beings, we will feel lonely at some point in our lives. And it doesn’t just strike us at the time of a death.
I felt unbearable loneliness when my husband of 19 years suddenly and unexpectedly left me and our four children, and subsequently divorced me, a divorce that I vehemently opposed. First there was the shock of his leaving, then numbness, then I was left with an overwhelming sense of loneliness which lasted a long time, for which I had to receive counseling. My mother had lived with us for several years before this happened, so she was a great source of comfort and strength to my children and me. One by one, my four children grew up and left the nest, leaving my mother and I. That was a new kind of loneliness, even though these losses were expected and a natural part of life.
Then, a few years after the kids had each left home, my dear mother, who was my closest friend and had been a co-parent to my children, died very suddenly while at home with me. Loneliness has been a frequent guest in my home, as you can see, and yet I have never been widowed.
Loneliness after the death of a loved one, or a divorce, or some other parting, is the price we pay for being human and for loving someone deeply.
The Encyclopedia of Mental Health of 1998, defined loneliness as, “the subjective psychological discomfort people experience when their network of social relationships is significantly deficient in either quality or quantity”.
Notice that the definition says nothing about the state of being alone, rather it is a subjective or highly personal feeling when a person feels unfulfilled by their relationships, either in the quality or quantity of them.
Have you ever felt really lonely, even in the midst of a crowded room, or being surrounded by friends or family? Would anyone care to share a time when you have felt that way? Perhaps at a holiday gathering, or at the time of visitation or reception after the memorial service of your loved one?
So whether you have 100 great friends and family members, if you long for that one person you don’t have, you are liable to feel lonely, even when surrounded by other people who love you.
The stark reality of grief is that after the funeral or memorial gathering, after the first few weeks after your loss, the people closest to you have to return home and to their own lives, families, and jobs. And you feel bereft all over again. This experience of loneliness can feel like a physical pain.
Can you describe what loneliness felt like for you? How does it affect you? Were there physical symptoms? Did it change in intensity or feeling as time went on?
You may have intense feelings of loneliness, even if you were not the intimate partner to the deceased. When we are close to that person, we have a shared history and shared memories. You may have shared secret jokes with them, enjoyed going to concerts or the theatre with them, spent your life with them, and now they are gone. In some ways, it feels like you are missing a part of yourself.
If you have lost an intimate partner, does it feel similar to this? How is it different from other losses (the empty bed; the daily companionship; feeling like part of you died too; feeling incomplete without them).
You may feel like no one else can ever fill this loneliness. And, in a sense, no one can. No one else “gets you” the way that person did. No one knows you as intimately. No one shared your story the way that person did.
Though you may at times, or all the time, feel very much alone in your grief, it may be of some comfort to know that everyone goes through deep feelings of loneliness and longing when someone they loved has died. It is a very normal experience and probably the most difficult of all the feelings you are going through.
The loneliness of grief is not easily solved. You can never fill the void your loved one has left. It takes time and effort to learn to live with the loneliness you will feel. Most of all, it requires acceptance. To accept what simply is and cannot be changed. Time to learn how to BE without this person in your life and time to learn and to love who you are now.
How did you cope with loneliness in the weeks and months after your loved one died? What was helpful, and what was not helpful?
- Staying up late to avoid going to bed alone, falling asleep on the couch
- Eating out, in front of the TV, or not at all, to avoid that empty place at the table?
- Burying yourself in work
- Wrapping yourself up in a favourite piece of clothing or blanket of your loved one’s
- Drinking excessively.
- Entering into a new relationship
- Isolating yourself by avoiding going to social events
Loneliness is a terrible feeling. However, don’t mistake loneliness for merely being alone. What is the difference for you in being lonely or just being alone?
I can be alone and yet not be lonely. In fact, being alone can be very healing and restorative. Our culture teaches us that being alone is to be avoided at all costs, that it is a sign that you are deficient in some way. If you are alone after the death of your loved one, is that sometimes actually a good thing for you?
Being alone during times of grief can be a time of expressing your emotions fully and without reservation, to be able to cry loudly or to express anger in ways that would be socially unacceptable to do in public. It can be a time of self reflection about who you are without that other person, learning how to be comfortable in your own skin, comfortable with your emotions, and increase your independence. Being alone can be a time of reading about grief, spiritual reading, prayer or meditation. Have you enjoyed times being alone or do you avoid them?
It is normal in the early stages of grief to impose a kind of social isolation for a few weeks or months. Did you feel the need to self-isolate after you lost your loved one? What did that look like for you?
- Screening phone calls, not returning them
- Not answering the door?
- Declining social invitations
- Not wanting to go to a large party/Christmas gathering, etc.
- The feeling that you don’t fit in now
Other people may isolate from you. What are the reasons for this?
- They feel uncomfortable with your grief and don’t know what to say
- Everyone else is in couples/families and they don’t know how to include you now
- They don’t want to include you because you are sad, may cry etc.
- They think you should be “getting over it and moving on”
- They don’t know how to help you
Though some degree of self-isolation is normal and can be self-protective, isolation which continues for a long time can become an actual health risk, as new research on loneliness tells us, so it is important to pay attention to how much you are isolating yourself from others and for how long.
Every person’s experience of loneliness is unique. For some, the loneliness never really goes away, they just learn how to cope with it in time. For others, the feelings of intense loneliness come and go, and in time, they become less. Others may become “stuck” in loneliness, and isolating themselves becomes the way they cope with it. They cut themselves off from people they cared about and those who cared about them. Most people, when you do not reply to their calls or invitations, will eventually stop calling and inviting you. This, over time, is dangerous, and can cause health problems such as clinical depression and even heart problems.
Yet no one can tell you when the correct amount of time is after a death, for you to “come out” and “be yourself” again. The correct time is when YOU feel ready to face the world again without your loved one. However, if you feel that you have become unable to engage with people again, or that you are suffering with depression, it may be time to seek help from a professional. Talk to your doctor about your concerns.
After the break, we will discuss ways of living with loneliness and how to reach out and begin to engage with the world again.