Lonely? A New Perspective On Time Alone

I was working with a Grief Coaching client the other day, and she said that while she was doing okay in general, and feeling that her life was mostly in order after the loss of her husband over 2 years ago, there was one feeling she just couldn’t shake: how lonely she continued to feel each day. 

LonelyLoneliness is an epidemic in our country and is more pervasive and perhaps even more impactful than any physical virus. Why? Because for most grievers, feeling lonely can often bring with it feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. Meaning each day that a person finds themselves in a lonely state they will feel even more powerless to change it.

To some degree, it makes sense. If we’re lonely after the loss of a spouse and we either haven’t been able or don’t intend to find another partner to share space with, we’ll continue to feel lonely forever. If we’ve lost a beloved parent, especially one we cared for or even lived with, we’ll never be able to feel anything but the loneliness of the void they left.

Right?

Let’s take a minute to break down some of the language and understand that being alone and feeling lonely are not the same thing. They absolutely can go together, and for someone who has lost someone they shared living space with, feeling lonely is almost 100% guaranteed to be experienced at some point while grieving.

But are we forever sentenced to be a victim of our circumstances? Or can we be alone, without feeling lonely?

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Unconditional Love, Unconditional Grief

“It would seem that there are no bad marriages in a grief group.” That’s what one griever said to me after attending her first bereavement group following the loss of her spouse.  “I know I didn’t talk much, but I was having a hard time relating to what everyone was saying. I miss my husband, and I am feeling very lost without him. But listening to everyone else’s grief made me feel like the only one who didn’t have a picture-perfect marriage”.Grief

I asked her to stick with the group, to give it another try. First impressions are important, but it could have been the group was feeling particularly sad that day and choosing to highlight the good times they shared with their spouse.

This widow did come back and soon became very comfortable with the group. But her words stuck with me throughout the years and I couldn’t help but notice what she had pointed out- the tendency in grief to put our lost loved ones and our relationships on a pedestal.

So why do we do this, and could this “best of” version make the grief more pronounced?

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Avoiding Grief: Why It Doesn’t Work

No one wants to be sad. In fact, we spend a good part of our life in the general pursuit of happiness, doing anything we can to avoid sadness, heartache, discomfort and pain. That is, until someone we love dies. And suddenly, not only does happiness feel so far out of reach, we may find ourselves actively (if not always consciously) avoiding grief.

Avoiding Grief

The thing is, it’s not just about losing someone we love. This was someone we counted on. This was the one who helped us make decisions, or who supported us no matter what we did. This was someone who knew us like no one else, and who loved us anyway. Someone who was such a part of our daily life, that when their life ended, our life feels like it ended too.

So who would want to think about that? With so much lost and so much sadness, isn’t avoiding grief, or at least trying desperately to push down or push away the overwhelming emotions, the only thing that would make sense?

Of course there is the other end of the spectrum – those people who feel a prisoner to the grieving thoughts. Who would welcome some avoidance, or even just a short respite from the grief, if only they knew how.

Somewhere between avoidance and floundering there could be a place that allows a griever to sit with their grief without being totally and completely swept away by it.

But before we get to that, let’s look at some of the ways people may be avoiding grief and why it doesn’t work:

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Loneliness: 5 “Don’ts” If You’re Lonely After Loss

Loneliness

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.

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Delayed Grief: When Grief Gets Worse

Delayed grief

Delayed grief…some grievers may wonder why they’re starting to experience their grief more intensely when it’s been several years since their loss. Rather than feeling they are getting “better”, they may find that they are crying more, withdrawing from friends and family, and perhaps feeling even less accepting of what’s happened.

How can this be? With more time to process, more time to experience life without a loved one, and more time to re-learn what this new life looks like…why would it suddenly feel like it’s harder to cope? And is it normal?

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Sudden Loss: 5 Ways it Differs from Expected Loss

There’s never a good time or good way to lose someone we love, but if we experience the sudden loss of a loved one…is it harder?

Sudden Loss
I shy away from this type of debate in the groups that I run. While validating a griever’s loss is one of the most important things a group can offer, a challenge of who is having it harder – or who is hurting more because of the way they lost their loved one – is not.
There are a lot of grief articles out there that discuss the difficulties of caregiving or losing a loved one to long term illness like cancer, and while this writing will not answer the question of what’s harder it will ask…is it different? And the answer is: absolutely.

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5 Things NOT to Say to Someone Who is Grieving

 

Only 5 you may be thinking? Because if you ask anyone who has recently lost a loved one, what are five things they’ve heard that have been unhelpful, misguided or just downright hurtful you’d find they could probably give you a hundred. 

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Here are 5 things NOT to say to someone who is grieving:

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Coping with the Loss of a Parent

Loss of a parentAfter the loss of a parent, especially one who may have lived to a more advanced age, there often follows predictable attempts at comfort: “He lived a good life” or “It’s the natural order of things” or, “You were lucky to have him for so long”.

I was guilty of this. In my early days of making phone calls as a bereavement coordinator, I’ll admit to creating expectations of how the griever on the other end of the phone would respond, based on the age of the person they lost. I’ll never forget calling the daughter of a woman who had just lost her mom on Hospice. Mom had been 101 at the time of her passing. 101! Meaning the daughter had to be in her 70’s or 80’s. This was a “child” who had very possibly lost her father, friends and peers, or even her own spouse. Perhaps she had her own health issues that were serious enough to have her concerned about her own life and mortality. Surely this woman, of all the calls I would make that day, would be the person who would say, “we’re doing okay. Mom was 101, we’re just glad we had her so long”.

But, boy, was I wrong. What I expected to be a quick call turned into a long call, that lead to a visit, which lead to this woman coming to our groups to  talk about the very painful loss of her mom. “It sounds crazy, but she lived such a long time I just assumed she’d be around forever” she told me that day. And I quickly realized that at her own “advanced” age of 79, this daughter was going to need to relearn her life and what it was going to be like to not have her mother in it.

So never again. Never again have I made an assumption about how a person should respond when a loved one has died, and never again would I assume that any part of grief or loss can be easy.

I’ve facilitated a group for those facing the loss of a parent (or both parents) for several years. And one thing I find that most every person who attends has in common?

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