Coping with Loneliness After Loss

At some point in their lives, most of us will feel lonely. Until recently, however, loneliness was often an emotion that few people discussed, which often makes the problem worse. The more lonely we feel, the less we are able to talk about our experience, and the more isolated we become.

It’s an issue that has been identified as a catalyst for anxiety and depression for older people for some time, but the reality is, loneliness can happen to anyone at any stage of life.

Bereavement can be a significant trigger of loneliness for a variety of reasons and, after our shared experience of isolation and loneliness during the pandemic, we’ve started to have more valuable conversations about how and why it affects us and what we can do about it.

What Triggers Loneliness after a Loss?

Loneliness following a bereavement is often associated with the loss of a partner but any loss, at any age, can trigger feelings of isolation.

For older people who may have spent a lifetime with a spouse, loneliness can be particularly acute. Not only have they lost the partner they built a life with, but their social circle may be reduced and mobility issues may prevent them from getting out and about to see other people.

For both widows and widowers, the prospect of socialising alone when they have always been part of a couple amongst couples can also be intimidating. Moreover, mixing with the same social group without their spouse may trigger even more intense feelings of loss and loneliness.

The modern world of tech can also be quite challenging for the older generation, so methods young people might use to keep in touch, such as mobile phones, video calls and social media, are not always useful tools for older people.

Social change has intensified feelings of loneliness in the older generation too. Grown-up children and grandchildren are less likely to live locally and the community networks of chatty neighbours and local shops no longer exist in many areas.

It’s important not to view loneliness after loss as an issue faced exclusively by older people, however. The same considerations of feeling isolated from shared social networks when a partner dies still apply. What’s more, younger widows and widowers often also have parental responsibilities which make socialising more difficult, outside of child-centred activities.

Loneliness after loss is confined to the loss of a partner, either. Many people find that the loss of a parent, sibling or child becomes a very lonely time. This is often because the grieving process makes them feel as though everyone else is happy and having fun while they are processing a time of profound sadness, so they remove themselves from social situations. The more they retreat from social interactions, the fewer people reach out, and what began as a step back can often result in feelings of isolation and an inability to fit in.

Tips for Tackling Loneliness After Loss

The first step towards overcoming loneliness after the loss of a loved one is to acknowledge the feeling and be willing to take positive steps to overcome it. It’s important to understand the difference between loneliness and making the choice to be alone. If you have chosen to retreat from social interaction to enable you to process your grief and care for your own wellbeing, being alone can be a positive aspect of healing. It is only when a lack of social interaction becomes a source of distress and is detrimental to your wellbeing that loneliness has become the issue and needs to be tackled alongside your grief.

Here are some tips for tackling loneliness after loss:

  • Steer clear of social media – while the rest of the world may appear to be living their best life on social media, the reality is they are probably having the ups and downs that accompany everyday life. Scrolling through images of happy families and fun nights out will only make you feel more lonely and disconnected, so set your social media aside and focus on real world interactions.
  • Pick up the phone – it’s very easy to send a quick text but, even if you exchange a few messages, it’s a very impersonal interaction. Picking up the phone to a friend to have a chat is much more engaging and will help you feel connected. Phone calls are an ideal stepping stone to going out and socialising in the real world.
  • Adopt a routine – when you’re lonely, having hours of empty time stretching out ahead of you every morning can amplify the feeling. A routine will help to distract you from the feeling of loneliness and provide opportunities for social interaction, such as going to the shops or the library, meeting up with a friend or going out to exercise
  • Volunteer – if you have time on your hands, volunteering is a great way to make good use of it and increase your social circle at the same time
  • Invite people over – inviting people to your home allows you to control how many people you interact with at a given time and is ideal for those who struggle to go very far. Inviting neighbours in for a cuppa and a chat is an ideal way to develop closer links with them
  • Join a group or activity – from a local choir or gardening group to a walking group or a supper club, there is sure to be something that would interest you. A Google search will help you find what’s on in your area or you can find out about local activities at the library

Reaching Out

When you’re lonely, especially when you’re still coming to terms with grief, it can feel like you’re completely alone. But it’s surprising how many people are also feeling lonely and waiting for someone to reach out to them. Often, telling others that you’re feeling lonely is all it takes to prompt them to spend more time with you. It won’t take away your loss but it may just provide you with the support you need while you grieve.

If you’re really struggling with loneliness after a loss, The National Bereavement Service (NBS) has trained advisors who can support you. However, if loneliness and grief are having a significant impact on your mental health you may need to see your GP or speak to your social worker and ask to be referred to a BACP-registered counsellor. NBS also has a support and counselling service, in partnership with the specialist team at St Giles Hospice, who can assess you to determine whether support and a listening ear is the right path, or if more specialist intervention is required.