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Overcoming Lonliness After Loss

 

By Erin Diehl

Eight years ago, when my husband, Dave, died with cancer after only three monthsí illness, I was so overwhelmed with loneliness I thought the huge chasm of pain would never be filled. The days were an endless maze of meaningless routine, and my emotions ran amok like a malfunctioning roller coaster.

The nights were even worse. I couldnít sleep and spent the lonely hours trying to read and pray, or wandering from room to room seeking I knew not what. I was alone and my big, old Victorian house was filled with memories and heartbreaking reminders of our 43 happy years together. How would I ever make it alone?

Now I look back, and although I still miss my husbandís goodness and loving presence, I feel only a gentle ache in my heart. Today I agree with an anonymous quote I put on my refrigerator door eight years ago: "Itís not so bad-and youíre not the only one!" How did I get to this point of having a peaceful heart?

Working Your Way Through

Having decided eight years ago to be a "creative survivor," as outlined in one of the many books I read on grief during those sleepless nights, I tried to do all the practical things I could. I did not feel like myself for a very long time, but some of the things I found helpful may help you, too.

Reach out to friends. Having many friends has always been one of my most cherished blessings. Perhaps this is a result of having been an only child and learning early to reach out to others. After my husbandís death, I had to learn that when my loneliness seemed overwhelming I could not sit around and wait for someone to call me. I needed to initiate the encounter.

There were times when I was disappointed. I was sometimes surprised when certain people I thought would be attentive just werenít there for me. Others, from whom I didnít expect as much, came through with much loving support. The same holds for family members. Some will probably support you in tremendous ways. Others may not be available in the way that you wish. Donít let it get you down. If you seek support, you will find it.

One friend of mine, Elaine, has been a constant source of strength to me. We live in the same small town but had none one another only casually before Elaineís husband died three years ago. Her courage and faith appealed to me greatly as I saw her trying to cope with the loneliness of widowhood. Elaine and I have become fast friends. Perhaps there is someone who has been through a loss comparable to yours, with whom you can now establish bonds of friendship and support.

Commemorate your loss. If you are grieving the death of a loved one, find a way to express the loss you feel, and also to symbolize the ongoing presence of that loved one in your life. Friends who lost their 30-year-old son to AIDS held a beautiful ceremony in our church basement after the funeral. It was a joyful commemoration of their son Joeís life, complete with cherished reminders of his life- his old football jersey, awards for various achievements, and photos from different times in his life. The wonderful photo of Joe that hangs in their living room, alongside the photos of their other children, seems to say, "Yes, we miss Joe, but he is still with us."

Find a way to celebrate the gift that your loved one has been to you. Perhaps you could plant a tree or write a poem. However you choose to memorialize your loved one, draw comfort from the fact that nothing can take your cherished memories from you or erase the untold ways your loved one has touched your life and remains very much with you.

Let nothing disturb you, Let nothing frighten you. All things are passing, God never changes. Patience gains all things. Who has God wants nothing. God alone is sufficient.

-St. Teresa of Avila

"Our loss can become our gain- a blessing thatís born in pain."

Trust that the pain will pass. My friend Mary was in a lot of pain after her husband abruptly left her with six children to raise. Even though the marriage had not been an ideal one, Mary felt the agony of loneliness. But her faith carried her through the most difficult times, and she is a wiser and stronger person today.

"We can pass through pain because it will not last forever," she says. Mary believes that all of life involves gift and loss. "It is a circle that continues- new joys and new sorrows come into our lives." If your pain feels overwhelming, take some comfort in knowing it will not always feel as intense as it does today.

Meanwhile, give yourself time to grieve and to heal. There is no set timetable and no need to surround yourself with "busyness" all the time. Being alone for awhile may allow you to learn valuable things about yourself that will help with future relationships.

Cultivate an appreciation for solitude. A young friend of mine, Stephen, suffered from a string of broken relationships. Finally he came to a realization: "There is a difference between loneliness and solitude," he says. "You have to develop a sense that you are O.K. with yourself. The thing Iíve learned is that I can be comfortable when I am by myself."

Find activities you can do alone that bring you satisfaction and peace of mind and heart. Perhaps gardening will bring you comfort, or painting, music, reading, walking- the list is limited only by your imagination. At your time of deepest loss, try to find something special to do that brings you joy. You can never replace the person you have lost, but you can find comfort in solitude it you learn to befriend it. A quiet time for prayer can encourage a greater appreciation for the joys of time alone.

Get the support you need. After an experience of great loss, it is natural to feel a variety of emotions. If you would like some ongoing help exploring and working through some of the difficult emotions that may surface, consider getting some private counseling, attending a support group that addresses your needs, or both.

I once had the opportunity to sit in on a support group for unemployed persons. Many of the members recently had been laid off because of corporate downsizing. What a blow to a personís self-esteem! Yet some members were able to find new jobs through contacts made in the group, while others started new careers that brought more satisfaction than their previous work. Most helpful for members was learning that they were not "the only one." Youíll learn this, too, if you are able to connect with others who have experienced a loss similar to your own.

But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, All losses are restored And sorrows end.

William Shakespeare

Turn to God for strength. My faith in God was and is the best coping tool I have. Prayer and meditation can be excellent paths to inner peace and balance. If you are feelings too distressed to pray or sit quietly, donít forget that there are a host of excellent spiritual books and tapes.

Julia Cameron, in The Artistís Way, recommends writing three pages a day in a diary. You can use this time to carry on a conversation with God or simply to let out some of the feelings that may be welling up inside. There is great value in "externalizing" your pain, getting it out in the open, on a page, in a drawing- whatever mode of expression best suits you. Consider each and every one of these efforts to be a prayer. They are.

For some years I have belonged to a prayer group that meets every week. We are a close-knit group of 12 caring friends who meet to share and pray at a deep level. We pray for the needs of others and for our own needs. "Ask and you shall receive," Jesus said. But beware that the spirit dwells within you and that you can call on the many gifts of the spirit for comfort and strength in your time of pain and loss.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, emphasizes the value of a grateful heart. It is hard to be thankful and sad at the same time. Spend a little time pondering the many things in your life for which you are grateful. With time, you may even feel gratitude for the admittedly painful lessons you are learning as you move through your present loss.

Take Heart

Each year I make a retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. In the beautiful surroundings and solitude I am able to pray, as the late Thomas Merton did, that even though I have no idea where I am going, I can trust God and have no fear. God is ever with me and will not leave me to face my perils alone.

Feisty Teresa of Avila gave me the quote I live by, and which my husband had engraved on a bracelet for me: "All things pass." And indeed they do- including the overwhelming pain that you may be feeling right now. It is only human to cry out for relief. Surely it will be forthcoming from the God who loved us first.

Erin Diehl is a clinical pastoral counselor, a spiritual director, and a writer with four grown children. She lives in Loveland, Ohio, in a 124-year old Victorian house high on a hill, with two dogs.

Sources of additional help

Books: A Retreat With Job and Julian of Norwich by Carol Luebering, Cincinnati, Ohio, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1995. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by David D. Burns, M.D., New York, New York, Signet, 1980. Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer by Brother David Steindl-Rast, Ramsey, New Jersey, Paulist Press, 1984. Praying Our Goodbyes by Joyce Rupp, O.S.M., Notre Dame, Indiana, Ave Maria Press, 1988. Radical Grace: Daily Meditations by Richard Rohr, O.F.M., Cincinnati, Ohio, St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1993.

 

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