The Unique Loneliness of Grief

Most people don’t think in depth about the idea of loneliness. Loneliness is one of those concepts we assume we know. We equate it to the very definable concept of being alone, which means “without other people”, and thanks to “lonely people” archetypes — like the spinster with 10 cats and the misunderstood teenager — we think we know exactly what loneliness looks like. The trouble is, loneliness is actually subjective (i.e. different from person to person), so there’s no way anyone can truly know what it looks like.

In the Encyclopedia of Mental Helath (1998) researchers Daniel Perlman and Letita Anne Peplau define loneliness as,

The subjective psychological discomfort people experience when their network of social relationships is significantly deficient in either quality or quantity.”

In other words, loneliness occurs when a person’s social relationships don’t meet their interpersonal needs or desires. I want you to note, the above definition says nothing about the state of being alone, rather that loneliness is a feeling of discomfort that arises when a person subjectively feels unfulfilled by their social relationships.

Loneliness is dependent on what a person “needs and desires” and this measure is personal and varies drastically from one individual to the next. Based on this definition we see that prototypical characterizations of “loneliness” are misguided. Individual loneliness is defined by what a person wants in contrast to what they have. So whether a person has 100 great family and friends, if they long for something or someone they don’t have –like an intimate partner, a friend they can open up to, a group of people who “get them”, a family, etc – they are liable to feel lonely.

“Something or someone they don’t have….”

If you’re grieving you may feel this has become the story of your life.  There are aspects of bereavement that make loneliness seem inevitable and unsolvable. Primarily, the fact that what you desire is your loved one and what you have is an emptiness molded so specifically to your loved one’s likeness that no one else could ever fill it.

People who are grieving are at a disadvantage when it comes to loneliness because the person they long for is forever gone. I’ve come to understand that loneliness after the death of a loved one is many things. Above all else, it’s the ache of having loved someone so much that pieces of you became them and pieces of them became you. When they were taken from this Earth a piece of you, your heart, and your history went with them and you were left behind to live a life that feels forever incomplete.

Now that your loved is gone there are parts of you that no longer make sense; the roles you both filled, the jokes and memories you shared, their part of the routine. What do you do with all these things now that your loved one is gone? If the common experience of feeling misunderstood and alienated in grief weren’t enough, you have now lost one of the few people in this world who really truly “got” you. You feel alone in a world full of a people….you feel lonely.

Not to make things seem worse, but once your brain starts thinking in an “I’m on my own so I have to look out for myself” kind of way, it may be primed to guard against others by interpreting their actions negatively and by pushing them away. When this happens feelings of loneliness, you guessed it, can perpetuate feelings of loneliness.

The loneliness of grief is not easily solved. It takes time and effort.  Hardest of all, it requires acceptance.  In order to lessen the loneliness you have to find a way to accept what simply is and find fulfillment in the reality available to you.  You will never fill your loved one’s void, that simply won’t happen.  Instead, you have to work slowly, slowly to fill in the abyss.

How do you do this?  I sadly can’t answer that for you. I guess I would say that, when ready, open yourself up to the love of people in your life.  You don’t have to let go of your loved one, but simultaneously decide to accept the company and support of others and maybe, if necessary, seek out new people in the process.  It won’t be easy and it won’t be perfect, but perhaps in time the hole left by your loved one will be filled by the love of many.

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April 12, 2017

18 responses on "The Unique Loneliness of Grief"

  1. To My Family / August 15, 2016

    As I try to make sense of what happened in our family and its effects, I wish to share with you my feelings about Ma and Bah Bah.

    Looking back at our parents’ personalities, I can see a little bit of both of them in each of us. The good and the bad. Not only in our basic dispositions, but in how we may respond to the kicks and kisses of life. More significant than Ma and Bah Bah’s inherent traits, I believe, was how they reacted to their lot in life, not only to conditions from the outside, but their interaction with each other in coping with those conditions. Financial hardship seemed to reign and we had only glimpses of their true selves. What if Ma and Bah Bah had similar life conditions and experiences to ours? They had only basic education in a faraway country and alien language and had to toil and sweat to make a living in this country. But what if they were able somehow to get higher education and become professionals, like we were? Bah Bah surely would have pursued his interest in the natural sciences or technology rather than having to work in laundry sweat shops; and Ma had a dream of being a nurse or a teacher rather than working long hours in the laundry and later as a seamstress (although she derived great pride in her reputation as an excellent worker and the shop owners’ reliance on her expertise—I still have her work logs reflecting the minimal pay she got for a day’s work). But, alas, Fortuna dealt some pretty tough blows. Yet, perhaps we can say that Fortuna showed mercy to them after all, through us. Ma and Bah Bah both found solace through us. “Look at our children, they all went to excellent schools and they are all successful at their jobs because of our sacrifices,” they both said at one time or another.

    Their lives were filled with hardship: an early impoverished existence, a long stressful time of hand-to-mouth existence, and, sadly, the seed of love for each other (as I looked at a long-forgotten studio wedding photo of them facing an uncertain future) never had a chance to blossom, only to be slain by the hand that Fortuna dealt them. And so they didn’t have the tools to do other than take their life’s frustrations out on each other and, sometimes, on us. I accepted this in Ma and Bah Bah and since have forgiven them. We all saw and heard the dark side of their souls, the hatred and bitterness that manifested itself each to the other and to us, which pushed us away from them. Later, after Bah Bah retired, I noticed his hatred and much of his bitterness towards Ma had dissipated, but by then it was too little too late to garner forgiveness from Ma and ameliorate his lonely existence (I tried to help by providing him and Ma with funds for summer trips to various places and so did Mike with his family by their visits, having restaurant meals, and Ma’s vacation cruise). Woefully, Ma never lost her bitterness, especially while Bah Bah was alive.

    But why was that for her? I believe her early childhood experiences, without a living, breathing model of this newfound unfamiliar Christian religion adopted by her mother that had the martyr Jesus at its center (which really could have helped), molded her into an unforgiving person who would hold on to grudges and only remember the mistreatments. Her mother was not loving toward Ma, despite all the responsibilities Ma took on for her; so, Ma deeply resented that. Her siblings behaved thoughtlessly, as any youngsters do and, at times, and from her perspective, whether it was reasonable or not, she felt mistreated and suffered from feeling they treated her like their personal hired maid. For the rest of her life, she would rather not have any dealings with them or even be reminded of them, for only thus could she forget the past. Her demons would come out, though, when her memories were dredged up. I knew those ugly demons were always lurking there, just below the surface, and she knew it, too, and she tried to keep them at bay as best as she could. She told me she prayed that God always protect her from harm. She believed that God was always there for her because she survived it all. Those feelings allowed me a glimmer of a frightened little girl inside her, yearning for love and protection (I’m tearing a little bit right now as I remember those fleeting moments when I perceived that little girl. If only she knew enough to pray for delivery from the burden of those dark feelings).

    Despite the dark and gloomy years, she did have fond memories of her kind and loving uncle (from whom she often told me that she had learned a lot), her father (who loved her), and her high-school friend (one of the few who treated her kindly; I think she was the one who died from an incompatible blood transfusion.). I vaguely recall seeing her once when I was with Ma having lunch at an air-conditioned restaurant in Hong Kong; I still remember the cold air and the smells of the food. Ma ordered a dish of fish with tomato sauce for both of us; I don’t remember what her friend had. They talked and then we went back home (in San Tin or her parents’ apartment where we all had lived before moving to San Tin).

    My last five years with Ma were a blessing. After she was in the hospital a couple of years ago from a bout of very high blood pressure and she was put on medication for it, I think she realized that when she started all the negative talk (and thinking) about the past, she was riling herself and her blood pressure up, and so she eased up on that and was more able to enjoy the present moments. She would always make known to her apartment neighbors that, “He is my son!” I was not embarrassed at all by that because they understood she was proud. I’m glad that she was able to support herself comfortably without financial worries and that as long as she lived she saw us all still well employed, hoping and praying that our jobs would last till our retirements. I spent as much time with her as I could. Before moving to New London because of my job change, I had visited her almost daily because we lived only a few blocks from each other; after the move, I visited her twice a week: taking her blood pressure and eating meals on Wednesdays, and delivering groceries and medicine on Saturdays. “Here’s some money for the take out,” she would say when I brought her Singapore lo mein, or she would ask what I would like to have, “Rice porridge or Chinese seafood with ramen noodle?” “I feel like having rice porridge and please make enough for my next day’s lunch,” I would say and always thanked her for it. She made quarts of red bean drink for summer days; I brought her dumplings and chicken feet whenever I came back from Boston Chinatown, roasted chicken legs for the last few years’ Thanksgivings, and this Chinese New Year we had seafood hot pot with lobster. These small moments I wish you hadn’t missed with Ma are what I treasure. So it’s not surprising that I cried inwardly when I finished the remaining portions of her cooked rice for my lunches last week. I poured out a small portion of iced tea that she had made for me and went outside the office building with it; while standing in the hot humidity, staring at the summer sky, I cried inwardly as I gave thanks to her for my cold tea. There’s still a half a bottle of it in our breakroom’s refrigerator.

    The year before he died, I once saw that Bah Bah had tears in his eyes while he was looking up at the Brooklyn blue sky. I didn’t ask why and to this day I wish I had. I saw a tear in Ma’s eye while she was in ICU; I didn’t ask why because I sensed that she knew she was dying. I fervently held on to her hand and brushed her tear away and told her I was there with her. I was so glad for that. I share in Mike’s grief that Bah Bah died alone.

    As I was wheeling her into the Emergency Room for her workup after she had already experienced the cardiogenic shock, remembering the ER visit a couple of days before having to wait for hours and hours before seeing the doctor, she said to be sure to buy sandwiches for both of us from the vending machine because we hadn’t had our lunch yet.

    And those were the last few words she said to me.

    So, under sad circumstances, we came together. The four of us were with her at the end, holding each other’s hands, and for that I am very grateful.

    In the end, I pray that Ma and Bah Bah forgive each other, as they are joined for eternity.

    Oh, life. We think we have all the time in the world. But, now I am more aware than ever that we don’t. And with these thoughts of all of us, Ma and Bah Bah, and with prayers and hopes, let us go forward in peace with the knowledge that life is short, a new sense of compassion and love for Ma and Bah Bah, a more objective understanding of our upbringing, a deeper appreciation of the love in our lives, for our spouses and kin; and our own softening remembrances of things past.

    Love, Auggie

    As a follow up message to my family on the passing of our Ma.

    Wednesdays have become something of a melancholic time for me. That’s not so surprising because that was when I would usually go and visit Ma after leaving early from work.

    So yesterday afternoon, I took a break and brought my last cup of tea to go outside to be alone and feeling the last bit of summer heat. I thought about Ma while drinking the tea and then I suddenly realized that I already drank half of the last remaining cup of tea (a bottle of tea that she had made for me). After walking around outside my office building, I went back and put the remaining tea in the freezer.

    I was mildly depressed for the rest of the afternoon, while still working on regulatory rules against the deadline.

    While driving home, I had an epiphany. That inner voice that, once in awhile, made itself known and then carried on a conversation with me (and no, I’m not crazy. That voice has been like a guardian angel that reassured me on those occasions that things would be alright and not to worry about those major events.).

    It asked me to think about what actually happened from another perspective. Didn’t it gave me a chance to take Ma to the park on Thursday that she usually didn’t want to go outside for the longest while? Yes, we went out to the farmer’s market in the park that warm summer afternoon. Weren’t we happy? Yes. Didn’t she greet her neighbors who were sitting outside the Roger’s House? Yes. Didn’t she hear one of neighbors who saw us and said what a good son I was? Yes. Then that Friday, didn’t it allow Ma to have a transient coronary blockage and thus allowed us to spend more 12 hours together in the emergency room? Yes. And then afterwards, didn’t I sleep in that old bunk bed in her apartment before heading out to pick up our McDonald breakfast and her weekly groceries? Yes. Didn’t we have the Saturday breakfast together? Yes. Didn’t it allow Ma to live to call me that Sunday afternoon after she had her profound cardiogenic shock? Yes. Didn’t it allow her to live long enough to know that we were all there with her in ICU and that she didn’t pass away alone? I said yes. So, what more could it have done for me? And finally I said thank you!

    With love,

    Auggie

  2. I have been looking for an article about just this. I lost my mom about 15 months ago. At that moment my life stopped, my mom was my better half, my soul mate my best friend. Since loosing her, I have felt that apart of my soul died with her. I am married and I have a very supportive family, however I still feel very alone, I haven’t been able to open up to any one of them like I did to my mom. I know this is just the new normal, but its not fun, it sad.

  3. Thank you. Your post (and the comments) make me feel a little less alone in this. My mother was my everything- my best friend, my memory, my protector, my champion, my confidant- and now she is gone forever. I have no family now, and while I love my friends, they are not enough. “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone”, and she’s never coming back. It’s been three years, and I am trying so hard to find some sense of meaning and joy in my life, but I have yet to find anything to fill the void. I’ve tried to explain this is my friends, but I don’t think they “get” it or, maybe they do, but there’s just nothing they can do to help. And, after three years, it feels like everyone thinks I should be “over it” by now.

  4. Wow. This is right ON. Today is the 4 month mark of my wife’s death. April 3, 2016 began my horrendous sense of loss and LONELINESS. Although I have three grown children who love me very much, the emptiness I feel for my wife of 27 years haunts me. I feel like a leg has been amputated, and now I must adjust to limping through life. The Bible says, The two shall become one.” How devastatingly true that is. A big part of me has been cut out. Thanks so much for clearing my mind about the loneliness I am feeling each day.I look forward to reading more of your messages. Thanks.

  5. This is very much how I now feel. My lover husband and best friend of 52 years died in September . I can’t seem to resolve the loneliness without him. With children and grandchildren around me I can’t reconcile myself to the emptiness and loss I feel. Your article really resonated with me. Thank you.

  6. This is oh so true. I lost my 30 year old son just 3 months ago and have a husband and another son that I love deeply, but they are handling their grief in an entirely different way, so it is lonely for me. My husband and I are able to express our grief with each other, but I am so worried that my oldest son does not reach out to us at all. I know he is lonely and I pray everyday that he will come to us in his grief. Thank you for this.

    • I so understand where you are coming from. My 21 year old son died 4.5 mos. ago. My husband and I do grieve differently and my second son, is a typical boy and doesn’t emote much. He leaves for his first year of college next week and I worry about how the grief will impact this big transition.

  7. Oh so very true…
    Very worthwhile for me to read this, as it so accurately describes my current state. My 27 year old son’s life was taken 2 years ago and I & my family still struggle immensely, have come to the realisation that I am now a changed person, which increases the loneliness. I very much like the term grief friends as well. I feel closer to them than I do to my friends of long standing. I have learnt that I will have to learn to live without my son, but it will be a different me and not the me that I had always thought of being. Thank you for this article.

  8. This is the most gut-wrenching, yet accurate description I’ve ever read. After he died, I filled my journals with these exact words. Not as neat and concince, nor legible of course. But they were/are there.

    Nicely done.

    Cheers.

  9. Thank you for this. It could have been written for me. Although I have always been a bit of a shy introvert I never ever felt lonely until I lost my lovely husband Peter late last year. He really was my best friend, confidant and protector as well as a truly loving husband. Your words today have got to me more than any others and I am so grateful for them. Thank you.

  10. I miss my son more everyday….11 years after his decision to end his life…grief never stops for me….

  11. I truly did not understand that sadness and joy can exist at the same time until recently. I find joy every day when I spend time with my loving friends and family, but so long for my loving husband. Maybe my “hole” is slowly being filled.

  12. I am shocked at how your words express myself. I have been pinning for my son and wondering if it were normal. So thankful to read that my slow process of yearning is working towards acceptance, using new resources and that I am not alone in this endeavor. So appreciate you.

    • I agree completely. Just recently I was thinking that after 1.5 years of grieving for my son, I’m trying to hide my grief from people so I don’t make them uncomfortable anymore. I realized that I do feel alone in my grief, that maybe I prefer it that way.

  13. My husband took his own life 4 years ago after we had been married 32 years. We were childless by choice, but sometimes the loneliness I feel, the absolute lack of that person to connect with, is almost unbearable even after this much time. I enjoy my friends who have been wonderful, but most of them go home to spouse or kids and I face my solitary life. This essay is spot-on about how it feels.

    • Wow….Rhonda Grundy, my sincere condolences. I think your loss must be the toughest…..w/that extra complicated layer of sadness and lonliness. My loss not quite 2 yrs yet, but due to move to a new city which I love, still surprised @ how lonely life still feels. 21 yrs together, no kids. ( So much so I am back in hospice grief group). Blessings to you…..hang in there…..

    • I am so very heartbroken for you. Thoughts and prayers for you Rhonda.

    • You know exactly how grief does after losing the one who was close to your heart
      7years down the line my 15yrs old daughter took her life she was the youngest of the 5 children.They all grown up leaving in their own homes because she was the baby I presume she will be home right now. The gap she left me with nothing can fill it up. My hubby passed on 12yrs ago .Um just trying to survive this life but emptiness is above me

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