In a lot of social conversations happening right now, people are frequently using the word isolated. They are saying they feel more isolated than ever before. As I listen, I empathize. I feel into it. I put myself more into their shoes. And there are many times when I do that I feel very sad. However, if I name the sadness I feel, I notice the conversation begin to shift.
I find that when a feeling is named or owned, it provides a safe space for others to speak to something deeper inside them. They open up to their feelings more, naming their own experience once they know it’s safe to, and that they will be supported rather can criticized or condoned.
In this special experience, I’m finding more people speak to their loneliness instead of isolation. They mention how things are so quiet in their homes, or when they talk to loved ones, it feels as if no one is listening. They long for a sense of closeness- something that is provided only by a special someone who completely understands them.
I often wish their situations were different and that their loneliness were replaced with joy and connection but, their circumstances beyond my control, I let those thoughts pass so I can be more present to the person in pain and more present to the moment. What sometimes feels like I’m not doing enough surprisingly gets reflected back to me as tremendous support and people feeling safe enough to be their authentic selves. It arises a sense of bewilderment every time this happens but it also warms my heart and I feel truly honored to support someone in a space of deeper emotional sharing.
My wife and I talk a lot about emotions. I would argue too much. She would argue not enough. The other day she told me about the book she’s audibling and how it has a lot of well researched information about loneliness and its relationship to grief. I asked her if I could read her hard copy (don’t ask me why she has both a book and an audible download) and she said yes. At the time of publishing this writing, I’m half way through Together by Vivek Murthy, MD. I’m really enjoying this book. It validates a lot of my personal philosophy and experience in supporting people in grief. Things like people not feeling loved, not feeling cared about, and being unable to find groups of people who share common interests, pursuits, and values within the larger community.
One of the things that really stood out from my reading is the downward spiral when people already feel lonely. Dr. Murthy writes:
“We hide our true feelings even from those who may try to connect with us. Shame and fear thus conspire to turn loneliness into a self-perpetuating condition, triggering self-doubt, which in turn lowers self-esteem and discourages us from reaching out for help. Over time, this vicious cycle may convince us we don’t matter to anyone and that we’re unworthy of love, driving us ever inward and away from the very relationships we need most.
This emotional spiral also contributes to the stigma that surrounds loneliness. Because people tend to hide and deny their loneliness, others who might help — including friends family, and doctors — shy away from probing what seems like a sensitive emotional issue. Then the risk of self-destructive behaviors increases. Many people use drugs, alcohol, food, and sex to numb the emotional pain of loneliness.”
I don’t know about you but when I read something like that, I hold my breath. Reading something like that sounds scary. It can also be perceived as a trap. “If you’re lonely, you’re doomed,” is a common thought that comes to mind.
But fortunately there is a way to ease loneliness. Having healthy social connections and feeling cared about helps. It reduces lonely feelings and helps us feel more seen, heard, known, and understood.
I think that’s where loneliness is a bit more challenging to people in grief. Losing a loved one can make a person feel very lonely. The sense of closeness is instantly taken away. All of a sudden, there’s a void- that came about way too fast- and it makes absolutely no sense. In trying to understand it all, some of the things family or friends will say or do can feel hurtful despite their best of intentions.
Grief and loneliness create a need for the world to slow down; allowing for empathy, love and compassion to fill the space and help the Healing process. But the world doesn’t stop for our grieving. Hence, it becomes easier to feel isolated, which further elicits the feeling of loneliness.
In a recent grief support group, someone asked “Is it normal to feel completely alone?” The overwhelming answer was yes from other members. However, as the Facilitator, I didn’t focus on providing a direct answer. I drew awareness to more of the authenticity and realness of where the question was being asked from. I could tell the participant was speaking from her heart and it felt very empty. As I observed other responses, I took notice of the group collective. Everyone felt deeply alone. Even in times of being surrounded by many people, it’s very common to feel misunderstood and not be seen for what’s really happening to you.
We all know how special it is to have someone who completely understands us. To further quote Dr. Murthy:
“We all have a deep and abiding need to be seen for who we are — as fully dimensional, complex, and vulnerable human beings. We all need to know that we matter and that we are loved. These are the deep-seated needs that secure relationships satisfy, and when they are met, we tend to live healthier, more productive and more rewarding lives. When they go unmet, we suffer.”
We all have those special people in our lives that help us feel whole or complete. They mean everything to us. When they pass, the longing for them continues. This causes pain. This is also when many of us reach out for professional help or make a lifestyle change. Some people work with a counselor. Some people join a bereavement support group. Some start a new hobby, activity, or project.
These are healthy coping strategies that help us feel more supported. It sometimes fills a void when we need to feel more known, seen, and loved.
As I share this article about grief and loneliness, I keep thinking of a widow I’ve supported for a few years. Shortly after her loss, she would tell me how lonely she felt and how some friends would say things that would deeply upset her. She didn’t have the immediate support she needed. And she has later acknowledged that she wasn’t quite sure of what she would have needed in those earlier times of grief.
I remember our early conversations; she would tell me the hardest times were at night when everything seemed to be “dead silent”. When her husband was still alive, they had nightly Netflix parties. They would watch a program, discuss the drama, make jokes about some of the characters, and share predictions about what would happen in future episodes. Evenings were a joyous time for them. The energy was playful and the bond between them was strong.
But all of that connection disappeared when her husband passed. And for quite a while, she would speak about how lonely her evenings felt.
Even today, four years later, loneliness is still something she encounters. Although it’s to a lesser degree. It’s also something she’s more familiar with. She has made lifestyle changes and has more pets to care for, which all helps. She appreciates the unconditional love from her pets and thanks them for not judging her. She even hugs them when no other person is around.
As she has grieved and invested energy into reconciling her loss, I reached out to her for advice to others who feel lonely in their grief. Here’s some of her thoughts:
#1 Have someone to talk to that has been through the same experience. Not just a friend with a listening ear. It really helps when you feel understood.
#2 Never allow anyone else to run your grief. Do it on your own time and in your own way. Because of that, sometimes you may have to walk away from other people.
#3 Know that you won’t always feel the same way. As time goes on, you may still miss your loved one, but the grief changes to make it more manageable.
#4 Be kind to yourself. If there is something you would do as a treat when you are feeling good, do it as a treat when you are feeling sad.
#5 Find an environment with a lot of negative ions. Being outdoors can help you feel less suffocated and like your world isn’t crushing you. The negative ions help you to feel like there are more possibilities for your future.
If loneliness and grief are causing pain in your life, please trust that there are people and resources available to help support you. A lot of bereavement support groups are now available online. My suggestion is to find one where the group members have experienced a similar loss to yours. For example, a widow support group or loss of a child group.
Also, know that I’m here to help. My work is about listening with compassion and empathy. I facilitate online bereavement support groups. If I can be of service to you, please reach out to me through my website griefrefuge.com.