As we approach Thanksgiving and other end-of-the-year holidays, my heart goes out to those of us who might experience loneliness. We can experience loneliness even surrounded by loved ones, too. I think of my beloved great-aunt, nearly stone-deaf as she sat on a hard chair (soft armchairs were too hard for her to get in and out of) patiently waiting to be taken home at the end of the evening. Several of us tried to talk with her, but she only gave a quizzical smile and nod. The only person who could communicate with her was my aunt, a nurse who worked with the elderly. She had a way of making her voice exceptionally loud, pitched just low enough that even my great-aunt could hear.
I think also of my grandmother, widowed at a young age, who lived her last year in a nursing home. She had plenty of family members nearby–even a granddaughter who worked at the home–to visit and take care of her, but to her dying day she always thought she would “go home.” Her house, her only financial asset, had been sold according to Medicare’s requirements.
When I was a child, I dutifully wrote a letter to my grandmother. Not because I felt close to her or had anything interesting to say, but because children in books always visited and wrote to their grandparents. At the end of my brief and unremarkable letter (so unremarkable that I can’t recall what I wrote), I added a postscript:
P.S. Are you lonely? I hope not.
My family rose up in arms at the postscript. (Why they read my letter, I also can’t remember.) One said with exasperation, “Why would you say that? If you ask her about being lonely, she’ll think about it and start feeling lonely.”
As a child, I couldn’t defend myself. I did, however, refuse to change the letter and sent it anyway. I couldn’t explain, but could feel, that the simplistic solution–don’t talk about loneliness–would not eliminate the problem. How could my grandmother not be lonely? And yet she lived a full and meaningful life, surrounded by children and grandchildren.
It reminds me of the old (now considered outdated by most) injunctions against talking about suicide. “If we don’t talk about it,” conventional wisdom ran, “it won’t happen.” Yet it did and does.
When I look at the people around me and those close to me, I see a lot of loneliness. Of course there are exceptions, usually people who have little financially but fill their lives with laughter and love. But for the most part, we humans both need companionship and try to substitute other things. We stare at our televisions, smartphones, and computer screens, staying connected yet drifting further away from each other.
Loneliness is different from being alone. A hermit who rests in a dwelling on a mountaintop, deep in prayer and meditation, may be alone but not lonely. A single person who enjoys freedom and independence may also be alone but not lonely, just as someone can live in a crowded home in a crowded city without feeling any sense of connection.
It’s a funny irony that speaking about loneliness has remained a taboo, but alone-ness has not.
Why don’t you have a girl/boyfriend?
Aren’t you going to get (re)married?
Why don’t you have a baby?
At least get a dog/cat.
Why do you live in the country, away from everyone?
Why don’t you spend the holidays with your family?
Many people feel comfortable asking invasive questions, assuming that an appearance of being alone equals loneliness. Sometimes it does; sometimes it does not. But to assume loneliness when it is not there can be both insulting and hurtful. Many people choose to remain single, childless (or childfree, as people have come to call it), petless, and/or in the country.
Yet in cases of real loneliness, too often we are silenced by shame. As if it is a mark against us to be lonely.
One of my friends lost both of her parents by her early 20s, divorced an abusive husband, and now lives alone with her little dog. Her grown daughter visits, but not as often as my friend would like. She lives a rich life, and yet she speaks frankly of her loneliness.
I’m better off now, but I miss those family days.
Another friend, widowed twice and cut off from her husband’s extended family, sank into a deep, terrifying depression so thick that she was hospitalized several times for suicide attempts.
Those of us who live abroad or who live far away within the same country can also understand this strange, island-like experience of having friends but not family. Or for those with abusive or otherwise hurtful family members, we may have family but not be able to visit them.
What I have learned in my life is this:
When I feel lonely, I seek out the company of others.
Without experiencing loneliness, without acknowledging it and owning it, we drown ourselves in attempts to cover up the feelings. If we accept our loneliness, we can use it as motivation to make connections.
When I first moved away from home, I experienced the loss of my family, community, and especially all the families I’d gotten to know through baby-sitting and volunteering. In my loneliness in adjusting to a new environment, I used my markers and crayons to turn computer paper into personalized cards that I mailed each Monday morning to my grandmothers, widowed godmother, and others who might be lonely.
Each week, those little notes built into special relationships. Even though my grandmothers are no longer alive, I treasure those moments of connection.
Especially now that email and Skype have replaced snail mail as the primary means of communication, a little postcard or letter brings the gift of human connection.
I’m going to mail a postcard to my godmother today. How about you?