The 5 Stages of Grief (as originally established by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross) may be one of the most widely sited tools of grief- it’s also one of the more misunderstood and questioned. These days, experts in the field of grief and loss hesitate to offer anything that resembles a timeline for fear that it creates unrealistic expectations for how a griever “should” cope. And with good reason. Grief is too individual and too different from one person to the next. Yet, as the stages of grief suggest, there are commonalities found amongst grievers and if I were to add one final stage, I would add loneliness to the list.
Because even if “acceptance” is reached at some point, there is a lingering and long lasting side effect of loss…loneliness. It’s the “okay, what now?”. It’s the empty and bottomless ache. It’s the feeling when the sadness feels well-worn and exhausted, and the well of tears has run dry. It’s the point where the grief takes on a new form.
As a facilitator of bereavement groups I’ve been in the unique position of seeing people as they shape-shift through their grief. One time a month, for several months in a row, can be just enough to create an almost time-lapsed photography of loss…where it seems the the changes are occurring both quickly and slowly at the same time.
So many grievers come into their first meeting feeling lost, hopeless, sharing with those in the circle, “I don’t think I’m going to be able to make it through this”. And as the time goes by and they return each month they demonstrate to themselves and those around them that somehow (and often they don’t even know how) they’ve made it through.
Eventually for these grievers it seems a plateau is reached where one can expect that they are not going to get much worse or much better. What’s strange about this point in time, this plateau, is that there feels like there’s so few resources left to deal with it.
After a certain amount of time has passed since the loss of a loved one, what is there left to say that hasn’t been said? When there is “acceptance” and the reality of what can’t be changed sets in, what is there left to do with the loneliness that remains?
Perhaps it’s the very acute and tangible loneliness a person experiences coming home to the empty house they used to share with a spouse. Or maybe it’s the parent who lost a child, feeling forever lonely around other parents, and forever left out of the things they won’t get to share with their child who should still be here. It could be the griever who lost the parent, the one person who gave them unconditional love, who will never feel the fulfillment and wholeness the relationship with their parent gave them.
In helping the population of grievers we serve, my colleague and I have often tried to offer programs and education on a variety of topics related to grief. Coping at the holidays, how to deal with residual anger and guilt…and for some time we talked about how much the grievers we met needed the topic of loneliness to be addressed.
So we sat down one day, notebooks in hand, ready to create a presentation on loneliness when we realized – what would we say? What could we have to offer? And for the first time in both of our careers we had to admit, we had nothing. Because how do you “cure” loneliness? Can you bring a person into a conference room for a few hours and make it all better for when they go home to that empty house?
We didn’t have faith in ourselves or in our shared wisdom, and we found that even as grief professionals with almost 40 years of counseling between us, we too had been defeated by loneliness.
But here’s what I’ve learned since then – if you can’t figure out what you should do, or you can’t offer any guidance on what steps that could help or heal…maybe you need to figure out what not to do instead.
When I was younger, there would be times when I would complain to my Mom, “I’m bored”… to which she would reply, “why don’t you empty the dishwasher?”.
Well, obviously doing a chore was about the last thing I had in mind to cure my boredom. I may not have known what I wanted to do, but I sure as heck knew what I didn’t want to do. And in this same vein I think the attempts that people make to cure the loneliness they feel after loss can be just as ineffective.
So with that in mind, here are some ideas of what NOT to do if you are struggling with loneliness following a loss:
1. Don’t confuse companionship with completeness – Those who have lost a spouse may have been fortunate enough to experience the feeling of having found their “better half”. While a wonderful feeling in marriage, this creates a terrible void in loss. Searching for a new half or looking to plug in just about anyone that even remotely fits can be like trying to maneuver an 18 wheeler into a compact car parking space. It will never ever fit, no matter how hard you try. A relationship following loss can be a very healthy and positive step, as long as one recognizes that a new person can never replace or stand in for someone who is gone. Nor should this new person feel the responsibility to. Spending time with the right person (and by “right” I mean the right person for who you are now and what you need now) can be a wonderful thing. Know that you are different now that this loss has occurred. The person you attract, the person who will be the best fit for you at this stage in your life may be nothing like the person you lost. And remember, spending time with someone new doesn’t always have to be romantic. Don’t start a relationship with the end in mind. And don’t avoid a relationship for the fear of commitment it could imply. Instead, recognize that companionship can be simply finding someone with similar interests to go out to meals and activities with and that it never has to progress past that point if you don’t want it to.
2. Don’t overdo being busy – Busy is good….to a point. I’ve witnessed how being busy can help after a loss. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve called to check on who say, “I’m doing okay, I’m keeping busy”, as if the two absolutely and always go together. Of course they don’t. Because I have also encountered the son who was working 16 hour days just to avoid having to think about his mom or to go back to the empty home where he had cared for her. Like everything, moderation is the key. Busy can be good. It can mean getting up and out and dressed. It can mean exercise and fresh air. It can mean a dose of healthy distraction. It can be a way to pass the time, which sometimes we all need. Just as long as it includes time for rest, time for reflection, and time to actually learn what it feels like to be home alone, and how to create a new routine and activity once there.
3. Acknowledge what’s been lost, but don’t live in a place of “what if”s, or “if only”s – Easier said than done, I know. This speaks to the loneliness I mentioned before. The yearning for the future that never happened. The attention we give to the empty spot where our loved one should be sitting. It’s natural and “normal” for our grief to take us to these places, but as the years pass we can begin to rebuild if we choose not to live in “what if”s. We will continue to feel lonely and separated from the rest of the world if we are always checking off the list of what “they” have and what we don’t. This is tough…I know it happens unconsciously and it’s not a case of asking a griever to deny the loss or feeling. Instead it’s the balance of feeling the pain arise, acknowledging it, but not allowing it to alienate us from those around us.
4. Don’t spend time with those who will bring you down – In loneliness there can be such an urgency and desperation to fill the empty time and spaces that we may find ourselves clinging to just about anyone. Too often, these can be people who aren’t good for us. The people who are also lonely. Maybe because of loss, but more often their loneliness comes from behavior that has extricated them from healthy relationships. People who drink too much, or help too little, who are negative or bitter, who seem only to want to bring others down with them. Unfortunately these people are out there, and a vulnerable griever can provide just the misery this type of company loves. Bottom line, being alone is better than being with the wrong people. At any point in life, but especially in grief, we should avoid spending time with those who don’t further our growth. Even in our lowest, darkest and loneliest of times we have choices. As you’re getting to know yourself better and who you are after loss, use this time to define better who you want to be now, and who deserves to be in your life.
5. Don’t be afraid to try something new – I think as we get older it becomes harder to do things outside of our comfort zone. And since grief seems to add at least a few decades to how most grievers feel, it can be especially difficult to have the energy to put ourselves out there after loss. So remember, this isn’t in the early days, weeks or months. It may not even be the first few years. But eventually if you find that grief becomes the cement shoes that keep you from moving forward, it may be time to try and break free. Start small. Think of something that will have a positive impact not only for you but for your community as well. Being motivated by the feeling of giving back can be what gets some grievers moving again after loss. Find a cause that you are interested in. Know that like-minded people will be found here and helping those less fortunate can be the best way to get out of our own head. And it doesn’t have to only be charity work. Maybe there’s a class you wanted to take or a club you’ve wanted to join. Know that it really doesn’t hurt to try, and the only thing you stand to lose is some of the loneliness you have been carrying for so long.
More than anything know this: you are not alone in your loneliness. In some way or another we are all searching for those who will understand us, who can help fill some of the void and emptiness we feel. But the true work of grief comes in filling that lonely space from the inside out.
It is the lonely group of grievers who have reached their plateau that may need the most help. While www.griefincommon.com was created to serve an entire population of grievers, it is this “what now?” and “what’s next?” group who may benefit long term. Because these are the people who may be ready to make the connections and to find the right people to spend time with. I have seen truly beautiful friendships develop in the circle of grief support and I hope you too can find that here..