Loneliness can be a common experience for people after a loss or bereavement. People may feel lonely for many reasons. They may have lost someone very close to them, and miss all the things they used to do or share with that person. They may find that a few months after their loss, the initial support they received has lessened, as others appear to be moving on with their lives. Sometimes family and friends appear to withdraw or to become involved in their own lives, or they may seem to be less comfortable around the bereaved person. And sometimes, as part of their own grieving process, people find that they have withdrawn from people or from activities that they used to enjoy. This can lead to feelings of isolation, and they may find it harder to pick up the threads of their old life, or to move on and form a new life. Indeed, some people may feel that they are being disloyal to the person they have lost if they do move on.
It is important to remember that these feelings and experiences are normal, and are part of the grieving process. Particularly difficult times can include around three months after the loss, where the initial support may be lessening, anniversaries of the loss (especially the first anniversary), and holidays or special dates.
If any of these experiences are familiar to you, it is also important to remember that there is no one ‘right way’ to get through these. There are many different ways to cope with loneliness after loss, and it is important to find what feels right for you.
Some coping strategies that others have found helpful include the following:
- Take care of yourself: it is important to look after yourself, and allow time for yourself. By taking time to think about yourself, you can re-discover what you like and don’t like, and what you want from life.
- Let people know what you need: sometimes family and friends don’t know what to say or how to help, and this can make them seem uncomfortable or withdrawn. Letting them know what would be helpful to you can make it easier to re-connect with them. For instance, you might let them know that you just need them to listen to you, or that you just want to have a coffee and a chat about day-to-day things, or that sometimes you need a little bit of time to yourself but can see them later on. Remember, it is ok to ask for help, and to let others know what you need.
- Find people to talk to: as part of taking care of yourself, it can be helpful to find people who understand, who you can talk to about your feelings. These might be trusted family members, friends, your minister, priest or spiritual adviser, support groups, or a professional counselor.
- Join a Support Group: often it can feel that you are the only one going through these experiences. Joining a support group can help you feel less alone, and give you opportunities to meet and share with others in similar circumstances.
- Give yourself permission to move on: when you feel ready, it is ok to allow yourself to move on with your life. This is not to say that you can forget about or replace the person you have lost. Rather, it is finding a new place in your life for that person, which can give you space for other relationships and interests.
- Spend time with family and friends: try to make some time to spend with the family and friends that you have enjoyed seeing previously. If you don’t feel up to seeing them for prolonged periods, perhaps you can arrange to meet for a coffee or phone for a chat. The main thing is to keep in touch with people that are important to you.
- Find activities you enjoy: return to activities that you have previously enjoyed, or try new ones. This can help in meeting people that you share something in common. Sometimes it is good to try these even if you don’t feel that you will enjoy them. Doing something where you are around others can help you feel more connected to life again, and the enjoyment usually follows later.
- Try volunteer work: sometimes people find it helps them to volunteer for a cause that is important to them. As well as helping others, this can help you by feeling good about what you are doing, and by getting out and meeting people.
- Try to stay away from negative thinking: sometimes you might find yourself thinking negatively about your situation, for example ‘ no-one will want to spend time with me’ or ‘I can’t get through this’. Such thoughts can lead to you feeling down and prevent you from moving on with your life. Be kind to yourself, remember your strengths, and try thinking more helpful thoughts such as ‘I have a lot of positive qualities to bring to a relationship’ and ‘I can cope with this’.
Coping with difficult anniversaries
Even when you are working through your grief and loss, you may still experience what others have called ‘anniversary reactions’. This is where a particular date or time of year brings back painful memories of the person you have lost. Again, there is no one right way to get through these difficult anniversaries.
Some strategies that others have found helped them include:
- Make a plan: think about what you can do on days that you know will be difficult. You may want to plan a day that is busy, with little time to ‘stop and think’. Or you may want to allow yourself time to grieve. Letting family and friends know what you need can often be helpful for you and for them. If they know that they don’t have to make your grief go away, and that they can simply be there for you, that is often one of the best gifts they can give.
- Remember what has helped earlier in your grieving: try to see these painful or difficult feelings as a normal part of your grieving process rather than as a setback. Think about anything that has helped you in your grieving, these techniques can help you again.
- Write a letter: sometimes it can be helpful to write a letter to the person you have lost. In the letter, you can tell them how you feel, how their absence has affected you and give the letter an ending. This can be a good way to express your feelings and thoughts about your loss.
- Make a Gift/Share Good Memories: another way to cope with loss around holiday periods, is to make gifts of pictures, collectibles or other items to others who are close to the person lost. Sharing a life history or photo album can help bring back good memories of the person you have lost.
Remember that there is no one right way to cope with loneliness after loss, and with difficult anniversaries. The important thing is to find what works for you. Above all remember to take care of yourself.
Alison McWalter, M.Phil., R. Psych.