ONE OF THE ASPECTS of grief we don’t often talk about is the great sense of loneliness that can descend upon you, even when you are surrounded by supportive people. No one seems to understand what you are going through, or their responses seem inappropriate or cold. You begin to doubt yourself, feeling that you don’t know who you are anymore without that person or purpose in your life. You look around, seeing how much everyone else has — the love and purpose and connection that you will never have again — that they take for granted. And it makes you want to scream at everyone to pay attention and be grateful for what they have because they could lose it any day.
What is loneliness? The dictionary defines loneliness as “sadness because one has no friends or company,” but this definition is woefully incomplete. Rather, loneliness is a complex emotion in response to a subjective sense of emotional isolation. So, though we tend to associate loneliness with being physically alone, the truth is that loneliness can be felt at all times, and is not dependent upon the number of people we interact with.
Loneliness depends on the quality of your relationships and how emotionally connected you feel with those around you. If you feel disconnected or misunderstood or emotionally unfulfilled by your relationships, it will seem as though you are on an emotional island.
Complicating things, loneliness is often paired with depression, distorting your perception of relationships and causing you to devalue them. So, if you’re feeling lonely, you will tend to disconnect, withdraw from, and push away the very people who care about you and who could emotionally support you if you let them.
Extended and chronic loneliness can even be as dangerous to your health as smoking: it has been shown to suppress the immune system, making you more vulnerable to illness; increase blood pressure, cholesterol, and risk of cardiovascular disease; and increase risk of early death by 14%.
Even knowing about all these negative effects, in your grief you may feel your loneliness is an inevitable and now integral part of life. Who or what you desire has been such an important part of your sense of self and identity, this loss creates an emptiness that nothing and no one can fill. There are parts of your life that no longer seem relevant. What do you do with them? How do you go on doing all the activities you used to do without that person or purpose in your life?
And once you begin thinking that no one else can help and that you are entirely on your own, you may begin guarding against others or interpreting their actions and words negatively — in short, you begin distancing yourself from others, thus unconsciously perpetuating loneliness.
The good news is that loneliness can be overcome. However, it will require both a desire for change and conscious efforts on your part.
Positive ways to cope with loneliness:
- First, acknowledge your feelings of loneliness, recognize that extended loneliness is unhealthy and that something needs to change.
- Make an action plan for connecting with others. Though the very concept of an “action plan” may seem like a cold approach to solving an emotional issue, it’s important to know that you have control and the ability to take action for positive change in your life. Make a list of family members and friends you want to reconnect with and social events you want to attend (or think would be good for you to attend).
- Reach out to others. Though this will go against your natural tendencies when you are feeling lonely, it’s important to reach out by calling a friend to talk, attending events, and — even more effective — volunteer for an activity in your community that involves a social setting. Helping others, having that feeling of giving back, can motivate you to connect with others again. Helping those who are less fortunate than yourself can be a great way to get out of your own head and emotions.
- Get involved in a social group with a common interest, such as a book or exercise club. Write down a list of hobbies you have or are interested in (or were once interested in), then look for groups that meet in your area. Being part of an interest-based group will do two positive things for you: help to focus on an external activity instead of your emotions and forge connections with new people.
- Actively seek warmth and connection with others and expect the best. This is important because if you go to an event or join a club with the expectation of metaphorically hiding in a corner, you will only confirm and exacerbate your current sense of isolation. Instead, focus on the positive aspects of any social interactions you have. As part of this expect-the-best attitude, choose to surround yourself with people who are warm, friendly, and positive, and who can further your growth, rather than those who are negative and will only bring you down.
- Eat comfort food. Surprisingly, eating or even thinking about comfort food — food that is associated with good memories and connections with others — can actually make you feel less lonely.
- And, of course (since this is a blog about journaling), journal about your feelings of loneliness and how you are managing them. Write about your action plan and the efforts you are making, as well as your responses and reactions to others in social situations. Journaling will help you process your thoughts and emotions and provide intuitive self-support in your journey back to social connections with others.
Finally, remember that you are not alone in your loneliness and that the loneliness you are experiencing will not last forever.
All of us are searching for others who can help fill some of the emptiness we feel and who can understand us. Yet, real change — true healing — must come from the inside out. During this process, remember to be kind and compassionate with yourself. You are dealing with an enormous shift in your life. Acknowledge yourself for doing the very best you can — that is all you can or ever need to do.
References and related articles:
- 10 Surprising Facts About Loneliness
- How to Feel Less Lonely
- What You Should Know About Loneliness
- Chicken Soup for the Soul: Comfort Food Fights Loneliness
Previous articles in this series:
- Journaling Through Grief – Introduction
- Journaling Through Grief, Part 2 – A Conversation with Grief
- Journaling Through Grief, Part 3 — 5 Ways to Express Grief Safely
- Journaling Through Grief, Part 4 – When You Feel Numb