⚠️ Content warning: This article is a discussion around death, dying, loss and bereavement.
When we talk about loneliness, we might think about the number of friends we have, or how much time we spend alone. Many people can relate to going days without speaking to a single person; this was certainly a reality for people around the world during the pandemic.
But when we talk about loneliness, it can include what it means to feel disconnected. Many people recognise what it’s like to be surrounded by people and still feel lonely.
Pressure from society and social media can also set unrealistic standards of what “normal” looks like, or that we should “fit in” and not stand out. As a result, we might hide our authenticity or shift our values in a need to belong. We don’t feel heard or understood. And that can be lonely.
Loneliness and Grief
Lacking connection can be felt heavily when we’re grieving, and particularly in a world that doesn’t recognise the many different layers of loss we experience throughout our lives. In Answers in the Dark, I explain how grief shows up even if no one has died.
When we speak of grief, some may assume we mean following bereavement, and yet throughout our life we may have experienced loss after loss that we may never have been able – or given permission – to process. It might have been parents divorcing at an early age. Being made to change schools and leave friends behind. Or, as we get older, it may be through redundancy or retiring from a beloved job. It all counts.
Yet, society doesn’t always recognise these as “reasonable” reasons to grieve, and minimises the pain we feel at the loss of something that mattered to us – sometimes referred to as “Disenfranchised Grief”.
When we can’t talk about how we feel, our grief can go underground. Our body then speaks to us in various ways, like not being able to sleep or the dreams we have when we do. If every loss you’ve experienced but couldn’t process is just resting underneath awareness, its only outlet may be in the darkness of night.
Creating safe spaces for people to talk about their grief should be a natural part of our every day conversation, but discussions around death and dying are still very much seen as morbid and taboo. Others feel uncomfortable starting a conversation with someone going through a difficult time, and worry they might make things worse. But the reality for grieving people is that the worse has already happened, and not being able to talk about it can create further feelings of loneliness and isolation.
When we don’t feel connected or safe in the space around us, we instinctively shy away from the dialogue we may really need to have.
How to Reconnect
There are many ways we may find our way forward after a difficult time, or to navigate loneliness especially when we are grieving. Here are just three things that might help.
1. Find your people. We know that connection and community are key to our well-being, and peer support is a valuable way of helping us feel heard and understood. We sometimes find out who our friends are when things are difficult, and be surprised by who it turns out is there for us. Organisations like the Good Grief Trust offer talking spaces for the bereaved and there are other organisations who may be able to provide something similar.
2. Go back to nature. If you’re feeling disconnected from the world around you, spending time in green spaces has been proven to lift our mood and enhance our well-being. It doesn’t have to be a special trip to a forest or the seaside, even just being around trees can help. You might find you feel a sense of connection to “something bigger”, even in your own company, in the great outdoors.
3. Spoken Word Art. Music lyrics or poetry can uplift you and help you feel seen. Many people find writing how they feel in the form of spoken word a way to channel the complexities of grief. You may even find like-minded groups or forums where you can share what you write. Alternatively you might find books on poetry, to follow other people’s journey of grief, which offers some comfort.
Be mindful of what’s caused you to feel disconnected. If it’s the loss of a friendship circle following a relationship breakdown, or you’ve had to sacrifice something of yourself in order to “fit in”, it’s natural to feel a sense of loss and grief. If your friends and family aren’t helping, see if you can find ways to communicate what you need, including setting healthy boundaries, that allow you to show up authentically and live life in alignment with your values.
If you know someone going through a difficult time processing a loss, or don’t know how to help someone you’re worried about, it’s also important to let them feel what they feel. Our instinct as humans is to go in to the Fixing Reflex, in an effort to “cheer them up” out of their pain. But grief doesn’t work like that. Take time to learn about grief and loss, and understand that in order for people to find their way forward, know that they may need to revisit their experience, time and again. Creating a safe space for someone to talk might be as simple as saying “how can I help?” or something practical, like a food shop or taking their dog for a walk.
If we can normalise conversations about grief we can bring people together. We can acknowledge that all grief is valid and equally unique. We can learn that, whilst we may relate to each other’s pain in different ways, at the same time making comparisons can be unhealthy; it’s not a competition to see who had it worse.
Instead we can acknowledge each other’s pain and say “this matters, I’ll sit beside you” for as long as we reasonably can.
This article was written originally for Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 and the theme is loneliness. Answers In The Dark is out now on Amazon and Hive.