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.
Loneliness 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.
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?
We do not choose loss, and when it comes to the death of someone we shared a home with, the intense loneliness of living alone is a huge adjustment.
In the beginning we’re likely to feel like victims because, let’s face it, we are- to the sadness and cruelty of life and to a world where we don’t get to live and die together with the people we love most…
But with time, can there be a shift?
With my Grief Coaching client she was lamenting about feeling lonely all the time, but as we brainstormed some ideas of things that would help she admitted, “you know I’m really not much of a social person, I never have been”.
So we continued to talk about expectations in loss and how when so much has changed, we may believe that the only cure for loneliness will be if we make very big changes too. Become a joiner, spend time with lots of people, put yourself out there, try something new…perhaps someone has even suggested this to you.
When feeling lonely and trying to move forward in grief we need to start by assessing and understanding what it is we truly want, and even more importantly: what we don’t want.
When it comes to socializing, we all have different comfort levels, and it’s important to recognize who you were, and how you socialized, before this loss.
Did you like being surrounded by people? Were you an extrovert? Separate from your partnership, did you have a lot of friends, were you a joiner, did you like being on committees and clubs?
Or did you like quieter, solitary activities that didn’t typically involve others? Would you label yourself more of an introvert?
This isn’t exactly a case of trying to go back or recapture “the old me” but instead to recognize that while so much changes after loss, our comfort zones usually don’t. And returning to some old habits or routines is usually a much easier transition for a griever (at least initially) than trying to become a wholly new person or starting something entirely new.
For the extrovert: try returning to an activity you once enjoyed. If you’ve moved away from a club, organization or even a group of friends, see if you can make your way back. If location or circumstances make that an unrealistic option, then see what other opportunities exist where you are and for who you are now. Get involved with a cause or a non-profit, maybe something that’s perhaps related to your loved one’s loss.
And for the introvert? That’s where the real work begins. Because let’s face it, if we didn’t feel comfortable in certain situations before, we’re not real likely to be starting now – as an older person, more set in our ways, with limited emotional and physical energy to try new things following a significant loss.
For my Grief Coaching client, getting involved wasn’t the answer for her. Certainly not right now, and maybe not ever since as she said, it had never been her thing. Yet she was finding herself at home, feeling chronically sad and lonely. She didn’t want to be alone, but she didn’t want to have to go and meet a lot of new people and the conflicting feelings were causing even more stress.
I suggested an exercise in perspective.
“Every time you are home alone and feeling bad and unhappy about being there, I want you to do something,” I said to her. “Picture a split screen in your mind of where you are and where you could be. On one side is you at home alone. The other is you out in a crowd, or part of a new group, or in a situation where you’re trying to meet new people and make new friends. And for each, you need to really tap into all the thoughts and feelings and sensations that would accompany each scenario”.
She didn’t have to think long before she said, “I think I’m more comfortable at home”.
Being alone doesn’t have to mean feeling lonely, especially if we’ve taken some time and done the grief work to adjust to loss. We’ll always miss the person we shared a home with, always wish they were there. But as we try to adapt to our circumstances, working to find comfort while alone can be the single greatest thing we can do to ensure a lifetime of peace, contentment and healing.
Is this to say we avoid society all together? Of course not. This isn’t about isolating ourselves but instead understanding better who we were, who we are, and where our comfort zone is. It could be as simple as asking yourself and recognizing, if I was never a group person or a joiner before, why would I necessarily find comfort in that now? Can it be about embracing who we REALLY are (and maybe always have been) instead?
Perhaps at some point, through the process of healing we do choose to step outside of that comfort zone. But for now, for the person who feels lonely but knows being with people isn’t the answer – look at alone time in a different way. As a respite, a sanctuary, a retreat. From a world that looks very different without your loved one with it, and a place that can feel overwhelming and stressful at times.
We would never choose to lose a loved one, but taking ownership of alone time as a choice, for who you are and where you are in the present, can replace feelings of being a victim with strength and empowerment instead.
Being comfortable anywhere after loss can seem almost impossible. Besides the challenges of adjusting to a life without our loved one in it, the people who ARE around us may just not understand our loss and all that goes with it.
Helping grievers who are feeling lonely is the #1 reason www.griefincommon.com was created.
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Get help, find support, ease the loneliness. We’re here to help.