Digging In to Loneliness: Embracing Step Four of Honorable Closure
My heart skipped a beat when she said, “My apartment gets so quiet at times. That’s the hardest part.”
Susan came to see me six months after ending a 15-year marriage. As we spoke I saw that she had already done any amazing job—emotionally and otherwise—of completing her relationship with dignity.
As these things go, it was an amicable divorce and though there were some inevitable emotional hiccups over money and sensitive moments divvying up nostalgic mementos, by the time she came to see me the dust had settled. She was living in a shiny new apartment that she had furnished to her own tastes, and was getting ready to post an online dating profile.
She came to see me because she wanted to focus on Step Four of my Honorable Closure Process: Invent the Next Story. One aspect of this step is the choice to reclaim joy.
My assessment was that Susan is very self-aware and had already done a lot of work with the help of a skilled therapist to take responsibility and process her loss. Of course she’ll do more of that over time, but she’d arrived at a plateau and was chomping at the bit to get on with it.
This is when the quiet apartment came up: Did I have any suggestions for how to cope with loneliness? How can you really reclaim joy when you’re feeling lonely?
Indeed, I consider myself a veteran of this territory, and was happy to share a few thoughts on how I’ve handled the hollow feeling of living solo.
First, realize that no matter what, you will still experience bouts of loneliness.
It’s part of the deal. We all experience moments of feeling alone and at lose ends. Even happily married people feel lonely from time to time, though few speak about it.
It’s interesting to notice that loneliness creates the illusion that we are separate from others. That sense of morose isolation is a universal experience, so the experience itself connects us to all people everywhere, no exceptions.
I asked Susan what physiological sensations she has when she is lonely and she said she has a heavy heart. I suggested that whenever she feels that sensation, that she stop and breath into that heavy heart, thus practicing compassion for herself, tending to the pain with kind attention.
Then, I recommended that she be aware of how her direct experience of her heavy heart shifts over 3-5 minutes of mindfulness. I suggested that she could then consider how this sensation she is having connects her to others. Perhaps she could call to mind a friend or colleague who is also going through some challenges and send compassion to them too.
In this way, we can acknowledge and transform the pain into a practice of connection to ourselves and to others. It softens the edges.
Admittedly, this practice is not enough. Loneliness has sharp claws. Stay with me. We’re working this from the inside out.
Second, consider that this fallow period is an opportunity to deepen your appreciation of solitude. This is an important opportunity to befriend ourselves, which is, after all, the longest and most rewarding relationship we will ever have. One of the secondary dictionary definitions of solitude (after being alone) refers to rural areas and being in the back country. Deepening our joy in one’s own native sensibilities, reflecting on what has heart and meaning now, under the current circumstances is one of the gifts of being single. The more connected we can feel to ourselves, the richer our connection to others.
How to Reclaim Joy & Create Your Own Third Act
I encouraged Susan to create a new soundtrack for this Third Act of her life, one that is fresh and uplifting and tied to new memories. Literally, I told her to start putting together fun soundtracks on her smartphone. (Refer to this post What Are Your Power Songs? for more on this.)
Most importantly, when you get to Step Four of Honorable Closure, it’s time to take wise action. Get off the couch, get out of your house, invite a friend or two to the movies, or host a potluck dinner with a mix of old and new friends.
Two years after losing my husband I could barely think about spending Valentines Day alone, which is weird because that holiday never meant much to me. But all bets are off when you’re grieving. So, I decided to invite a small group of single women friends to my home. Two of them were long-time friends and one was a new acquaintance, but none of them had ever met before. Something told me they would all mesh well and we had a really sweet potluck dinner that was filled with gratitude and laughter. There wasn’t a sad sack in the bunch. At the end of the evening my heart was full.
I encouraged Susan to step out and be open to trying new things, things she never dreamed of trying, like ecstatic dance, the opera, or body surfing. “Don’t do these things to meet men,” I tell Susan. “Do them to reclaim joy and experience life from your new vantage point. Be open to surprises.”
Yes, it takes effort and can be daunting to stay on top of social plans; but it is essential to generate new friendships. At some point you gain momentum, friends reciprocate, and it all works out.
Rest when you need it. Practice self-compassion.
Embrace solitude, then re-engage.
Repeat. Repeat. And, repeat.
Related Post: My Encounter with a Bobcat
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