Grief Loneliness: What I’ve Learned From Withstanding Loss
Loved ones and friends were there to support me [after my loss] but their lives continued. I wasn’t sure how mine would. This is the loneliness of grief. — Kriss Kevorkian, PhD, MSW
When my brother passed away from a ruptured aneurysm, I lost a brother, but my mother lost a son. I lost the person I grew up with; she lost a person she gave birth to.
We grieved together…but we also grieved alone.
Everyone grieves differently.
We all process loss in our own individual ways and while we can certainly empathize with another’s grief — as they can with ours — our mutual grief is never identical.
In that way, even if you’re constantly surrounded by family and friends as you grieve a loss together, you might feel incredibly lonely at the same time.
To give you another example that further illustrates what I mean:
One person lost a spouse when my father died. Two people lost their father and two others lost a brother. One person lost a child, while a few others lost a cousin and many more lost a friend.
Each of these people experienced grief for the same person but they did so in unique ways because of their relationship to the deceased, their own emotional temperaments, and their own grief processes.
We were all there for one another and quite often in the same room together, but at the end of the day, we were each alone in our own experience of grief.
Even if you’re lucky enough to have loved ones who remain by your side as you navigate through a difficult loss, you may still find yourself struggling with grief loneliness.
Looking back at the losses I’ve withstood, I’ve discovered that grief is a surprisingly lonely and individual process for several reasons.
In this article, I’ll dig into the nuances of how grief can lead to feelings of isolation and being alone — even if you have people around you who share in your grief. I’ll also explore ways to overcome grief loneliness.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of our ongoing series The Roots Of Loneliness Project, the first-of-its-kind resource that comprehensively explores the phenomenon of loneliness and over 100 types that we might experience over the course of our lives.
Why Grief Is Such A Lonely Experience
It’s far too easy for us to sequester ourselves from the rest of the world as we’re doing our best to navigate through the process of grief, which then only leads to more loneliness. — Kriss Kevorkian, PhD, MSW
Grief is, unfortunately, a subject I’m very (and perhaps unfairly) familiar with.
I briefly spoke about grief following the death of my father and how it affected people differently.
It was a difficult time for many of us.
My brother and I descended upon my mother in a conjoined effort to limit her loneliness after she lost her husband of more than 40 years.
One factor of loneliness as it pertains to a grieving spouse is tied to their self-esteem and self-identity following their partner’s death.
The sudden loss of a spouse is a difficult adjustment on its own, but feelings of loneliness may be exacerbated by the fact that no one in a grieving spouse’s social group can effectively fill the role of the partner they lost.
One study examined widows and discovered that 70% of them found loneliness to be the hardest part of their day-to-day lives after losing their spouses and soulmates.
And that was true in my mother’s case; no matter what we did for her or how much time we spent with her, my brother and I could not fill the hole left behind by my father’s absence — not entirely.
My parents had a shared history. They had daily routines and habits. They shared inside jokes. Their favorite television shows were still saved on the DVR, waiting to be watched.
My mother lost almost all of that on the day my father died and her children would never fully understand what that meant. We couldn’t feel her grief the same way that she did.
Even as siblings, my brother and I processed the loss of our father very differently from one another — but that’s not uncommon.
Susan Youngsteadt is a psychotherapist based in Raleigh, North Carolina, who focuses on anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma. She told me:
“Grief is a unique experience in that, for example, two siblings can lose the same parent, yet both will experience the loss differently. Both individuals had a unique relationship with that parent, unique memories and stories, and a filter through which they viewed the parent.”
Grief is a deeply personal experience that can — and does — feel different for everyone involved.
When my brother passed away on the night before Thanksgiving, just a few months after my father, my mother and I became inseparable. My husband took care of our children at home and I moved in with my mom for a little while.
I was with her nearly every waking moment in the days that followed my brother’s death, and yet…we were each alone in our grief.
“Loneliness is a painful part of the process that those of us in grief go through while others continue with their lives,” Kriss Kevorkian, PhD, MSW, told me.
Dr. Kevorkian (no relation to Dr. Jack Kevorkian) is a scholar and grief expert supporting people through all forms of grief.
“I remember when my mother was dying and I was at her bedside in the hospital,” she recalled.
“I saw people doing their jobs and going about their lives. But I wanted time to stand still only for a moment so I could process the magnitude of what was happening.”
“My mother’s life was ending and my life was never going to be the same. I was alone. There wasn’t one person I could’ve talked to about what that felt like because no one could’ve possibly known ALL the emotions going through my mind.”
“Loved ones and friends were there to support me but their lives continued. I wasn’t sure how mine would,” Dr. Kevorkian explained. “This is the loneliness of grief.”
When a person is grieving a loss, they may find themselves turning inward while they deal with their personal pain, resulting in loneliness.
One particular survey focused on those aged 65+ and discovered that feelings of loneliness were experienced in more than half (54%) of its respondents following bereavement.
More than one quarter (27%) of respondents did not lean on anyone for support after their loss.
These statistics are skewed a bit in relation to gender: 32% of men who responded faced their grief alone, versus just 18% of women.
Those who are grieving a loss may intentionally detach themselves from their social support circles over time.
They may not want to burden others with their grief, or they may not feel like they can be around other people while they are grieving.
Shelby Forsythia is a certified grief recovery specialist and intuitive grief guide. She told me:
“Society teaches grieving people to grieve alone, so they push away friends and family — but friends and family also retreat, distance themselves, or pull away because society pressures people supporting grievers to ‘make them feel better’.”
Shelby considers herself to be a ‘student of grief,’ an endeavor that began following the unexpected loss of her mother in 2013.
“Oftentimes after a loss, friends and family simply don’t know how [to make a person feel better]. So they don’t approach a grieving person,” she explained.
Those who are close to a grieving person may sometimes find it difficult to relate because they’ve never experienced what the grieving person is going through.
“It is a lonely feeling to experience the loss of a loved one and being surrounded by others who may not have any experience with losing a loved one, or loss at all,” Susan, the psychotherapist from North Carolina, explained.
“Grief is something that you carry with you and it can feel very lonely if you find yourself unable to connect with others to share this grief.”
Following the immediate grieving period that follows a loss, grief loneliness can also make itself known during milestones like anniversaries, holidays, birthdays, and any moment that passes that would have otherwise been shared with the person being grieved.
“Another important aspect to grief loneliness is the structure of love itself,” Colin McDonnell, clinic director of the Other clinic in Dublin, told me.
“To love someone is to acknowledge that they give us something we cannot give ourselves. They give us a piece of something we’re missing. When they leave, what’s left is what was missing in the first place, but with the bitter twist of having it in our grasp — the new absence making the lost presence more pronounced.”
Grief and loneliness can also be experienced by those who are dealing with a major life transition, like the loss of a job, a breakup or divorce, moving to a new location, the loss of a pet, an illness or sudden disability, the loss of financial stability, or even graduating from college.
Friends and loved ones may pull away from a grieving person because they don’t know how to approach them or because they cannot relate to the grieving person’s loss. Grief loneliness can also emerge during milestones like anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays that would have been shared with the deceased.
Grief and loneliness can also be experienced by those who have suffered a sudden and major life transition.
How To Overcome Grief And Loneliness
I used to believe that the five stages of grief — Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance — were a linear journey.
I did not experience them in that order. I bounced between them like a pinball until I arrived (and mostly remained) at Acceptance.
It’s important to understand that your feelings are valid — whatever those feelings may happen to be.
There is no “right” way to feel when you’re grieving.
Some people struggle with mixed emotions like sadness and relief, or regret and anger, or regret and relief… those feelings are all valid.
Grief is a complex subject so it’s naturally going to be associated with complex feelings.
“Those who are already relatively isolated are at a higher risk of developing grief loneliness,” Shelby Forsythia, the certified grief recovery specialist and intuitive grief guide, told me.
“These include the elderly (whose friends and family may have already died), those serving in the military (who are far from home/unable to attend services), those in prison (who are far from home/may already be isolated in some way), and people who live in rural areas that are tricky or inconvenient for friends and family to access.”
“Individuals who do not have a strong support system and individuals they can reach out to for support or connection, are more susceptible to developing loneliness during the grieving period,” Susan Youngsteadt, the psychotherapist I spoke with earlier, explained.
“One pitfall to avoid would be further isolation,” she continued. “It can feel good in the moment to remain alone at home under the covers. Over time, this will only further add to the feelings of loneliness and feeling as though no one understands.”
Colin McDonnell, clinic director for the Other clinic, said that those who have identified themselves very strongly within their relationship(s) may also be more susceptible to developing grief loneliness if the other person in the relationship dies.
“Basically, the more seductive the allure of love has been throughout a person’s life then the more likely they are to suffer from grief loneliness,” he observed.
- Participate In A Support Group
For some people, grief support groups and online grief support groups can offer a way to navigate grief loneliness.
They are often catered to specific grief types (loss of a spouse, loss of a child, loss of a sibling, or loss of a friend) so you can connect with others who have walked a similar path.
“Online support groups are helpful to those struggling with grief and loss,” Shelby Forsythia, the certified grief recovery specialist and intuitive grief guide, told me.
“For many grieving, Facebook support groups are the first place where they find others like them and feel comfortable and safe to share their story in an environment free from judgment.”
Dr. Kevorkian, a grief expert who is personally familiar with the loneliness of grief, feels that with so many forms of support available, online support can be beneficial but she also offered a word of caution.
“Given the numerous forms of support, I’d be a bit concerned with those who we connect with online who might be seeking out vulnerable people to exploit, particularly as we’re seeing an increase in elder abuse,” Dr. Kevorkian advised.
Colin feels that any sort of human interaction is good, with one caveat.
“There’s no substitute for good old fashioned face to face relationships,” he said. “Human interaction is not without its alienation at the best of times. It’s very difficult to feel understood in life, even less so through a screen.”
There are generalized grief support groups out there, but if you’re dealing with loneliness after the death of a spouse, for instance, you may find more adequate support from a group centered on your specific type of grief.
Those people have stood where you are in your own grief; for this reason, they may be able to provide the emotional support you need.
For instance, I’m a member of a very small online group on Facebook for bereaved siblings.
Right now, it’s made up of a handful of people and we don’t chat often, but the group is always there when any of us needs to open up to someone who has walked a similar road — and it genuinely helps.
Online grief support groups may be particularly well-suited to people who have a difficult time opening up to others in an in-person, face-to-face setting.
Another benefit to online support groups and grief forums is that they are always there, day or night.
There are typically no meeting dates or times to work into your schedule; they’re available 24/7 whenever you need a shoulder to lean on, to vent about the insensitive thing someone said or did, or just to talk about your feelings that day.
- Talk To Those In Your Social Circle
If you are struggling with grief loneliness, you might also seek out those in your existing social circle who have dealt with your specific grief.
I have a couple of friends who have also lost a parent or a sibling. It isn’t a topic we discuss all the time but when grief hits around a birthday, a deathday, or a holiday, we reach out and lean on one another for support.
- Seek One-On-One Support
One-on-one support from a therapist or counselor may also benefit those who are struggling with loneliness as they grieve the loss of a loved one, especially if they don’t have family or friends nearby and are grieving alone.
“As lonely as you might feel, do reach out to a counselor for support,” Dr. Kevorkian told me.
“If you’d prefer not to, please write down your thoughts in a journal. I suggest journaling to so many people who just roll their eyes at me, but once they’ve given it a shot they can’t thank me enough.”
- Write In A Journal
Writing is an outlet whose helpfulness I can personally attest to; this article is one such example.
I even wrote a letter to my brother on what would have been his 40th birthday — it was a cathartic activity that really helped me to reconcile what I was feeling that day.
Whether you keep a journal or a blog, or even keep a single text file where you can jot down your thoughts and feelings…there is something truly beneficial about releasing those feelings by writing them down.
You may struggle with that familiar heaviness in your chest as you’re writing — and you may or may not cry during the process — but you’ll feel lighter somehow, once you’ve finished.
- Express Your Grief Through Creative Means
Creative outlets like art or music can be beneficial, as well.
Loolwa Khazzoom, band founder of Iraqis in Pajamas, told me about how she managed her personal grief while battling cancer.
“I expressed my grief, rage, and despair through a series of songs, which I then began singing with my band,” she told me. “I played them over and over again in my living room, which helped me process through them.”
Loolwa went on to meet and connect with other people and musicians, kept a journal, and also processed her feelings with the help of a therapist.
- Seek Therapy Or Grief Counseling
Therapy may provide coping mechanisms, particularly during emotional triggers like anniversaries, birthdays, deathdays, or holidays — and also during those moments when grief hits you unexpectedly.
Because it does.
Grief has been popularly described like the waves on an ocean: relentless in the beginning, easing over time, and although the water’s surface will quiet eventually — the waves never completely end.
But you’re not swimming alone.
Colin McDonnell, clinic director at the Other clinic, told me that through the grieving process, our minds explore a “sea of memory” relating to our lost loved one.
“It’s considered to be the mind’s way of divesting some cathexis,” he explained, which is the psychoanalytic term for the mental energy devoted to an idea, person, or thing.
While we grieve, our minds struggle to work through the sudden loss of someone we were close to — and the loss of our connection with that person.
“That’s why it’s so important to go and speak to a therapist about it,” Colin said. “If even just to sift through the raw emotion.”
Susan Youngsteadt, the psychotherapist who focuses on anxiety, depression, grief, and trauma, agrees.
“Seeking grief counseling is also encouraged when individuals feel they are ready to do so,” she told me. “Having a safe space to express oneself, where the other can express empathy and understanding, to normalize the experience, can also be helpful.”
If you are struggling with grief loneliness, it’s important to find what works for you — your situation, your disposition, your grief.
“Despite feeling like no one would or could understand my grief, I reached out for help from a grief counselor and was so fortunate that I did,” Dr. Kevorkian, the grief expert I spoke with earlier, explained.
“Others don’t have to go through what we’ve gone through in order to offer support because they can still empathize with how we’re feeling. Oftentimes, all we really need is for someone to listen to our story and what we have to share.”
- Remember That You Are Not Alone
Grief, and the loneliness caused by grief, is unique to the person who is experiencing it — but it is not a unique experience.
Far from it.
No matter how alone you may feel in your own grief, I hope that it offers some comfort to know that there are others — so many others — who have walked a similar, lonely road.
“People can navigate loneliness by seeking out others’ stories of loss through books, podcasts, online grief support groups, and in-person grief support groups,” Shelby Forsythia, the grief recovery specialist I spoke with earlier, observed.
“Even watching movies where someone dies or listening to heartbreak music can remind a grieving person they are not alone in the experience they are having.”
Support groups, both in-person and online, offer the ability to connect with others who have similar experiences with grief and loneliness, as can speaking with people in your existing social circle who have dealt with grief themselves. Speaking one-on-one with a grief counselor can also be beneficial.
In addition, writing in a journal or exploring creative outlets can be a good way to connect with yourself and your feelings as you navigate the grief process.
It’s important to remember that no matter how alone you may feel in your grief loneliness, there are so many people who can and do relate to your experience in their own ways.
No one has to face their grief alone.
If you are feeling lonely following the death of a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a child, a family member, or a friend, there is help available.
“While it might feel that people don’t care, please remember that when it comes to grief no one really knows what to say or do,” Dr. Kevorkian told me.
“When you’re in the thick of grief, reach out to a friend. The important thing is to stay connected even if you feel so disconnected. Keep in touch with those around you.”
I will tell you this: the road you’re walking down is not an easy one, nor is it kind.
It’s important to remember that there is no set “timetable” for grief. It’s not like you’ll look at the calendar one day in the near future and think, “Well, it’s been three months…I guess I have to be fine with it now.”
Grief doesn’t work like that.
But…it does get easier with the passage of time. I’m still standing here, almost five years after losing my father and my brother three months apart from one another.
I still miss them. I still grieve their loss.
I experience moments when something triggers a memory and that all-too-familiar heaviness settles in my chest for a little while. And Thanksgiving…that’s a holiday that will probably be turkey-less forever.
I honestly don’t know that there will ever be a day when I am “free” from grief, but that’s okay. I’m okay.
I still experience happiness. I experience joy. I laugh. I honor those I’ve lost by continuing on and sharing their stories.
In that way, in the simple act of remembering them, they live on.
And you will, too — one day at a time.