Your gain: Learn ways to cope with loneliness after experiencing a loss. Discover how to find comfort in your own company, and embrace your “new normal”.
The idea of loneliness is really a bit overwhelming if you really think about it… at least for me. I don’t just mean the actual overwhelming that “being lonely” can bring. I mean when you think about the levels in which loneliness can come. The severity. It’s depth. The ability to cause disconnection. How many ways it can show up in our lives and affect us in both small and big ways.
As such a truly massive topic to tackle—and there will certainly be more to come on this in the future here—I don’t only want to address loneliness without something you’ve lost. Half the battle after losing something, I feel, is finding yourself and your comfort zone again. Discovering a brave new world where things can be painfully different. One you might have been thrown into without your permission. That’s certainly how I felt when my losses happened.
There’s a LOT at Stake
With yourself, your feeling of connection and your comfort zone at stake, I feel like it’s pretty important to get any form of loneliness under control, no? I want to really hammer the importance of this home with an important idea I gleaned from reading Atlas of the Heart by Brené Brown.
In her section about loneliness, she often references the work of John Cacioppo, who founded the field of social neuroscience and fundamentally changed the way researchers and clinicians understand the concept of loneliness.
Brown says, “Cacioppo explains that Loneliness is not just a sad condition – It’s a dangerous one. The brains of social species have evolved to respond to the feeling of being pushed to the social perimeter—being on the outside—by going into self-preservation mode. When we feel isolated, disconnected, and lonely, we try to protect ourselves. In that mode, we want to connect, but our brain is attempting to override connection with self-protection. That means less empathy, more defensiveness, more numbing, and less sleeping. Unchecked loneliness fuels continued loneliness by keeping us afraid to reach out.”
An Alarming Stat
Not to take this a step further and instill any fear here, but let’s get down and dirty with this very humbling stat real quick. According to a meta-analysis of studies on loneliness, researchers Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, and J. Bradley Layton found that living with obesity increases your odds of dying by 20%. Excessive drinking? 30%. Living with loneliness? 45%. I don’t know about you, but that’s way too much for my comfort zone. Loneliness can be the background of clinical illness, which can contribute to the disease and make it harder for them to heal.
Loneliness is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety. At work, it can limit creativity, reduces work/task performance, and impairs reasoning and decision making.
Losing My Dad to Cancer… and Loneliness
My dad was actually an example of loneliness being the background of an illness, though I didn’t know it at the time. Until I went through my losses and did some research, I was painfully uneducated about depression and loneliness. It wasn’t until my dad was in a hospital bed in my hometown’s ER that the nurse confirmed he was, without a doubt, suffering from both.
I had worried about him phasing into loneliness once my mom died a few months prior. I couldn’t be with him 24/7 and he now lived on his own. Truthfully, even if I had been with him every moment, I don’t think it would have curbed it enough. He was not only mourning his wife of 35+ years, he was mourning the life as he knew it coming to an end. He didn’t have many friends here in California, our famly and his siblings live on the East Coast, and his interaction with the outside world was becoming more limiting by the day outside of doctor’s appointments. That’s a huge blow.
Pair that with a six-year-long journey with prostate cancer and I can now understand that loss in connection. Not only on a human to human level, but having to embrace a very different quality of life and sense of belonging (or lack thereof).
Denying any feelings of loneliness can be one of the biggest disservices you can do to yourself. I honestly think my dad may have done this looking back on it, and it completely breaks my heart. If not to himself, certainly to me. I try to live with little regret in my life but, knowing what I know now, I would have handled the last few months of his life differently. I allow myself grace because I, too, was grieving. Still working full-time, still in a long-term relationship and caring for an 18-year-old dog. You don’t know what you don’t know, right?
I was burning the candle at multiple ends, so I was doing what I could at the time. I know this. Here’s something to consider if you’re in the position of watching someone going through this.
If you think someone you care about is suffering from loneliness, please do your due diligence and pay attention and check-in often. Oftentimes loved ones who care about us don’t want us to worry or burden ourselves. As lovely of a gesture as this is, they could be harming their wellbeing in more severe ways than we, or even they, could possibly imagine. A text, a phone call, an in-person visit (preferable). Anything you can do to let this person know they’re loved, cared for, and connected to you. Don’t wait… seriously.
Here’s why it’s so critical. To quote Brown’s book again, she explains how Cacioppo detailed the biological machinery of our brains and warns us when our ability to thrive is threatened.
Brown says, “Hunger is a warning that our blood sugar is low and we need to eat. Thirst warns us that we need to drink to avoid dehydration pain alerts us to potential tissue damage. And loneliness tells us that we need social connection—something as critical to our well-being as food and water.”
Cacioppo says, “denying you feel lonely makes no more sense than denying you feel hungry.”
Loneliness vs. Being Alone
I want to get to the bottom of your loneliness on a one-on-one with yourself level. Let’s get beyond your loss here. If you were to take away every single person around you, at least for a moment—for a weekend—how would you fare? Would you be okay and comfortable in your own space with yourself?
I put together the above graphic to help discern the difference. The key difference between being lonely and being alone is emotional attachment. Being alone is a state of being, while loneliness is a feeling.
Loneliness stems from feeling like we are not seen or understood by others. Or—and what I think is most important—from within. While solitude is craved by many, others may fear it. From everything I’ve been through and gathered in my research over the years, this really comes down to our relationship with ourselves.
Being Comfortable In Your Own Company
There are people in my very close circle of friends and family that do not do well alone. We could be on the way to their house and they’ll shoot us a text saying, “where are you?! I’m lonely.” Not in a joking way, like an actually impatient kind of way.
I’m not going to call it a red flag because that sounds dramatic, but it does make me wonder. Are they comfortable enough in their own company, in their own skin, in their own mind?
Your Relationship With YOU
While you may be a self-proclaimed extrovert and enjoy the company of others (nothing wrong with that!), if you consistently enjoy being alone, it’s a positive sign that you have a healthy relationship with yourself. If you find yourself avoiding alone time come hell or high water, it may be a sign that you need to work on that relationship.
Now let me interject and say that, of course, there are times we feel lonely but don’t suffer from true, deep loneliness. But if you’re feeling lonely more often than not, this may be a sign to seek some help.
When balanced, we’re more in tune with when we need to be with ourselves for inner reflection, and when we need to surround ourselves with others. We have a sense of individuality, but recognize and support our need for a role as part of a larger entity. Within our family and friend group, within our community, society, and this beautiful planet we inhabit!
Be Your Best You: What To Avoid
When loneliness is overcoming you, consider avoiding the following. These can often make you feel worse or add to the depth of what you’re already feeling.
- Drinking alcohol by yourself
- Excess screen time as a substitute for social activities
- Escaping your feelings through other substances, like non-prescribed medications
Be Your Best You: What To Start
Embracing and accepting ourselves as we are is a daily practice, and it’s a journey—not a destination. Consider implementing these habits to better work on bettering your relationship with yourself:
- Quit the negative self-talk. When negative internal dialogue and judgement takes over, recognize it then let it go. Try replacing it with a positive alternative. I personally love using this as an opportunity to say something I’m grateful for.
- Practice self-care. I have a handful of tools in the Self Care & Wellness category on the blog I would love for you to check out, and I’ll constantly be adding more. Self-care is really unique to you, but could include basics like taking care of your physical and mental needs through exercise, meditation, journaling, seeing a professional, doing a spa day, soaking in an epsom salt bath—the list goes on. Another interesting thing I discovered when researching more about self care is to fulfil promises you make to yourself. For example, did you tell yourself that you’d do the dishes and then go on a walk after work? Do it. Every time you fulfill a promise (this can be big or small!), you build more trust and confidence with yourself.
- Acknowledge your present. Find peace with your past and accept with your current reality. Part of accepting and getting comfortable with ourselves is being aware of how and why we got to where we are. It’s easier to begin to understand the difference between being lonely, but developing and strengthening the relationship with yourself is a far more monumental task that could take a little time. But that’s okay—enjoy the ride! And, don’t forget to ask for help when you need it. Lean on the LBG community, chat with a professional, and talk to yourself and really listen.
What Loneliness Looked Like For Me
In the thick of my losses, even though I didn’t realize it was loneliness at the time, looking back on it the “symptoms” definitely added up. The loneliness I felt was more around not feeling seen or understood emotionally, not anytime I was actually alone.
I was comfortable in the company of others, and even comfortable in my own, actually. In fact, I felt like I needed it to process everything that was happening. But I absolutely wasn’t feeling seen or understood. This is entirely possible. Any version of this, any level of this could look the same for you, too.
I could have had a dear friend with me saying, “I TOTALLY get where you’re coming from. That’s totally relatable.” I would be like… do you? Do you ACTUALLY understand how I’m feeling right now? Probably not, but their heart was in the right place. It was my loneliness that, I think, was getting in the way there.
By the way, if anyone does this with you when they clearly aren’t able to put themselves in your shoes because they haven’t been through it—have patience and grace with them. It used to annoy me when someone would say that because they likely didn’t really understand the depth of my pain, but it’s hard to make someone feel seen and understood when something so heartbreaking has happened. Let’s give them some credit for trying!
The million dollar question, right?
We have to first learn how to identify it and to have the courage to see it as a warning sign. The response to this warning sign? Find a connection. Before you jump the gun, this doesn’t mean you have to go join a bunch of groups or check in with dozens of friends. Although, I mean what I said earlier about checking in with someone if you feel they’re more seriously suffering.
I should also say, while joining 12 new groups might not be the perfect answer, I do hope Losses Become Gains and this community can help you find a little more of that! By the way, if you haven’t already joined the LBG Facebook Group and followed LBG on Instagram, to dig deeper into the community, please do!
Here are some other ideas to consider:
- Many employers offer an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). These services come at no cost to you and provide confidential access to counselors and therapists trained to deal with all kinds of issues. I actually used this back in my mid-20’s, during my first engagement which ended in a break up. Despite the result, it was actually very helpful in allowing us to understand that was the best course, and I was thankful it was available. There’s zero shame here ladies and gents, it’s what it’s for!
- Volunteer or work with animals. You’ll not only help curb your loneliness, but you can do it on your terms, as little or often as you’d like (assuming there aren’t any minimums), and in a subject matter you’re interested in. Enjoy working with kids? The Boys and Girls Club or some similar organization is a great start. Have a soft spot for seniors? They could always use extra love and care in senior care facilities. There’s often a higher percentage of loneliness there, too! The connections you could make can be truly life changing. Love kitties or doggos? Yep—same here. They, too, need lots of TLC. In return, you get decreased levels of cortisol (stress-related hormone), lower blood pressure, reduced loneliness, increased feelings of social support, and they boost your mood. Need I say more?!
- Pick up a hobby you’ve let go, or begin a new one. Fun fact: I used to play piano when I was really young, and I’ve thought about starting it up again so many times. One of these days I swear I will, but in the meantime, I’ve taken up my love of writing again with this journal! This can really be anything. Art, cooking, reading, yoga, candle making, learning a language… do some research and find what sparks joy.
- Spend time outdoors and exercise as much as possible. It’s really easy to get too comfortable and caught up, sad and lonely in our own homes. Take walks, go on a bike ride, go to a local garden or park and walk around or sit and read (or simply take in the surroundings!). Breathe, get that fresh air, and soak in this beautiful thing we call life.
- Be sure you have a healthy diet full of lean meats and greens. When you’re feeling particularly down, try your best to avoid alcohol and drugs, too, as mentioned before. As I’m sure it goes without saying, but ima do it anyway, depressants and stimulants can really mess with your mood and mindset. Let’s not go down that road, shall we? We’re on the road to living our best, healthiest, highest and truest selves. This is a way to give ourselves a real chance.
So, about finding those connections…
Building Genuine Connections
To reference Brené Brown’s book (yet again), let’s break down what connection actually means and why it’s so important. Brown refers to it as, “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
What’s important when building a connection is the quality of friends or relationships, not the quantity. Who around you fills you up? Who brings joy? Comfort? Understanding? No judgment? Who doesn’t simply gloss over your feelings or minimize, but will validate or have a rational heart-to-heart with you if needed? Think about those qualities you would hope for in a connection that brings value to your life.
I would 100% say I’m one of those people that have fewer but REAL close, ride-or-die type friends. When I say they’re my go-to’s, I mean that wholeheartedly. While I’m happy to have other friends and acquaintances around me that I’m happy to surround myself with, putting that love and effort into more focused relationships brings more meaningful, genuine, long-lasting connections. This is the key to what you need to seek. Not saying you need to go through your long list of friends and cut some people out, just be wise with your heart and mind when it comes to relationships.
The Effects of Social Media
Oh, social media… what a love/hate relationship it can be. While there can be so many beautiful, inspiring, funny things to look at, it can be equally toxic and have adverse effects.
I’m sure so much of this goes without saying, but we have to carefully consider what and who we’re absorbing. And more importantly… why. Think about some influencers or accounts you follow on a regular basis. Maybe you even have a reminder set when they post on their feed or story. What does that spark in you? Is it purely for gratification, entertainment or motivation (in a healthy way), or does it provoke longing, envy or jealousy? The BIG question here, given this is a blog on loneliness… Does it make you feel fulfilled and leave you feeling better than when you opened the app?
You may see a thrilling life full of adventure and incredible trips with beautiful friends at their side. Near-perfect bodies, exciting events and glamor. Or, maybe it’s none of those things and it’s whatever speaks to you. Bottom line, lord knows we don’t know the full scope of their reality, do we?
Be thoughtful and cautious with what you’re intaking. For some, social media can contribute to greater feelings of loneliness, isolation, and inadequacy. I’m SO guilty of falling into this trap. Especially with inadequacy or feeling guilt over something I feel like I should be doing because others are. I’m sure you’ve heard that not everything you see on social media is 1) the truth, and 2) the whole picture. You guys, it’s true!
Point being, if being online feels more isolating and negative than evoking feelings of connectedness, you may want to consider signing off for an afternoon. Or, remove the app for an extended time. We could all use a detox sometimes! It’s hard to kick the addiction, but that’s kind of the point. Feel empowered and motivated to be your own person with your own thoughts, feelings, and goals. And, most importantly, do not play the comparison game!
Dip Your Toes In
Loneliness can be a tricky game and very hard to cope with. You could be surrounded by so much love, but if it’s not coming from the right place or the root of where you’re feeling the loneliness, you might find it doesn’t resolve the feeling.
If you’ve felt lonely for a while, despite knowing plenty of people, it can be scary to think about meeting new people or opening for the first time. Here’s the beauty of it, though—you don’t need to rush into anything!
Try doing an online activity where other people attend but you’re not expected to interact with them, like an art lesson or learning a language. When interested in joining a new group or class in person, don’t be afraid to ask if you can just watch at first, rather than taking part. That’s a nice way to ease into it and feel more comfortable.
A Closing Thought
I feel like we’re really only scratching the surface here, but I’ll leave you with this.
While I feel I’ve been through the wringer enough to be able to speak on loneliness, your journey with this is entirely your own. I truly hope some of the guidance and information laid out in this entry has helped you open your mind and consider it differently. Know that it may take time, energy, and patience, and embrace that going into it. use this as an opportunity to learn about yourself! Especially this potentially new version of yourself post-loss. It’s a day-by-day undertaking, but I promise you it can also be very exciting.
If you’re genuinely struggling, I encourage you to seek more professional help. Loneliness is no joke, and there’s zero shame. As shown in the statistics from earlier, loneliness is more common than you may think and you are nowhere near alone here!