Tuesdays with Ana: Why is it such a taboo to talk about loneliness?

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It reminds me of the old (now considered outdated by most) injunctions against talking about suicide.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?

49 thoughts on “Tuesdays with Ana: Why is it such a taboo to talk about loneliness?

  1. abby says:

    A wonderful post, especially since the holidays are looming. I think we tried to avoid what we don’t don’t understand…and we are afraid of hurting the person who is lonely. Lonely and alone are not the same….lonely is harder to deal with….we should all make it a point to reach out to someone we know that is lonely….at this time of the year it hurts the most.
    hugs abby


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Illness is another thing that can cause loneliness even while being surrounded by loved ones (and a lot more when we are ill and alone). I agree about not wanting to hurt people. I think Ami’s Silverline idea is amazing. If there’s any equivalent in other countries, I will find can it and report back.

      Hugs back.


  2. Cara Bristol says:

    A thoughtful and timely post, Ana. Loneliness can be especially acute around the holidays when so many celebrations are centered around family time.

    I think another side of loneliness (and I have seen this in my family) is that people can be lonely but refuse to take the first step to end their own loneliness. As you said, “When I feel lonely, I seek out the company of others,” which only makes sense and is what I would do if I were lonely. But I have seen family members who refuse to do that. They don’t want to meet people, they don’t want to join a group, they don’t want to make the effort. I have one family member who expects people to say hello to her FIRST and refuses to say hello unless they do–and then complains how unfriendly people are–and how lonely she is.


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Nice to see you again, Cara.

      It can go both ways. I do think from the outside it’s easy to judge and say that people won’t try to end their loneliness, but I think we underestimate the obstacles involved. There is so much shame surrounding loneliness (as if we are flawed human beings if we are lonely or speak about being lonely) that people will put up self-protective walls such as, “I’m too old/overweight/unattatractive/etc.” that becomes a reality. When we believe things like that, we can’t let people in.

      Though sometimes there simply is that persnickety grouch and we all have to bite our tongue to stay civil. ๐Ÿ™‚


  3. angieia says:

    Enjoyed your post. My husband always get a little sad or lonely around the holidays since his parents and sister never acknowledge it. They are too busy in their own lives and live a ways from us. This year will be hard for me at Thanksgiving my son is away at college and won’t be home until Christmas. I know he will be lonely since the dining center is closed and most of his friends are going home. He is planning to take a bus trip to NYC on Saturday so that will help. I plan on calling him and letting him know we are thinking about him.


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      That does sound hard, to long for family connection but experience its lack during the holiday celebration. How will you and your husband make Christmas a special day for the two of you? Your son’s trip sounds like a great idea.


  4. pao says:

    We live in a world of dualities, don’t we? I wonder why is it shameful to be lonely. Is it because it’s a mark of failure to socialise? I also think that even though we’re more connected now through social media, it’s also easier to feel isolated and ignored (or to ignore someone).


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      That’s exactly it, Pao. We are seen as failing to do “something” in order to be happy and connected, even if the “something” would have been preventing our spouses from dying. It used to be a mark of shame for parents if their children died. Can you imagine?

      Social media is a great tool and a great threat. It amplifies whatever we would do in person, for good or for evil. That’s a great point, too. Maybe next time I’ll suggest using social media to reach out.


  5. Leigh Smith (aka Sunny Girl) says:

    Wonderful insightful post Ana. This time of year can be very difficult even for those surrounded by family and friends. Reaching out, a smile, or a card can make a difference in a lonely person’s life – do it.


  6. terpsichore says:

    Thank-you Ana for this thoughtful post. You are so right in the difference between being alone and being lonely. I have been blessed my whole life with a wonderful family, a good husband, great children, good friends…I have never really been alone. However, I have experienced loneliness. I think many of us have experineced loneliness at one time or another. There are so many topics that are taboo – loneliness, suicide, depression, mental illness…I am sure there are others. Silence does not make these things disappear, only attaches a fear. For me, the times I have felt lonely, often amongst a room of people I love and who love me, it is tied to a feeling of mild depression, a sadness or emptiness I can’t explain. I can understand why it might be hard for people to reach out during those times. I have forced myself to reach out, to be seen and heard, to take care of others, or simply to say hi to a friend or a stranger…but when I am feeling that way it is so much easier to simply be invisible. It is hard to talk about because as I said I am blessed. There is so much good in my life that to admit I feel lonely feels as though it takes away from those who really are in need. I apologize for a writing a book here…but your post touched me at a personal level. As for notes, I love sending notes to people. With technology I have created hand-written notes less and less – keeping it to for special dates such as holidays and birthdays and for thank-yous…but I am bringing the art of handmade letters and cards back -determined it will not get lost in the shuffle. ๐Ÿ™‚ Hugs, Terps


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      I’m so glad this post touched you! I think we can experience loneliness even when we feel like we shouldn’t. If only our feelings followed what we “should” or “shouldn’t” do. A lot of us women struggle with feeling loved or guilty or as if we aren’t doing enough. Or we may think we’re not measuring up in some way. It takes a lot of self-confidence to allow ourselves to be vulnerable enough to connect with others, doesn’t it?

      I think it’s great when we find something in ourselves, like loneliness, and use it to better understand other people. That’s what we do as human beings. Otherwise it’s tempting to shove everything down and become superficial or self-centered in an attempt not to face it.

      I’d love to see your handmade cards sometime. ๐Ÿ™‚



  7. Riley says:

    Great post, I completely agree with what you’ve said. The holidays can be cheery and happy but for others they can be lonely and sometimes all the cheer reminds you of what may be missing. Reaching out is a great way to go and I think it can make a touching difference for sure.


  8. Ami says:

    I am echoing Terps above in saying thank you for such a lovely and insightful post.

    I can’t really imagine what it must be like to live in a country where you have two holidays so close together, ie Thanksgiving and Christmas. Does Thanksgiving go over two or three days? I understand the reasons behind it, but don’t know how long the holiday is. I also think that you don’t celebrate Boxing Day (which is the day immediately following Christmas Day) do you?

    Holidays are the most difficult of times for people who are lonely.

    In the UK a wonderful lady called Esther Ranzen has just set up a call-line called Silverline. It is because there are so many lonely people around, many of them elderly who have lost their partners, or never had a partner. (She is the lady who many years ago set up Childline, which is a free number a child can call if it is being abused in any way. Sadly, thousands of children have had cause to call it over the years. But it has, thus, been very successful.) Esther, who is now over seventy and lost her husband a few years ago, felt this new call line would be very important. Volunteers keep the service going, and ring up one person on a weekly basis, just to chat and to make sure they are okay. A little elderly lady on the TV this morning said that the lady who called her every week is her only friend. What does this say for our society? I was at a church lunch today (my MIL’s village) and every month volunteers do a three course lunch with coffee at a very small price (less than $5) for anyone in the village who wants a little social outing. If they cannot get to the church hall on their own, they are collected. Such a small thing. Yet the majority are elderly, and soooo look forward to this monthly luncheon. It was the “Christmas lunch” today, and even had a glass of either hot apple punch or gluwein.

    Yet I can remember saying once to my dad “Why are you drinking so much, Dad? Is it because you are lonely?” He could hardly reply to me. I know he missed my mother more than anything on this earth. Yet he wouldn’t – staunchly refused) to move away across the country to live near or with us. He wouldn’t leave her alone in the village cemetery where she is buried. It just broke his heart to even think about it. So he was one of these people you spoke about. He was very lonely, even in the middle of lots of friends and a family who made regular visits and regular phone calls, and sent regular letters.

    I’m wondering what we can do over the holiday season. Perhaps reach out to people in some way? As you say, loneliness is very different from ‘being alone’, and it is difficult to actually ‘ask’ people if they are lonely.

    I just love sending and receiving ‘real’ letters and notelets! Maybe we ought to rely less on technology and use the mail service a bit more. I know my dad loved getting my weekly letters. He was always disappointed when he only received ‘bills’ through the post.

    Many hugs,


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Ami, I love this! I actually looked up Silverline and wrote to them asking if they’ll take international phone volunteers. I think it’s a wonderful idea. Might be like having a sort of grandparent. ๐Ÿ™‚ I miss calling my grandma every day. I’m so glad you told me about this. I hope that they’ll let me do it.

      I also like the idea of a monthly lunch.

      I think people like to be included, even if they end up saying no. My conscience is pricking a bit here…I can probably try to be more inclusive, as we all can.

      Hugs back.


  9. Nancy Levine says:

    Great post…the holidays are always emotional for me lately because l had health problems in 2011 and almost died and next Tuesday will be the anniversary of when my parents got sick and ended up in the hospital and now a nursing home after almost 60 years of being independent. How am l celebrating? Going to an eye specialist with my dad. l know l will think a lot about that day next week.
    l have a friend who lives close by but always writes me letters, which l treasure.


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Wow, I hope that you are in better health this year. It’s tough to see your family in the nursing home, isn’t it? I hope the eye specialist will give you good news.

      I’m glad you have your letters from your friend.


      • nancygoldberglevine says:

        Well, my health seems to be better…l lost about 110 lbs. lt is tough to see my parents go through that. My dad looked so sad today. The eye doctor he saw today seemed pretty optimistic so we’ll see if the specialist agrees. l love my friend’s letters…she and her husband don’t have cell phones or computers…that’s just not their thing so it’s fun to communicate the old school way.


  10. Grace Mere says:

    Its a horrible thing loneliness! It destroyed my mum after my dad had passed away and much like Amiโ€™s dad she refused to move near to us as my Dads grave was in her village (Bloody daft! I could hear my dad say ๐Ÿ™‚ but understandable.)
    Being an introverted, quiet person myself I can feel lonely as hell in a crowded roomful of people sometimes and yet not see a soul all day and feel fine, most strange!
    Maybe just to hold out a helping hand to another human being is the greatest gift we can give.


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Yes, I can understand wanting to stay by the grave. To lose so much and then intentionally lose that place of connection would be hard.

      Those of us who are introverts do get tired with a lot of group socializing. Yet a one-on-one with a dear friend can leave me ready to conquer the world.

      Holding out a helping hand or a listening ear can make the difference between a difficult life and one worth living, I think. Sometimes people remind me of something I did years ago (and had forgotten about), and vice versa. Usually the other person is surprised it mattered so much. ๐Ÿ™‚


  11. Penelope says:

    Beautiful post, Ana. I agree with Grace – reaching out to another is a priceless gift.

    I write letters to my mum. She sends me the sweetest letters and encloses puzzles (like crosswords etc) she wants help with, because she thinks I’m brainy.

    I wouldn’t part with this little exchange for anything, because those little letters carry so much love.


  12. sarah thorne says:

    Hmmmm, so much to think about in this post! I think there are very many lonely people, many of whom we would probably never guess were lonely.

    Holidays, of course, seem to exacerbate this as everything around you screams “be happy! This is a joyful time!” If you’re anything less, something is wrong with you.

    Remembering happier times, or deceased love ones adds to that feeling of loneliness. Is it any wonder suicides are more prevalent during holidays?

    I think many are uncomfortable thinking about those who are lonely. I think guilt comes from not trying to do something to make it better.

    And lastly, your post brought about a lyric by the late Rich Mullins into my head, “it’s okay to be lonely as long as you’re free.”

    Perhaps many who are lonely would not feel the same.


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      I agree with you 100% that we probably have no idea who is lonely. I also think the focus on buying a bunch of stuff makes holidays harder. Sometimes a holiday is about remembering someone we love. Even remembering someone who can’t be part of our life anymore, like a daughter’s ex-fiance when she has now married someone else.

      You’ve hit it exactly about the discomfort and guilt. We feel uncomfortable if we are happy because we unconsciously wonder whether we deserve it. Then we try to convince ourselves that we do deserve it and manufacture reasons that others are undeserving and we are deserving. It’s a sad distancing act. I remember, in my adolescence, when an adult saw me going through a very difficult time and said to me, “It sounds lonely.” I didn’t even know I was lonely until she said it. That moment of acceptance meant more to me than any of the prizes or grades or competitions I had won.

      Speaking of, I haven’t contacted her in ages. Maybe I’ll look her up.

      I don’t know that song, but I’ll look it up. Maybe it’s about the first responses after becoming free from an unhappy situation?

      Thank you so much for your thoughts.


  13. catrouble says:

    Thank you for such an insightful and timely post Ana! Between you and the comments above…nothing else to say.

    Hugs and Blessings…


  14. Irishey says:

    I don’t have a godmother. I’ve reached out to fellow bloggers today, though, in electronic form. I think that is as important, if not more so, than if I made a card using my rudimentary creative skills, even if I added a few heartfelt words. Not sure even the best words can make up for my grade school level artwork and keep me from total embarrassment! In emailing or commenting on a post, I am giving my time and effort to share my thoughts, anecdotes and support.

    Self-imposed loneliness often is not as self-imposed as others would like to think. It is hurtful to be excluded, ignored, neglected, forgotten, criticised, ridiculed, judged by family, friends, co-workers and social acquaintances. Some people are only willing to subject themselves to so much of that before they withdraw. It doesn’t make sense to repeatedly put themselves at risk for being mistreated. In that respect, they are choosing not to engage and to be lonely as a result, but it seems the better alternative to being hurt by others I’m yet another attempt to socialize.

    I wouldn’t say it is taboo to address loneliness. I think people feel awkward about it, and fear being rebuffed or badly tolerated. It’s much easier simply to pretend loneliness doesn’t exist, instead of reaching out to someone who appears lonely, or the lonely reaching out for companionship with someone who may reject them.

    This was a very thought-provoking post, Ana. I also felt sad while reading it. But it’s okay to feel sad about some things. ๐Ÿ™‚


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Sometimes a small post on someone’s blog, especially a new blogger, can make someone’s day. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Now I’m feeling a bit embarrassed! I sure have rudimentary art skills at the very best. My homemade cards were nothing fancy, just little doodles. Ah well, we each find our own way, right? Hopefully no one laughed too hard at my cards. ๐Ÿ˜€

      You’re absolutely right about the judgments. If we thought back to times when we were lonely, I think we’d realize that it’s not so easy as to join a club or volunteer or whatever. There’s an underlying hurt in all loneliness, exacerbated by the assumptions that we did something wrong to cause it or not end it. Thank you for pointing it out.

      Hm..I am not so sure about the taboo. I think we fear making a faux pas by mentioning it, as if we will embarrass someone. But yes to pretending loneliness doesn’t exist.

      I’m interested in why you felt sad. Sad to think of people experiencing loneliness? In loneliness, sometimes we can experience the deepest connection.


      • terpsichore says:

        To Irishey and Ana…just had to chime in and say I am sure your artwork and heartfelt words were appreciated…it is not the skill, but the love and intention behind the card. I do not consider myself an artist or a writer…but any card or letter I have written was done so with love…and we can only hope that love shines through to the people who receive them. ๐Ÿ™‚


  15. Celeste Jones says:

    What a thoughtful and thought provoking post. It is a good reminder to me to be a bit more mindful of others who I might be able to reach out to.

    My other thought is about the number of people I know (women, though I am sure it affects men as well) who are lonely w/in their marriages because they are completely disconnected from their spouse and have lost any interest or motivation in reconnecting. Or they are so attached to their lifestyle or want to avoid the stigma of divorce that they’d rather live a lonely existence than do something about it.


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Thought provoking, that’s Ana. ๐Ÿ™‚ We’re all lonely in our own way at some time in our lives, aren’t we? I think being lonely in a stale marriage is one thing, but so is serial marrying and divorcing because no one measures up. My parents’ marriage became a real connection when my dad went through cancer. Sometimes I think the easiness of our life can contribute to the loneliness. When crap hits the fan, we find out we need people and can’t take them for granted.


  16. minellesbreath says:

    Ana this was a very timely post. I am blessed to have a very large loving family, but even-so there are times when all of us experience loneliness.The loneliness may come from missing a dear loved one who fills a large part of our life.
    However the students I work with experience so much loneliness and sadness it makes them act out in ways that push everyone away. This was a mini-wake up for me. Thank you.


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Your love for everyone shines, and you do more for others than anyone I know. Yet even in a life surrounded by loved ones you can feel sad for people who aren’t what they used to be. Take care of yourself, too, instead of just focusing on others. Hope today is better. Hugs.


  17. Roz says:

    Wonderful, thought provoking post Ana. Thank you for sharing this.

    I like what you said about being alone and lonely not being the same. I think it’s too easy sometimes to assume that somebody who is not alone can’t be lonely and that someone who is alone must be lonely. A wonderful and timely reminder to reach out to someone we know is lonely.



  18. constance Masters says:

    What a beautiful post Ana. Such wonderful comments. I think we all have to keep our eyes and ears open for people that are lonely. The person that lingers at their mail box hoping to have a word with someone thatโ€™s walking past or the someone sitting alone at a table in a coffee shopโ€ฆanyone who looks like they might like to strike up a conversation. Two minutes of your time and you might be the only person that THAT person gets to talk to all day. xoxo


    • Anastasia Vitsky says:

      Thank you, Constance. I feel blessed each time we have a conversation like this. Sometimes we can be annoyed by someone who wants connection, and other times we receive an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. How neat we can do that! Thank you for being so open to the possibility.


  19. robskatie says:

    This is such a great post, Ana! Just a few moments of someone’s time, connecting with another can make such a difference. And for sure people can be lonely, and not seem to be outwardly. The holidays are filled with so much emotion, and I think that in one way or another, everyone can make a difference to someone by reaching out, in ways big and small.

    This makes me think of a time years ago, when I worked in a hospitals. Sure, most people had someone to come to visit. There were also a good number of people who had no one. Those were the patients who I tend to remember the most. The ones who appreciated the time spent, who chatted away and were glad that for a short time, someone cared enough to bother. There were also the ones who were so sick, that you perhaps couldn’t tell if they noticed your presence beyond a movement or facial expression. I was pretty convinced that in one way or another, they knew that someone had bothered to sit down beside them for a while. Though my job kept me endlessly busy, I would often take a stack of daily paper work in and sit next to those patients, and spend time. To be present is a pretty important thing. I guess that this all made me think of all of the lonely people in hospitals, who have no one. Volunteer lists for many hospitals are filled, and yet they aren’t necessarily getting to those patients that really need someone.

    All from me on this thought provoking post, and wonderful comments! Many hugs,

    โค Katie


    • Nancy Levine says:

      How nice that you did that, Katie…my parents are in a nursing home that’s about 20 miles from where live so l can’t get there as much as l want. l appreciate that the staff is so nice to them and appreciate you.


      • robskatie says:

        Hi Nancy, what a nice comment! It’s wonderful that your parents have you, a well as good and caring health care professionals looking after them. ๐Ÿ™‚ I remember, more recently how important visits were to a relative, who had to spend a few months in rehab. That person counted on those visits to help get through. So many people have no one and are not as lucky. If we could ID these people and do something… Would be wonderful, wouldn’t it?


        • Nancy Levine says:

          lt sure would! l was in rehab two years ago after knee surgery and pneumonia. At that time my parents were able to visit since they were still independent and my friends came when they could. The staff there was really nice, too.


          • Anastasia Vitsky says:

            These comments frustrate me. Surely there are people wanting to volunteer at hospitals. Why can’t hospitals allow people to visit people who don’t have any other visitors? I know we have to be careful of crazy people, and we also have to respect privacy, but I am sure there are people alone who would love a friendly smile or visit. Does anyone know of a program or way to help?


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