Loneliness: Grief’s Unintended Guest

Jennifer Messeltby Jennifer Messelt, LMSW, LGSW

After a loved one has died, you may feel like you are consumed by your grief—and often loneliness—especially if you had a close relationship with the person who died. Even though you may be surrounded by others, the physical and emotional void left by the person’s death may be accompanied by an overwhelming sense of loneliness.

As a grief specialist, a common phrase I hear from people who are grieving is, “I can be around people all day, and I still feel lonely.” This is especially true for those who have lost a spouse. It is completely normal to feel loneliness in your grief. When grief comes into our lives, we can be caught off guard with the heaviness of it all, including physical and emotional reactions. It can feel like you’re alone not only in the physical absence of someone, but also in your emotional and social support.

Everyone’s grief is unique to them with each loss. There are hills and valleys in grief, and as people mourn, the feelings of loneliness can intensify before lessening. Research conducted by Robert Neimeyer, professor of psychology at University of Memphis, found this is true for the average person. It is completely normal to feel intensified feelings of grief around six to eight months after the death before you experience a lessening of those feelings. Your grief may also become more intense again around the 12-month and 24-month time frame.

This can make the grieving person feel hopeless, and those around them, because everyone expects things to get better with time, and when they don’t, the grieving person can feel like something is wrong with them. It is important to remember that grief is an ongoing journey. From time to time, you will experience stronger grief reactions. That does not mean you are starting over in your grief journey; rather, it’s a valley you are traveling through.

A part of you will likely always feel the loss. But, there are ways you can cope with the loneliness while moving forward on your grief journey and incorporating the loss into your life. This will take time, and I encourage you to be kind to yourself as you navigate the new normal in your life.

Ways to Cope with Your Loneliness

  • Don’t “should” on yourself – Grief is new terrain and you often don’t know what you need. Do not place expectations on your grief in how you think you “should” or “shouldn’t” behave, feel or do in the absence of your loved one. (Examples include: Someone saying to you, “Mary, I think you should really get out more,” or “I shouldn’t be crying this much.”) Follow your gut and heart as to what feels right and OK in the moment.
  • Let others support you – I often encourage those who are grieving to accept offers of help or invitations to socialize with others when it feels right to them.
  • Give yourself things to do – It will give you something to look forward to while possibly allowing you to have some social time around others. Many grieving people have shared with me that staying “busy” has helped them in their grief journey. Ideas include volunteering somewhere, going for a walk or exercising, or simply going to a public place like a mall or restaurant. Not all activities need to include interacting with others. Sometimes it helps to simply be in the same physical space as others. Also allow yourself the flexibility to change or alter your plans depending on how you feel that day.
  • Avoid isolation – The inclination to stay home or away from people may feel strong after a loved one has died, especially if you feel like no one understands your grief, or you are constantly reassuring others that you’re “OK.” Remember you can always attend a social gathering for a short while, then excuse yourself. When you go to an event, drive yourself so you can arrive when you want and then be able to leave on your own terms.

Helping Others in Their Loneliness

  • Do not compare losses – Each person’s grief is unique, and comparing your losses to that of a person who is recently bereaved is not helpful to that person. Also avoid generalizing the person’s grief by saying things like, “I know exactly how you feel.”
  • Be present – The grieving person may simply need someone to be present and listen to them and what they are going through. Others often mean well when trying to offer advice; however, refrain from doing so. Listening is far more helpful in these types of situations.
  • Invite grieving person to participate in things – Continue to invite the grieving person to join you at events, activities, etc., even if they have previously turned your invitations down. Know that the person might not be ready to accept your offer right at the moment, but the day will likely come when they are ready to say “yes.”
  • Respect the grieving person’s decisions – If the person doesn’t want to go somewhere or do something, do not force the issue and respect that they will participate in things when they are ready.
  • Ask specific questions – Many grieving people have expressed to me that one of the hardest questions they get asked is, “How are you doing?” Often this phrase is used as a greeting instead of an inquiry into the grieving person’s well-being. It is more beneficial to the person who has experienced the loss if you ask them a specific question about their grief. An example is, “How have you been since your dad died?” If you are checking in with a question such as this, be sure to have time to listen to the reality of the person’s response. If you are simply wanting to extent a greeting to the person, a simple “hello” or “hi” will do. 

Remember, loneliness is not the same as being alone. There are many resources available to help you through your grief. For more information about grief and how we can help, email bereavement@hrrv.org or call (800) 237-4629 and ask to speak to someone in the grief support department.

Jennifer Messelt is grief specialist with Hospice of the Red River Valley.

About Hospice of the Red River Valley
In 1981, Hospice of the Red River Valley was founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to high-quality end-of-life care. We fulfill our nonprofit mission by providing medical, emotional, personal and spiritual care, as well as grief support to our patients, their families and caregivers during a tender time in life. Our staff helps those we serve experience more meaningful moments through exceptional hospice care, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, wherever a patient calls home. The organization serves more than 40,000 square miles in North Dakota and Minnesota, including in and around Bismarck, Detroit Lakes, Devils Lake, Fargo, Fergus Falls, Grand Forks, Lisbon, Thief River Falls, Valley City and many more communities. Hospice of the Red River Valley offers round-the-clock availability via phone, prompt response times and same-day admissions, including evenings, weekends and holidays. Contact us anytime at 800-237-4629 or hrrv.org.


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