Hollowed out: the loneliness of grief.

There are so many lonely people who spend their time in the company of absence; whose only conversation is with emptiness. I’ve met many of them.

Monday sees the start of Loneliness Awareness Week 2023, which runs till the 18th of June. Established by the Marmalade Trust it aims to raise awareness of loneliness in the UK and worldwide. This year’s theme ‘Connection Matters’ promotes small everyday moments of connection to reduce feelings of loneliness.

The statistics about loneliness are well known. Tens of thousands of people when asked say that they are lonely. It is an experience which knows no age or other demographic characteristics but seems to impact on a growing number of people. Indeed according to the Marmalade Trust, a recent survey from King’s College London, The Policy Institute and IPOS, found ‘that almost a third of people in the UK feel lonelier since the pandemic. Loneliness is also believed to be costing the UK economy around £32 billion every year due to the cost-of-living crisis and disconnected communities.’

The UK Government has a dedicated Minister for Loneliness whilst in Scotland Emma Ruddock who is the Minister for Equalities, Migration and Refugees, has Social Isolation and Loneliness as one of her eight areas of responsibility.

I’ve written elsewhere about the impact of loneliness not least upon older people. In trying to describe what it felt like I wrote:

‘Loneliness is not just the absence of others rather it is that emptiness created by absence which reaches inside a person and holds them. It is the sense of physical and emotional abandonment and complete aloneness; the sense that no one is there for you, no one is listening to you, and no one is truly hearing you. That tragically is what too many feel today. A social care system worthy of its name should seek to support and uphold not just by care but by being ‘social.’

There are many reasons why people are lonely, but the one I want to briefly focus on this week is the loneliness which comes because of grief. For if there is any hierarchy of emptiness then the loss felt when someone leaves your life forever is perhaps the most acute.

Someone once said to me when she was describing how lonely she was after her husband of 28 years had died that she felt as if she had the ‘core of my being hollowed out just as I’d core an apple. There is something missing and I’m unable to put myself together again.’

The hollowing out of our self which is the result of the death of love will be known to many. It is an emptying of hope and aspiration, a directionless yearning for a world of lost assurance and dream; it is a hunger that no nourishment will fill; a pain no comfort will assuage.

It is a hollowing which is of acute and sharp pain; the loss of a partner leaving you to parent children who will grow up with the ache of absence; the loss of someone who you have cared for through illness and disease leaving you now emptied of the familiar rhythms of care; the loss of someone in whose company you could be who you really are, without the need for the weariness of pretence or explanation. The loss of a smell that made you feel all warm inside; the silence of a timbre of voice that was like the best days of memory; the loss of all those moments when you could rest in your being together.

I often hear folks saying to the bereaved that it is important to not be alone, to busy yourself with activity and to distract yourself from the thoughts of grief inside your head. With respect I think this is wrong. I think there is a difference between an aloneness which helps to heal and re-orientate your living and loneliness which brings separation and breaks connection.

An important part of grief is sitting with the pain of absence. Maybe it is just me but there are times when my grief needs my whole being to be alone. This aloneness is cradling the knowledge that you will never again be with the person you love; that their voice is the murmur of love inside your bones. And that terrible and terrifying though it be that it is natural to feel lonely and abandoned, but also that this will one day become a world in which you can live again and do more than simply exist. So it is that  I believe that there is difference between the aloneness of grief and a loneliness which causes you harm and stops you grieving properly.

Loneliness Week is right to emphasise the importance of connection – it is vital to who we are as human beings that we belong in place and with others. But it is also important that connection is authentic and real and that we connect with others when the time is right and when we have reached that stage in our bereavement walk. We cannot manufacture connection and the rush to restore ‘normality’ and diminish pain can cause unnecessary hurt and harm. If I know anything about my own travelling through the landscape of loss it is that every single person’s journey is unique and whilst there are similarities, we never walk the same steps and there can never be a replica of sameness to grieving. We cannot rush someone through grief as if there are key staging posts to be reached and a destination to be achieved.

That is not to deny that there are indeed lessons for those of us who sit alongside the bereaved which might address and lessen some of the loneliness that is felt and experienced and which causes harm. One such is the simple acknowledgement that with death comes a whole host of losses for the bereaved. You might no longer feel connected or involved in the groups and activities which you shared or went to together; carers especially feel a sense of loss when their sense of identity is replaced virtually overnight. The journey from carer to bereaved is a sudden and sharp one for which there is often so little preparation or planning. There are also too many for whom invitations dry up because folks feel awkward about encroaching on ‘grief’ or don’t know how a ‘single bereaved’ person fits into their perception of social normality. More recently the effect of the cost-of-living crisis has made it harder for people to be able to ‘re-connect’ with others because they cannot afford to travel or socialise.

Grief can sometimes make us feel like we are outside ourselves watching someone in our own body going through the motions of routine and normality whilst we know deep inside that all is changed forever. It is a twilight zone where nothing feels substantial and solid; no matter how hard we try to grasp it life trickles through our fingers.

When you are in the grief of loneliness a crowded and busy room can feel empty and silent. You observe but there is no real contact, folks talk but there is no real connection. In such a place loneliness is your state of being but aloneness might sometimes be your solace.

The Tea Break:

She sits

quiet and held tight

into herself;

watchful and waiting,

listening and remembering.

Gossips parade their barbs

and coffee-drenched tongues

salivate over salacious sensation,

and still she sits.

Empty words fill the silence;

meaningless intelligence

make a nonsense of conversation,

and still she sits.

Diets and crosswords,

fashion and fantasies,

empty lives shared

and still she sits.

Careless chatter crackles

in a tea room of

folk fearful of friendship

and still she sits.

Not a stir

Not a flutter

Not a movement

And still she sits

In the tea break.

Donald Macaskill

Photo by Geoffroy Hauwen on Unsplash

Last Updated on 10th June 2023 by donald.macaskill