Sometimes life calls our attention to a topic by providing repeated exposure to it. In my case, I read two feature stories about loneliness and grief in online magazines in recent weeks, and then I spent a session with a client focused on helping her cope with persistent loneliness after the loss of her spouse two years ago. These synchronous events helped raise my awareness of the value of being alone as a way to ease our life transitions, including grief. Let me explain…
Being alone is an unwelcome experience for many people, and, thus, it is actively avoided, especially during grief. Well-meaning friends and family may advise the bereaved against spending too much time alone, fearing that it will lead to social isolation and depression. These concerns are not without merit, but they don’t take into account the positive role that being alone can play in fostering emotional well-being. How does being alone serve us?
It Gives Us The Freedom to Find Our True Selves – Being alone with ourselves— without the familiar roles, routines, and people we know —offers us a unique chance to have internal conversations that are too often lost in the noise and busyness of everyday life. In the silence we can begin to recover a sense of our true selves. We can take time to reflect on our memories of painful, as well as, happy times; we can give support to our musings about the future life we wish to create; we can think our own thoughts without any pressure to have to care for others or to act in prescribed ways so as not to “worry” anyone. In our solitude, we are free to be ourselves.
A good friend of mine has been struggling with a decision about whether to retire, or reinvent herself; she just came back from a solo road trip that did wonders for her spirit. She drove for hours at a time, only stopping where and when she wanted to, with no one else’s needs to be considered. She surprised herself by not even listening to the books on tape she had brought because she so enjoyed silently riding in the pleasure of her own company. Returning home, she felt renewed and refreshed, ready to consider her choices with a new outlook.
It Offers A Space Without Pretense – To spend time alone can benefit us when we are dealing with a difficult stage of life by providing a space in which to stop pretending and to be authentic about our emotions, our goals, and our needs. We don’t realize the emotional insulation there is in the cocoon of familiar friends and family until we absent ourselves from them for a period of time. It can be a relief to “own” our emotions, and no longer try to hide from them, for the sake of others or for the sake of appearances.
In my thirties, I struggled with a painful decision about whether to stay or to leave a significant relationship I had been in for some time. My intuition led me to register for a long weekend cruise, sponsored by Psychology Today magazine, and appropriately titled “The Inner Voyage.” I spent most of the time alone, reading, reflecting, journaling, and other time participating in yoga classes,and attending presentations on holistic health by well-known experts. On the last evening, I took part in a closing celebratory ritual held on deck under a magical night sky to express gratitude for life. As the ship drew closer to our port, I realized that I had gained the clarity I had been seeking. I returned home and quietly ended the relationship with the grace that comes from feeling at peace.
It Helps Us Feel At Home in Ourselves – There are times when we just don’t feel comfortable in our own skin. Especially when our loss is raw and the trauma of our separation is new, grief can generate the odd sensation of being detached from our body and our sense of self. I remember my friend Mary describing how she felt when her husband died and she presided over the wake. She watched herself as if she were watching a movie in which she starred as the brave widow, holding herself together in order to greet people, talk with them, and accept their condolences, all the while feeling numb and disconnected.
During transitions, being alone in our solitude, rather than continuously surrounding ourselves with lots of people, may be the better choice. Intentionally choosing to be alone helps us listen to our spiritual voice with a willingness to be changed by what we hear. It inspires our heart to open, to be receptive, non-judgmental and compassionate towards ourselves in order to grow into the person we want to become. We can learn from solitude what we need, from the inside out, and that can be lifesaving.
Since aging is itself a transition that many of us will go through, and since we may find ourselves alone more often as we grow older, it might be wise to experiment now with being by ourselves in preparation for those coming days. The poet John O’Donohue expressed a blessing in his poem “For Solitude” that I pass on to you with hopes for your solitary times…
“May you recognize in your life the presence, power and light of your soul,
May you realize that you are never alone, that your soul in its brightness and belonging connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe.
May you have respect for your individuality and difference. May you realize that the shape of your souls is unique, that you have a special destiny here, that behind the façade of your life there is something beautiful and eternal happening.
May you learn to see your self with the same delight, pride, and expectation with which God sees you in every moment.”