On 28 December 2015 I posted Grief: a silent killer. In the article I discussed caregiving, grief, stress and the role they play in our long term well being. After reading over one hundred-fifty comments to the blog on the Caregiver Space Facebook page, I saw an alarming issue that I failed to address, and it’s a key ingredient to the others when caregiving, grieving, or after the grief.

Loneliness

Caregiving can create a strong sense of loneliness, as folks, often friends and family just seem to disappear into thin air.  That’s compounded by the fact that sometimes communication with our loved one can be very limited due to the nature of the disease or illness.  In other words, there may be no communication for lengthy periods of time.

When I was caring for my wife Annie, due to her low immunity we could go several days without a visitor of any sort.  And the fact that she was on high dose narcotics didn’t help matters any as, she slept much of the time.  

What made matters even worse, was that Annie, although very ill was lonely too.  It’s can be a real oxymoron.  People can be a nuisance at times, when they come into your home and all they want to talk about is their problems, especially to a woman that is in her hospital bed dying of cancer.  But being desperate, loneliness often wants them there anyway.  Company becomes company, and the conversation, no matter what it is, becomes fresh and new, with a new voice. Sometimes the new voice takes the patient or loved ones mind off their own illness, and that’s a good thing.   

It seems to me, what it boils down to is communication.  I wasn’t very good at communicating to friends and family that we could sure use some company.  Instead, I just wondered why not many people stopped by.  It’s tough.  There were times when people did stop by and Annie had very low immunity, the new rules, as laid down by her oncologist, had changed the rules on the playing field.  I wasn’t allowed to let any person, especially children, near her over the fear of her catching a germ which could lead to a very serious, and in-fact fatal infection. So I had to turn them away. So as you can see, loneliness is a big part of caregiveing, and can happen through no fault of anyone, or the fault of everyone and everything.  Sometimes, loneliness simply gets lost in translation.   

Grief also creates a strong sense of loneliness, and can lead to a lot of solitude. On the other hand we may be surrounded by people, but we’re still lonely over our loss. In essence grief and loneliness go hand in hand. It’s the double edged sword effect.

When one grieves over a loss, there can be a strong sense of isolation, and in that instance the isolation creates the loneliness.  And I might add, the loneliness felt from feeling isolated is a real problem and can cause mental health issues.

I saw Dr. Bryant, my psychologist, the evening of 30 December 2015.  He said to me, “my biggest concern at the moment is dealing with your loneliness.”  He said it can create instability in a person, depression, anxiety and escalate to a whole sundry of other problems, which perpetuates being lonely.  Many of the illnesses I went through in 2015, probably used loneliness as a contributing factor.

From his words, loneliness is not to be trifled with, and can make you sick over time.  Having said that, a full recovery is possible when and if the loneliness dissipates.

Metaphor

When I was 20 years old I joined the Air Force.  After basic training and technical school I was sent to England for 3 years.  The first six months in England, even though I worked most days and made many new friends, I felt like I was the loneliest guy on the planet.  Over time, I think the cycle broke rather naturally as I accepted my fate. I was going to be there for 3 years whether I liked it or not, so I might as well spend my time having some fun.  So I did!  Eventually, I felt less lonely with my military buddies than, I had at any point in my life.

The truth

In the metaphor the loneliness was real, but there was always going to be a fix. After all, I had a maximum time limit of 3 years to the loneliness, then I’d be going home, and I could always see the light at the end of the tunnel.  

Losing a loved one is the real deal.  There is no time limit on anything to do with grief or the loneliness, and at the time not much hope either.  And there is no magic wand to wave and make things better.  

The dynamics of grief is such that we can literally bury ourselves in our own sorrow, cutting ourselves off from the outside world, and our family and friends.  In doing so, we inadvertently create circumstances that will fester, and develop into full blown loneliness, during and after the grief.

Understanding that loneliness and stress are bits and pieces of grief, one needs to take grief very seriously. When mixing the three together, the grief can become very intense over a short period of time, and in the case of elderly couples it can lead to extreme grief which develops into the broken heart syndrome. In a research study over a 9 year period of over 373,189 elderly U.S. couples, by Nicholas A. Christakis of Harvard, and Felix Elwert of the University of Wisconsin, it was noted that in 18 percent of surviving male spouses and 13 percent of surviving female spouses died not long after their other half, from sudden death due to all causes.  So if you lose and elderly parent, and the other parent is alive, pay attention to them. Help them through their loss if you can.

Personally, I despise being lonely.  But it’s my burden to carry and I carry it every day, where ever I go. My life has turned into a 4 step program. First there was Caregiving, then the grief and stress, now loneliness. That’s a lot for me or anyone else to deal with.  It’s like being caught in a shadow world where one minute you can see your shadow and the next minute you can’t. Meaning, we walk out of the house with good intentions thinking we have it all figured out, then soon realize, we don’t. It’s just another illusion of happiness. It’s really tough to have anything other than spurts of happiness when your lonely.

Another point I should make is that loneliness is kind of like grief, in that it allows us to make poor decisions. Perhaps, we might do things we wouldn’t normally do for a fleeting moment of self gratification.  For example, buying a new expensive feel good toy that elevates our spirits for the moment, but when we get home we think, how silly, I don’t want, or will never use that toy. And the beat goes on.

How do we get out of loneliness

I say we, because I’m stuck in the loneliest period of my life as I write this article. Yes, I could go out and meet someone, but I’m smarter than that.  Loneliness is very deceptive. I could one day get over the loneliness, and wake up one morning with someone that I don’t want to be with, or perhaps, I don’t get over the loneliness quick enough, and she decides she’s made a bad decision and leaves me. Either way, someone often gets hurt.

What I think I’m going to do is, get more involved with volunteer work, which will get me out into the community and help me start meeting new people, and doing some things that I might not necessarily want to do, but in order to break the cycle of loneliness, I need to do. I really have no other answers, or options that I know of. I’ve been told, yoga and meditation are helpful, but I’m not that guy. I know this, being around family and grandkids provides some comfort from the storm, but are not the answer. The answer lies from deep within me, and I just have to dive in and pull it out.

This has to be my year, and I’m going to get better and break the cycle of loneliness, no matter what it takes. I know, I’ll stumble, maybe fall a few times, but each time I do I’ll get right back up, dust myself off and try again.  

When I was in the 7th grade, and at a school dance, I was so afraid to ask a girl to dance with me, in case she said no. But I did it, and after I got turned down a couple times, I became more determined than ever to get a dance. Then fate intervened, and this cute little  popular girl named Bonnie, walked up to me and asked me if I’d dance with her. I couldn’t believe my luck.

One thing I know for sure.  Sitting around in this house day after day is not going to break the cycle of loneliness, or change my luck, but it could break me if I don’t get that dance.  

And sometimes, despite all we do to break the cycle of loneliness, we still need a little help. So, as I sort of did at the dance, put yourself out there and just maybe fate will do the rest. It’s not going to be easy, but you can do it, and so can I.

My fear is, if we fail, the consequences could be dire.

I wish you the best!  

bob@thecaregiverspace.org

About Bob Harrison

Profile photo of Bob HarrisonBob Harrison was raised in the heart of the Redwoods in the far northwest comer of northern California. The little town of Crescent City, California was located near some of the world’s tallest trees, with the west shoreline being the Pacific Ocean. Bob spent most of his time fishing the two local rivers where some of the finest Steelhead and Salmon fishing is located. He was also well known up and down the north coast as an avid motorcycle racer, winning several hundred trophies, and one Oregon State title. Bob graduated from Del Norte High School with the class of 1966, then spent a one year stint at the College of the Redwoods, before having a strong sense of patriotism and joining the United States Air Force. After three years of service, Bob met Annie, the love of his life, and they got married in England in 1972. Bob’s love of country pushed him on to what turned out to be a very successful career, retiring in 1991. Bob’s last military assignment was Wichita, Kansas, a place he and Annie decided to call home. Together they developed and ran two very successful antique businesses until the stranger knocked on their door and changed their lives forever; “Because of Annie.”

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