The intersection of grief and loneliness is complicated. Though loneliness, as a concept, is one I think many assume we understand.
We equate loneliness to the very definable concept of being alone, which means “without other people,” and thanks to “lonely people” archetypes — like the spinsters with ten cats and misunderstood teenagers — we think we have a good idea of how loneliness looks.
The trouble is that loneliness is 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 to note; the above definition says nothing about the state of being alone. Instead, 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, prototypical characterizations of “loneliness” seem misguided.
Individual loneliness is defined by what a person wants in relation 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.
Grief and Loneliness
“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 grief 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 precisely 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 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 left this Earth, they took pieces of your shared life with them, and now you have to live a life that feels incomplete. Some people may also say they lost one of the few people in this world who really truly “got” them.
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 start to guard against others by pushing them away. And as you might expect, this perpetuates feelings of loneliness.
You can’t easily solve loneliness caused by grief. It takes time and effort. You will never fill your loved one’s void, that simply won’t happen. Instead, you have to find other ways to connect and fill in alternative spaces.
How do you do this? I sadly can’t answer that for you. I guess I would say that, when you are ready, open yourself up to the love of people in your life.
You can hold on to your loved one, while at the same time, accepting the company and support of others. And maybe, if necessary, seeking out new people in the process. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be perfect, but perhaps in time, you can partially fill the hole left by your loved one with the love of many.