Despite what well-meaning family and friends may suggest, there is no pat answer or quick fix to loneliness. The isolation of serious or long-term illness simply can't be wished away. The loneliness that accompanies grief often remains throughout the grieving process. New relationships don't happen overnight; they take time to develop and mature. So if there's no quick, easy way out of loneliness, how do we live with this uninvited guest? What can we do to lessen the pain?
For suggestions we turned to some friends of the Outreach of Hope who have walked through a season of loneliness. We asked them to share what they learned and what helped them survive (and, yes, even thrive). Perhaps their insights and experience will help and encourage you.
Loneliness isn't something you wear on the outside, it's something you feel on the inside, and feelings aren't always visible to others. So don't assume that family and friends will know when you're feeling lonely. You will probably have to tell them.
More than a decade ago, Barbie Kolar lost two of her four children in tragic accidents. In the aftermath of devastating grief, she lost her marriage too. Although her loneliness has subsided during the years since her losses, it still drops by for an occasional visit. But Barbie has learned not to "court loneliness" and takes aggressive measures to keep it from consuming her.
Instead of simply telling family and friends that she's feeling lonely, Barbie takes action. She doesn't want family and friends to feel responsible for "fixing" her loneliness, so she fixes it herself. She invites the family over for dinner, a friend out for coffee, or plans a group outing. "I will initiate contact and suggest things to do rather than just sit here and drown in my loneliness. I know when I've had enough solitude and need to reconnect with people."
The growth of support groups based on a specific need or interest shows our need for companionship with others who share similar interests or challenges. A recent widow and single parent, Patty Douglas finds such groups to be helpful in dealing with her loneliness. Although "talking to someone helps the most, especially close friends who understand," Patty is careful not to let her needs overwhelm family and friends. "Support groups are good," she says, "because you don't feel as though you are imposing on someone else's time."
Being with people who understand your particular struggle or interest not only combats loneliness but can provide support and understanding that family and friends may not be able to offer. Patty belongs to a grief support group (as do her children). She also attends a quilting class. She finds that spending time with people who share her passion for quilting helps lessen her loneliness and encourages her to continue doing things that are positive and fulfilling.
If your loneliness is the result of a loss, find a grief support group. (To locate one in your area, contact www.GriefShare.org or call 800-395-5755.) If your loneliness is the result of a move, consider joining a class or club where you can meet others who share similar interests. If your loneliness is the result of a lifestyle change due to a serious illness and you can't find a support group that deals with your particular medical condition (check with your doctor, hospital, or church), do what Beve Geddes did-start one yourself. Beve didn't have the energy to host a group in her home, but she did start a phone support chain with several cancer patients she met during chemotherapy. Sharing with others who understood her fears and concerns lessened her loneliness. For information on starting a support group, go to....to order a free support group packet.
During his four-year battle with colon cancer, Mark Forrest has watched his circle of friends dwindle. "People are scared to be around you," he explains, "scared to talk to you. So loneliness is a constant companion lurking in the back of my mind. Sometimes I try to run from it. Sometimes I sleep to get away from it. But what really helps me is to hunker down with worship music, read the Psalms, and focus on God's promises. Focusing on God in worship gives me a sense of renewed hope. It gives me peace and comfort. It helps bring things into perspective, so I can look at my situation realistically."
For Mark and so many others who battle overwhelming loneliness, the waves of loneliness make it feel as if one is drowning. But Mark has discovered a life raft to cling to when loneliness threatens to drown him. He "hunkers down" with God and regains his perspective.
Our friends unanimously agreed that the best antidote to consuming loneliness and its downward spiral into self-pity is to serve others. Serving others takes our eyes off ourselves and our situation. But getting involved is more than good advice from those who've endured a season of loneliness; it's a biblical principle. Acts 20:35 tells us that "it is more blessed to give than to receive," and Jesus promises us a return harvest if we sow seeds of service (Luke 6:38).
Getting involved was a blessing when Goldie Travis suddenly became a widow during her children's teenage years. Her faith in God helped her cope with the challenges of being a single parent, but it was an "assignment from God" that was especially helpful in her battle with loneliness. "God opened the doors for me to work for a ministry that served the local rescue mission and jail." Goldie not only found a new purpose, she gained a new "family" of coworkers who shared the same passion for the hurting. More than a way out of loneliness, Goldie's "gift" as she calls it, was the start of a lifelong mission of service to those who are less fortunate or who are suffering. Today, twenty-plus years after retiring from her first "assignment," Goldie is still serving. She helps process mail at the Outreach of Hope.
Of course the despair of overwhelming loneliness can make wanting to serve a challenge. As one honest objector asked, "How can I serve others when I really don't feel like it, when my own pain is front and center?" It is true that we don't always have the emotional strength to do more than put one foot in front of the other, so during times of severe stress we need to take care of ourselves and limit our activities. But eventually the crisis will subside and it will be time to take positive action against loneliness. So to those who lack inspiration or motivation, Pastor David Jeremiah offers this advice: "The truth is this; feeling follows action; feelings follow the will. If I want to, I will. And when I do, my feelings follow."
Service to others is an act of the will, not the emotions. Like an exercise program or running regimen, it's getting to the gym, that first mile down the road, that is the most difficult. Once you get over the initial hurdles, the benefits and blessings will come. More than a temporary reprieve, serving others helps provide a way out of loneliness. As Morris West says, serving others helps us "remember that there are a million others like us and as we reach out to comfort them and not ourselves, we discover in the end that we are lonely no longer."
From "Quotes from Overcoming Loneliness" by David Jeremiah.
Reprinted from The Encourager magazine, a publication of Dave Dravecky's "Outreach of Hope," in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Used by Permission. For more information, visit www.outreachOfHope.org</i>