I lost my dad to cancer in the summer. While families were going on vacations and taking trips to the beach, I had been going through the hardest days of my life. I spent the next year often rushing to the bathroom.
Work was utterly overwhelming, guilt would pile up because of missed homework assignments, I saw “Dad” in the Favorites section of my phone and called it just to see “Calling Dad” on the screen even though I knew it was no longer in service. Whatever the reason for breaking down, I would find the nearest bathroom stall and cry. There are not many places lonelier than behind a locked door, tears streaming down, on a toilet.
I had expected to feel depressed, devastated, and traumatized, and I think that is mainly how I felt at the beginning. Yet, as the weeks passed by there was a symptom of grief that I hadn’t anticipated. Loneliness.
My husband was my constant support, but I found it hard to communicate what I needed or wanted, quite simply because I had never gone through anything like this in my life. I would often hold in how I was feeling around him because he wanted so much to see me happy. We had not even been married a year when my dad passed away.
Being around people was exhausting because I didn’t have the energy to be my normal self, and I didn’t want to. My normal self would smile a lot, ask people lots of questions, and be engaged in whatever activity we were doing. Now I didn’t want to do any of those things. I wanted to be around people because I was miserable by myself, but when out and about, I would often find myself wishing I could leave.
My spirituality was at an all-time low. Every time I tried to pray I would end up crying, and I was so tired of crying. It was because I couldn’t hide from God. I could hide in a bathroom stall; I could hold my thoughts and tears in from others, but the second I tried to pray my façade would break. I knew he knew how bad I was doing. So I avoided praying and going to church.
Do you know what the first problem is in the Bible? It’s loneliness.
During creation God had said “it was good” over and over about everything he had created. Yet, after creating Adam he realized something. In Genesis 2:18 God said, “It is not good for man to be alone.” Adam had everything and yet God realized that if you have everything, but do not have someone to share it with, it is not good.
I quote this text to make the point that loneliness is not a small problem. God himself realized it’s effect. Yet, here’s the irony—most of us are surrounded by people, and many times people who love us. So why do we so often feel alone during our pain?
I believe there are many correct answers to this question, and I am going to supply the answer that I believe rings true for me in dealing with the loneliness of my grief.
Grief is inexplicably lonely because our society encourages us, whether overtly or subliminally, to “move on” faster than we can, causing us to pretend that we are all right when we are not, refrain from saying what we need to be honest about how we’re feeling, and to run to bathroom stalls to cry alone.
Do you know what symptoms your body undergoes when you try to hold in tears? Headaches and nausea are just a few. Or how relationships are affected when you aren’t comfortable being 100% honest with how you’re feeling? They’ll feel fake and you’ll wind up feeling a divide between yourself and those you desire to feel close. I think as a culture we are uncomfortable with grief, or at the very least uneducated at how to help those we love in their grief.
I learned this by talking with the therapist I saw during the year after my dad passed. I was having a hard time feeling like my spouse was comforting me how I wanted. I thought my therapist would think my husband was being insensitive, because after all he wasn’t even there to defend himself. Instead he said that I needed to look through the eyes of my spouse. How difficult it must be to watch your spouse suffer so greatly and not know the right words to say. He then asked me what I wanted my husband to do. I sat for a while and then said that I just wanted him to not try to calm me down or stop my crying. I wanted him to simply tell me that I was allowed to be sad and that it was greatly warranted. To just sit with me and make me feel like I could take all the time I wanted.
It seemed so simple. If you want something and it’s not communicated you can’t get upset when they don’t do it, well you can—but that only makes everything worse. And do you know what? It helped. My husband was relieved because I gave him words that he didn’t know to say and I ended up getting the support I needed.
There’s still a huge problem though with our general culture on grief. People are often required to return to work almost immediately after the death of a close family member and even spouse. Churches and friends are often great at supporting the person in the moment of the initial loss, but there isn’t much done months later. Someone asked me what the worst part of grief was and I said “pretending that I was okay”.
There are so many subliminal messages received that we should have our lives back together and be “normal”, I believe, much sooner than is healthy. What ends up happening is that many people end up feeling lonely because they refrain from feeling comfortable showing their grief or confiding in anyone—even close friends and family.
Grief is not something that can be cured. It is for most people something that they will never completely be free from, for the loss of someone you love is permanent in this world and thus your pain from their separation will also be. Yet while grief is a life-long process, ebbing and flowing, our feelings of being alone don’t have to be.
I’ve learned that communicating my grieving needs with those I love is so very important. Not only do I receive the support I need, but those who love me know how to comfort me. I’ve also found it very useful with those I love who are grieving to ask them how we can support them because not everyone is the same. Let’s communicate, let’s ask questions, let’s stop the loneliness.
Mindy Kissinger is finishing her PhD in Psychology at Andrews University. She and her husband Seth Kissinger, live in Niles MI with their daughter Mia.