Even worse was being alone after he died. After my husband died, I thought I’d die of loneliness. It was so hard losing him to cancer, watching him disintegrate when there was nothing I could do about it.
We don’t talk about loneliness like it’s an illness, but it seems like one to me. A big umbrella of an illness with many different causes and terrible symptoms. After my husband died, I started having anxiety attacks at night. I’d start hyperventilating because I felt so unbearably alone in my own house.
Advertisement – Continue Reading Below
I drank too much to numb out my feelings. I was angry because I felt so cut off from people. I was a scary driver. I was self-destructive sometimes. I wasn’t sure I wanted to continue living. I’d seen my husband through cancer but who cared about me? When a man came along who told me I was beautiful and that he loved me, I let him practically move in with me even though he was not right for me and not someone I should be with, for many reasons.
I wish we had local drop-in centers where people who felt crushed by loneliness could talk to each other and watch funny movies together. Maybe over milkshakes. Part of what helped me feel better was learning that other people felt like I did even though the cause was different. It helped to hear from others that they too didn’t know how to live without their partners.
I think we should be having dialogues on how to help the unbearably lonely. I’m not alone in losing my spouse of many years and feeling alienated. Or thinking I was going out of my skull being alone. Or doing things I wouldn’t have done were I not so desperate for human contact.
My biggest regret is that I didn’t try to cultivate friendships over the years. I couldn’t expect people I saw only casually to fold me into their lives when I needed them.
My husband and I were each others’ best friends; we didn’t really need to socialize. He was an engineer happy to be with me and his computer and I was happy to be with him. My biggest regret is that I didn’t try to make and cultivate friendships over the years. Then maybe I would have had a support network. I couldn’t expect people I saw only casually to fold me into their lives when I needed them.
My best advice to the happily partnered is to invest in your friendships. You might really need them one day. I had a few random friends I’d collected over the years, but when I needed someone to hold on tight when I reached out, I came back empty. I found out later that some friends didn’t contact me because they were uncomfortable talking about death. Not knowing what to say, they stayed away.
Maybe the dialogue about loneliness could have a part about how to help someone who’s suffered a loss by talking to them. All you have to say is, “I’m sorry. Would you like to get a coffee and talk?” But people don’t seem to know that.
All you have to say is ‘I’m sorry. Would you like to get a coffee and talk?’
For the first time in many years, I needed to feel connected, but I didn’t know how to do that. In the months after my husband died, sometimes my only daily contact with people was saying “hi” on my walks or at the gym. I could go whole days without talking to another person unless I made an effort to schedule something.
Gradually, I learned to work with my loneliness. I got help. My grief counselor told me to reach out more, to be willing to be vulnerable and to tell people I was a widow trying to make friends. My rabbi — I joined a synagogue to meet people — told me I needed to learn to be alone, to enjoy my own company; then I might meet someone I could love for themselves, not as an antidote to being alone.
I joined a bunch of groups and took classes. I made some friends. I learned to be the first to reach out. I got a part-time job in retail. I tried online dating, but I became addicted to it for awhile.
Fixing loneliness requires a real connection, a feeling of being understood. But that can be so elusive and subjective. Despite engaging in lots of social activities, I still felt unbearably alone sometimes. Social interactions in a group often seem perfunctory, staying at the surface level. It can be a lot of work to trudge through the small talk. Or to go to things and not relate to anyone.
I can’t eliminate my loneliness. My husband and I were so connected, and I will always miss him. It’s taken me almost three years to learn how how to cope with my loneliness, to reach out, to stop trying to drown myself in drinking or dating. To want to live.
My greatest wish is that we simply talk about it.