Last month I had an epiphany. My eyes were opened to the similarities of grief and loneliness and the fact that I have long confused the two.
It reminded me of something I wrote several months after my husband died called Grief vs. Fear. I talked about how the body responds to grief and fear with identical physical symptoms, and that not only can it be hard to discern one from the other, but that they can often be intertwined as one. As C.S. Lewis wrote on this in his book entitled A Grief Observed, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid.”
…. No one ever told me that loneliness felt so like grief. I am not “grieving”, but the sensation is like grief.
If you know me, or have read much of my writing, you will know that I think and examine life with much introspection. I am a continual student with an insatiable appetite to learn, grow and transform while moving forward in this journey called life. I regularly look back at my life and ask questions, like… Why did I respond that way? Why did that change? Why don’t I do that anymore? Why did I ever do that before? Why am I feeling this way? Why does that hurt my heart? Why did that make me cry? What does this mean? Why am I afraid of that? Why do I hold on to that? What am I supposed to learn from this? Why is grief still lingering so? Why do I feel so lonely all of the time?
It was these kinds of questions that brought me to a place of recognition that I have mistaken loneliness for grief.
Webster’s dictionary defines “grief” as, “deep sadness caused especially by someone’s death, deep poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement.” It defines “lonely” in similar terms, "sad from being apart from other people, cut off from others, sad from being alone, producing a feeling of bleakness or desolation, causing feelings that come from being apart from other people."
Notice grief can be deep distress “as if" caused by bereavement, which means the same feeling can be experienced but not because of the death of someone. Loneliness is deep distress, or bleakness, and without bereavement as well.
After moving from Mississippi to New York, 19 months after my husband’s sudden death, I found myself in a good place emotionally for the first time since he had died. My hope and purpose for life were slowly resurrecting from the ashes. I recently looked back at photographs taken the first few months after the move and I noticed my face was lit up with joy, and the grief, the tiredness, the darkness, and the excruciating pain had lifted from my countenance. I could see the hope again in my eyes.
…Then January 2013 hit
I came down with a harrowing case of the flu that lasted three weeks. I felt alone and frightened without another adult in the house and had to depend solely on my children for my every need. (I must add that they did an amazing job.) Looking back, I can now see that it was at this point the loneliness began to fall on me like a dense fog. As if this had not been enough for me to handle, my dad experienced a severe stroke at the beginning of the third week. I was in bed in New York and he was in bed, slipping in and out of consciousness, in Mississippi. I could barely walk to the bathroom or kitchen, so the idea of getting on a plane and flying to his bedside was out of the question. For the next seven days, I lived by text messages from my four siblings and conversations with my mom. I kept thinking, “If I could only get my strength up to shower and go to the kitchen, I could fly to Mississippi to hold his hand.”
About the time I was getting stronger, I received the call informing me that he was getting transferred to hospice. I had four days, at best, to get there before he died. We flew in on a cold and rainy Sunday afternoon. I held his hand and threw myself across his chest while he lay there struggling to breathe. I kissed his hands, his forehead, and his cheeks… I touched his hair… I studied our hands together and realized how similar they were… I held a cool damp cloth on his warm forehead… I thanked him for what he had been to me… I told him he had done a great job… I whispered in his ear… I prayed aloud… I recited my favorite scripture to him… I told him I loved him.
I awoke in the early hours the next morning to a phone call from my sister that he had just died… almost exactly two years after my husband.
After returning to New York, I began a long stretch of months with new emotions. New because they were slightly different than the kind of grief I had felt when my husband Michael died. I was not able to put my finger on it until last month. I was experiencing loneliness. Two years of living inside my own little time capsule, pulled away from people, and not having a life companion beside me had finally brought me to the door of loneliness.
Countless months last year I thought I was only grieving but now I realize that the grieving had turned into sheer loneliness. I was sad from being apart from other people. Apart from someone who loved me for me, and all that I am. I was sad from being alone for two straight years without anyone whom to share my life on a daily basis. I was experiencing a feeling of bleakness or desolation…loneliness.
Now another year has passed, and I sit here looking back at it to extrapolate all that I can in order to learn from what I experienced.
There are times when looking back can be a good thing if the purpose for looking back is to learn from our past to help improve our future. In keeping our eyes straight ahead on the road that lies before us, we must sometimes look back in order to recognize a pattern, or where we experienced roadblocks, what worked, what did not work, or to remember where we made a wrong turn so that we will not do it again. Looking back for the sole purpose of bemoaning what we see in our past or wishing things had turned out differently does not help us to keep the journey moving forward and, often times, can only cause us to stumble over our feet as we turn around while trying to walk at the same time.
By looking back over last year, I learned that I had stepped over from grieving to loneliness. This is actually a good sign to me. I had been wondering if I was ever going to come out of the deep grief, but now I realize that I had, even if it only rolled over into a state of loneliness. Loneliness can be remedied…grief, death, loss cannot. Grief is what it is. Death is what it is. The loneliness I feel means I am craving to be around people and I am ready, and need, to allow people back into my life. This is a positive step forward in this journey called life and can only propel me more towards my purpose.