Grief and Loneliness: Me and My Shadow

What is it about loneliness that makes us want to hide the fact that we are lonely? Anyone who has suffered the loss of a loved one naturally feels a gaping space in daily life and a cavernous emptiness within. Why don’t we talk more about it?
I suspect it’s because a common reaction to loneliness is the feeling of shame. Perhaps we think if we admit to loneliness, we’ll seem defective: “If I’m lonely there must be something wrong with me. Maybe I’m needier than anybody else. Maybe I’m not attractive enough to draw others to me. Maybe nobody wants to be with me.” No wonder loneliness holds its tongue, becomes a secret, and leads to more isolation.

Feelings of loneliness are normal—a part of our human experience, especially during mourning. In her book, A Time to Grieve, Carol Staudacher relates loneliness early in the grief process with longing for the loved one, the “only one who matters.” She observes that when we lose the person closest to us, we feel as if “our whole world has lost its center.” Those who are left seem inconsequential. In early intense grief one feels apart, set adrift on a sea of sorrow: “No one else knows how I feel or feels like I feel.” At night, especially for those who live alone, a “dark foreboding threatens to swallow us.” 

Later in grieving, the way we experience loneliness changes. When comfortable habits woven through our relationship are ruptured by loss, and familiar words or actions don’t take place, a void is created. We’re devastated when we realize that the familiar call, note or gift from our loved one won’t come again, ever.

With so much going on inside us, being out in public actually can take a toll. We may not want to be with others. We may feel as if we need time alone to absorb our loss. They may not understand our natural withdrawal, which may in turn intensify our sense of loneliness. And, if others give us time alone, we may believe we’re no longer important to them. 

Even as we move toward reconciling our loss, we still may feel lonely when we decide to reach out to engage more with life and with others again, but aren’t sure how to do it. On the other hand, we may see the time we’ve spent alone begin to yield a gift—a desire for self-discovery or a new ability to take pleasure in our own company. As one widow said, “It still hurts, but I’m getting more used to being alone. Now I want to work on me—to learn more about who I am and what I want for the rest of my life.”

By Maureen Kramlinger