At the center of loss lies the feeling of longing, the realization that he or she is gone and not coming back. In the face of emptiness we virtually may want to cry out, "Where are you?" And the reply is only an echo. "Where are you, where are you . . . where?" Longing and loneliness: a set of feelings common among those who grieve. As we shall see, even months after we suffer a great loss and feel that perhaps we should be feeling better, the loneliness can still haunt us. Let us turn our attention, then, to how we can deal with the feeling of being alone. Why the Loneliness Lately?
Because grief is a universal emotion people think they know how it feels for everyone else, and in one sense the generalization is true. Your loss is different from the lost of everyone else. The way you loved the one you lost, and the way he or she loved you, is not identical to the love known by others; similar, but not exactly the same. While it is meant to be comforting when folks tell us that they know the longing we're going through, the truth is that we have to go through it ourselves, and that can be lonely indeed.
What can make dealing with loneliness so very isolating is that putting our feelings into words is hard. The grieving want to define their pain in the hope that, through definition, some meaning might develop and help make sense out of why things happen the way they do. That is why grieving is so very individualized. But how do we explain the feeling of missing? How do we describe what no longer exists?
Someone shared this account of loneliness. "I felt totally alone the minute he
died. Death robbed me of my life-long companion. At his last breath, as his spirit went fleeting from the room, I felt my own heart race and stop, race and stop again; and it seemed that it would be stopped forever, waiting for me to decide whether there was any point in my going on."
Loneliness can make broken hearts heal slowly. Longing is especially hard on anyone who spent a lifetime with a soul mate. The bereft include a woman who says of her late husband, "He took care of all the finances, and I know nothing about it; I am so lost." Included also is the husband who says of his late wife, "She did all the cooking, but it's more than I can't cook, I just do not want to eat anymore." And then there are the children who wonder what life will be like without their parents. For the missing one is the mother or father, the grandmother or great-grandfather who bridged generations and knew the comforting value of traditions in an increasingly volatile world.
Sometimes family members and friends begin to feel distance, if not total aloneness, even before their loved one is gone. This happens, for example, when the patient was reluctant to talk about his or her illness, and the family did not have the opportunity to deal with the reality of what was happening. For these survivors, the missing can be profound, the loneliness sudden and jarring.
In other cases, people are fortunate in being surrounded by family and friends at the hardest of times. Yet even in the presence of others we can feel alone. The attention they showed us may have delayed the onset of our loneliness, but their company may be less frequent now. When Will the Loneliness End?
Perhaps you are feeling truly alone for the first time. There are good reasons why we may have the feeling of loneliness more now than before. The relatives have returned to Florida or North Carolina, to the Caribbean or Kansas. The sympathy cards arrived daily at first, but last week, there was just one -- from an old friend who read the obituary in the alumni magazine. Bouquets that filled the apartment with scents of lilies and roses have been tossed out. Consumed are the baskets of fruit the neighbors brought over. People at church or synagogue seem to inquire less often now; preoccupied, they have lives of their own. The telephone rings less frequently. At work, where recovery from broken-heartedness is expected to progress according to a time sheet, life goes on. Yet, we will not feel better according to a timeline determined by others and we cannot just opt out of feeling lonely.
We move through the loneliness. Movement is one of the most effective ways that grief can be resolved. To move beyond the place we are now in - emotionally -- does not mean that we forget our dear ones. Rather, we want to progress through the longing, through the loneliness, to arrive at a place where the memory of loved ones is not emotionally disabling to us. It is not that we wait, frozen in isolation, before moving on. It is rather that we move through the longing, taking cherished memories with us, and go forward.
To move through an agonizing time is to grow spiritually. Growth is often a painful process. Loneliness is painful too. Reason this through, if you will, and you will most likely arrive at the conclusion that growth holds more promise than longing. But of course reasoning works better when we have a partner with whom to dialogue. Your partner in dialogue may be the one whose loss you are grieving. So this gentle reminder: loneliness has no place to go -- but you do. Where Will the Longing Lead?
The encouraging thing about understanding our grief is that the experience of longing for someone can be as much about the future as it is about the past. This is what it means to live through the loneliness, to be able to endure while feeling the longing and at the same time move forward. Where, you may ask, will this spiritual movement lead. Movement unfolds knowledge. This is literally the meaning of the Greek root words for diagnosis - "knowing through." You will find that knowing through - or going through -- the loneliness will develop new insights. These include a deepening appreciation of the one you lost and a fuller understanding of what it means to honor their life by how you live yours. The future may be frightening to us now; it is unknown and beyond our control. But the future may also hold better things than we can now imagine. There is life beyond loneliness, and life if full of surprises.
Nothing is really fixed in time. The universe is still unfolding. Love cannot be preserved as a memento but is alive and dynamic. The dynamic makes it possible for us to look back while taking a chance on what lies ahead, to remember and at the same time anticipate what is yet to be - the future that is amazingly unfinished and profoundly to be hoped for.
This meditation was written by
the Reverend William Purdy, STM, DD
Copyright (c) 2004 All rights reserved.
This publication is made possible by a gift from Roland DeL. Rinsland, Ed. D.