The loneliness of grief and why I think we need to talk about it

⚠️ 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 almost certainly a reality for millions of people around the world during the pandemic.

But when I talk about loneliness, I include what it means to feel disconnected. For many people, they recognise what it’s like to be surrounded by those they know, yet who don’t really “get” them, and so feel out of place. Our “social norms” often set standards that we should “fit in” and not be different. We hide our authenticity or shift our values in a need to belong. We don’t feel heard or understood. And that can be lonely.

Lacking connection can also 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 my book, Answers in the Dark, I talk about how grief shows up, even if no one has died. We assume when we speak about grief, that we mean following bereavement, and yet throughout our life we will have experienced loss after loss that we’ve either been able to process or not. It might have been parents divorcing at an early age. Being made to change schools and leave friends behind. As we get older, it may be through redundancy or retiring from a beloved job of 30 years. It all counts.

And yet, society doesn’t necessarily recognise these as “reasonable reasons to grieve” (sometimes referred to as “disenfranchised grief), or give us permission to explore them as such. When we feel like we can’t talk about how we feel, our grief can go underground. We may not even connect with the fact that we’ve experienced a loss, and yet nonetheless our body speaks to us in various ways, like not being able to sleep or the dreams we have when we do. Imagine if every loss you’ve experienced but couldn’t process is just resting underneath awareness, and its only outlet is in the darkness of night. It might not be an obvious thought about grief itself, just an ineffable noise that keeps you awake that’s implicitly saying “I’m not ok”. This is why I wrote this book.

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Creating safe spaces for people to talk about their grief should be a natural part of our every day conversation. And yet, discussions around death and dying are seen as morbid and taboo. We feel uncomfortable asking if someone’s ok, and we worry we might make things worse. The reality is, for grieving people, the worse has probably 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. Thankfully there are organisations there to help if you need time or space to talk about the loss you’ve been through.

What else can help?

In speaking to grieving people over the many years I’ve worked in this arena, they’ve often echoed similar things that can help. Many recognise that having a group of people that do understand is so important – connection and community are key to our well-being. This very idea of bringing grieving people together and holding space for each other was the concept behind the work I’ve done travelling around the country, training people how to run peer-support groups. Organisations like the Good Grief Trust also offer talking spaces for people to connect.

It can also help to find ways to reconnect with the world around you. It might be through yoga or meditation, music lyrics that uplift you or poetry that helps you feel seen. Have a think about what could bring back a sense of connection, even if in your own company. In the same way, think about what you’ve had to sacrifice in order to feel like you belong. Have you had to make changes which mean that you’re not living life aligned with your values? If your friends and family aren’t helping, see if you can find ways to communicate to them what you need, that allow you to show up authentically in all that you do. It’s ok to say “I’m grieving and how I feel is to be expected”.

If you know someone going through a difficult time processing a loss, it’s also important to let them feel what they feel. Our instinct as humans is to go in to what can be known as the Fixing Reflex, in an effort to “cheer them up” out of their pain. But grief just doesn’t work like that. It needs to be seen and understood in order for people to find their way forward, knowing that they may need to revisit that, time and again. Creating a safe space for someone to talk might be as simple as saying “how can I help?” or even something practical, like walk their dog.

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. Grieving doesn’t have to be lonely. We can bring light in to the dark.

This article was written originally for Mental Health Awareness Week 2022 and the theme is loneliness. Answers in the Dark is available to purchase on Amazon.

Published by Delphi

Offers "educational side-bars" which may contain uncomfortable conversations. Been on the telly. © All rights reserved.

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