To be grown up is to sit at the table with people who have died,
who neither listen nor speak;
Who do not drink their tea, though they always said
Tea was such a comfort.
From Childhood is the Kingdom Where Nobody Dies, by Edna St. Vincent Millay
Loneliness isn’t actually a disease. I checked the DSM-V. But it’s got to be comorbid with a shockingly high number of mental health issues (off the top of my head: depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, substance abuse, etc.). It’s also, not surprisingly, comorbid with mortality. This is both apodictically correct and verified with empirical research: when people I love die, I suffer from loneliness. These findings will surprise exactly no one.
The tricky part about being lonely is that it’s not really about being alone – we all know that, but sometimes forget until we’re actually lonely. I have lots of people in my life: friends, family, colleagues, the woman who runs the coffee shop and remembers more about my kids than I do. I am not alone. But I suspect many of the loneliest people are found in crowds and most of my loneliest moments aren’t cold, long, solitary winter nights (though it WOULD be nice to have some company then – not saying I’ve never considered (and rejected) professional cuddlers).
Of course being alone CAN make you lonely, but loneliness as I’ve come to know it isn’t so much being by myself as being without someone in particular. And the kind of loneliness caused by grief isn’t just about that person’s unavailability – as in unrequited love – but their annihilation, the total absence of a person and the relationship in all its multifaceted existence in my life. Lonely is what we feel when the one thing we want or need is a specific person who doesn’t exist anymore.
The startling thing for me about loneliness is how many different ways there are to feel it. Pull on any thread in the ole grief sweater and you’re bound to bare your whole lonely torso completely. Picking out a new minivan is a lonely activity if you’ve only ever bought cars with your partner – even if you bring two kids and a father-in-law along. But so are smaller life events, like deciding what to have for dinner, or which pictures to hang on the living room walls.
|Fun fact: Only the Lonely = not just a song made famous by Roy Orbison, but also
a 1991 cinematic vehicle for John Candy and Ally Sheedy. You’re welcome.
Raising kids is an obvious vortex for loneliness. For the widowed, even if the village it takes to raise your kids is ready, willing, and able — as in my case — I’m still left child-rearing without the other half of the parental unit. Nothing in my life feels quite so lonesome as holding the parental tiller for two boys who need their mother eve more than I do. That’s true whether we’re deciding on bedtime reading or discussing the birds and the bees. Which: yipes — I’m sorry in advance to their future partners for whatever it is I’m doing to these poor guys. Hopefully you’ll be very skillful?
|Every shot like this one is a game of emotional Where’s Waldo
played looking for the dead.
Everyone who’s lost a partner probably craters a little internally like me with each milestone their child hits. We memorialize the dead plenty, but we can’t sufficiently account for their absence from every living moment – we just look at past photos of the family intact, while taking new ones with an imaginary chalk line overlaid in each in the shape of the dead.
One of the times I miss Nina the most is during our annual trip to Cape Cod. It’s inescapable and obvious, a place so saturated with memories of her that it would be weird if I didn’t feel lonely for her. But some of my most intensely lonely moments have been without any obvious context cues: sitting in bed reading, looking at my iPhone calendar, grocery shopping, driving home from work. These moments are ordinary in every way except that I feel like I might peel the skin off my face, douse myself in kerosene, and run screaming into a campfire to try to relieve the crushing loneliness. Sometimes I wind up sobbing from sheer desperation at the idea that those moments might go on and on forever.
Cumulative loneliness is the worst. Anyone can get through short bouts of being lonely, especially if there’s an end in sight. But an open-ended future with no promise of extinguishment for loneliness is daunting to me. I’ve tried to be honest with myself about how hard this is for me – I don’t like being lonely one bit and don’t feel particularly well-equipped to cope with it. Not that anyone comes naturally equipped to lose their person, but I can already identify ways in which my reactions to being lonely has influenced my behavior in problematic ways.
Relationships are a landmine for any widowed person. Part of that is just the general emotional upheaval of loss. It’s the worst kind of roller coaster: badly constructed, unpredictable, poorly maintained, and never inspected for safety. Not the ideal conditions for relationship formation.
There’s more to it than just damaged sustained, though. In my case, I’ve realized the potential availability of a relationship is like a narcotic – and I’m a bit of an addict. Since Nina died, I’ve had massive withdrawal symptoms and the obvious solution is to indulge my need for intimacy, attention, support, and all the other loneliness-countering properties of relationships. But I’ve also learned that I’m not emotionally equipped for a relationship right now.
The problem isn’t that I’m lonely and seeking a relationship as a stopgap or palliative measure. I’m not trying to rebound from grief. But, even when I am confident the relationship is solid irrespective of loss, it’s fraught. The feelings of desire and intimacy in a newly forming relationship make the same kind of shape as the void left by grief. There’s no way to tell where one starts and the other begins. Even if a new relationship is healthy and strong, it can mask the pain of a loneliness that it cannot cure. It’s a weird catch-22 (which is a tautology) (which is itself an abusive use of elaborate diction).
I’m not sure how anyone knows when they’re “ready” for a relationship under any circumstance — I wasn’t “ready” to be in a serious relationship when I met Nina by any rational criteria, and were together nearly 18 years when she died — but whatever signals this readiness, I’m pretty sure the standard caveats don’t apply after loss. It’s not just the passage of time. I know plenty of people who dated and even remarried happily soon after losing a partner. But there is at least there is an indeterminate quotient of time + other things I need to work out whatever my stuff is that needs working out.
It’s more of an emotional state of readiness than just waiting for pain to subside before the greenlight. I await the silent, mysterious tumblers that shift our perspectives as we pass through different stages of life clicking into place. I wake up occasionally and things that had me twisted in knots just seem less fraught. I can’t make this happen willfully, but it’s happened enough that I’d call it a pretty regularly event. Eventually, after some combination of time, effort, and experience, the wound no longer smarts quite so much, which in turn makes me stop avoiding whatever I perceived to be causing the hurt, which alters my behavior or thought process in innumerable, imperceptible ways.
I’m hoping the loneliness will be tied to the mechanics of one of these tumblers. That, even if I’m not savvy to the inner-workings, my gears are set to the right ratios. That one day I’ll wake up and not feel it so keenly — and not because I’m “over it” or confused by the throes of a new relationship, but because I stop feeling quite so alone. It’s not that I won’t miss Nina then – I expect that every time I think of her for the rest of my life I will have some degree of loneliness – but I hope my perspective will have shifted enough that I don’t feel armed against the possibility of new connection or blind to its potential to obfuscate my grieving.
In the meantime, I did what any sensible widower would do: I made a playlist of songs about loneliness and listened to it while I watched lengthy slideshows of family pictures with Nina in them. When the kids weren’t around. And the housekeepers were gone. And the dogs weren’t looking at me with accusatory need. And my work was done for the day. And I was left actually, truly alone for a bit with my loneliness, which after all is an artifact of the most significant and dearly loved part of me and my life.