Facing aloneness: coping with loneliness after loss

Kindness is not just a virtue to extend to others; it's also a vital ingredient for self-compassion. In the face of grief, loneliness or new circumstances, Margaret McKay explore the complexities of social isolation and the silent struggles that often go unnoticed. Oh, and it's important to note that loneliness is NOT an experience that affects only older Australians - it also affects adolescents and people under 30.

By Margaret McKay

There is no one-size-fits-all experience

Being suddenly alone and experiencing loneliness is hard. Knowing that countless others have been through it doesn’t make aloneness any easier. Every experience is different – there is no one-size-fits all.

During the dark days of Covid, many people suffered social isolation as never before. While the Covid pandemic was big news, the loneliness pandemic was seen but not heard.

Technology also contrives to create loneliness by reducing the quality and quantity of face-to-face interaction, with online banking, online shopping, even online workouts.

Remote work may be another of potentially dozens of reasons why people confront aloneness. While we place no hierarchical order on the isolating causes, perhaps the hardest of all to bear is the feeling of forsakenness following the loss of a loved one.  

After the dust settles

Losing a sweetheart, a spouse or life partner, a family member or close friend requires adjustment, regardless of what caused the loss, whether through death or breakup. There will be a load of practical things to do, like sorting out financial and domestic matters that might keep your grief and potential separation anxiety at bay.

And then one day, in just one minute, seemingly out of nowhere you feel it – that sense of alone-ness. But don’t despair, there are a mega-million things you can do.

The story of your life to this point will have been a rich tapestry with its ups and downs, moments of hilarity and times of tragedy, love, lust, and maybe even discord. Now it’s time for your story to take a new direction.

The Australian Loneliness Report

Michelle Lim, senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Swinburne University of Technology and the chair of Ending Loneliness Together is working to address loneliness in Australia. Dr Lim has published The Australian Loneliness Report which addresses the causes, consequences, and interventions for loneliness.

Well-known Australian social psychologist, researcher and author Hugh Mackay, has studied Australian society for over 60 years. An adjunct professor of social science at the University of Wollongong, he has several books and essays to his name, with themes surrounding social cohesion, community and happiness. Mackay’s book, The Kindness Revolution, tackles loneliness, this most bereft of human feelings. The holy grail to coping with loneliness may be found, it seems, in kindness, to others and to oneself.

You don’t have to be a hero

These clever psychologists have devoted their lives to understanding what makes us tick. They believe that being kind to ourselves is a big part of the answer to loneliness and aloneness. But what does being kind to ourselves look like?

Psychologists tell us that in the face of grief, you should allow yourself to feel a range of emotions without burying them or putting on a brave face. You might find that writing your feelings will be helpful, perhaps by jotting down thoughts in a journal or writing your memoir. Talking with a therapist, a support group, a trusted friend or family member could be just what the doctor ordered. And then there’s the big one … drum roll please …

The next chapter

Taking the opportunity for a new chapter in your story may seem like an unusual approach, and even using the word opportunity when you’ve experienced loss might feel a bit gross. But consider what John F Kennedy once said: The word crisis, when written in Chinese is composed of two characters with one representing danger, and the other representing opportunity. Food for thought?

What is it you’ve always yearned to do? You know, that thing your partner wasn’t really into. A sport perhaps, or a creative pursuit? Or maybe you’re interested in joining a group like Probus or Toastmasters, or a men’s shed, a cards or craft group, or perhaps it’s time to get a companion animal. Maybe you want to sing your heart out, or dance like nobody’s watching.

You could join an online community, or pack up the caravan and go travelling, or volunteer for a cause, enrol in a class, or attend an event that appeals to you. You could cultivate hobbies or skills that bring you joy and fulfilment. You can learn something new, pursue a passion project, do anything that makes you happy.

Humans are herd animals. We’re meant to socialise. At the risk of telling you what you should or ought to do, now may be the time to embrace that advertisement of all those years ago when we were mere kids (for accuracy, it was 1988) Just.Do.It. We know it will lead to you ultimately feeling brighter.

Kindness is everywhere. There are kind others waiting for you to reach out and ask, “Is your group taking beginners?” You may just find a new meaning and purpose in life.

Loneliness can be measured

Research professionals have developed a simple question and answer test to help identify people's experiences of loneliness -it's called the UCLA Loneliness Scale.

Psychologists define loneliness as 'a perceived discrepancy between desired and actual social relationships'. Living alone or being alone is not an objective 'cause' of loneliness.

There are 2 version of the Loneliness Scale, the original and revised.

The ABC-TV program Old People's Home for Teenagers used this type of scale to assess the older people and teenagers who participated in their 'experiment'.

20-questions of the UCLA Loneliness Scale

How to score: Answer the questions honestly and score points as follows for the following answers:  Never (1 point), Rarely (2 points), Sometimes (3 points) and Often (4 points). For trickiness questions 1, 5, 6, 9, 10, 15, 16, 19, 20 are all reverse scored so that Often (1 point), Sometimes (2 points), Rarely (3 points) and Never (4 points).

  1. I feel in tune with the people around me.
  2. I lack companionship
  3. There is no-one I can turn to
  4. I do not feel alone
  5. I feel part of a group of friends
  6. I have a lot in common with the people around me
  7. I am no longer close to anyone
  8. My interests and ideas are not shared by those around me
  9. I am an outgoing person
  10. There are people I feel close to
  11. I feel left out
  12. My social relationships are superficial
  13. No-one knows me well
  14. I feel isolated from others
  15. I can find companionship when I want it
  16. There are people who really understand me
  17. I am unhappy being so withdrawn
  18. People are around me but not with me
  19. There are people I can talk to
  20. There are people I can turn to

Lifeline publish a range of support services to manage loneliness - all of which are free to access. There are also a range of online tools and apps to help.

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