Hi. I’m Carolyn. I’m the editor in chief of SELF and the host of our wellness advice podcast, Checking In. In this week’s episode, we’re talking about .
Today’s question comes from a woman named Deanne, whose husband of 30 years died of leukemia six years ago. She wants to know how to feel less lonely.
“It hasn’t really gotten easier, which I was hoping it would,” Deanne tells us. She says she’s tried everything: “The first year I signed up for college classes, got rid of a lot of stuff in my house. I’ve tried a little bit of online dating. I don’t really know where to go to meet anybody, especially during the pandemic.” She wants to know: Is it normal to feel this lonely? Even though her counselor tells her she’s doing great, she isn’t so sure.
New episodes of Checking In come out every Monday. Listen to this week’s episode above, and get more episodes of Checking In on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
When we were producing this episode, I kept going back and forth about whether this was a question about healing from grief, or helping yourself feel less lonely. The truth is that it’s a mix of both. So we touch on both, and really explore how they’re intertwined and related. Because some forms of grief can be very long-lasting and can require special treatment. But also, loneliness is an incredibly common part of grief and loss. And isn’t necessarily indicative of a medical condition at all.
First I speak with Katherine Shear, M.D. She’s an internist and psychiatrist who founded and directs The Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University. She’s been studying and treating people with grief for more than 30 years. And over that time, she’s seen a lot of different people have very different experiences of grief. And she says all those experiences can be normal.
“Grief is the form love takes when someone we love dies,” Dr. Shear says. “And if you think about your love relationships, no two are are the same.”
Among other things, Dr. Shear explains the difference between grief and depression, which can feel very similar. “When we’re depressed, we actually have an impairment in our ability to experience positive feelings,” she says. “And we really don’t have that in grief. We sometimes feel survivor guilt. So we kind of don’t want to experience positive feelings, but we actually can and we usually do.”
She also gives some research-based tips on ways to work through your grief. Dr. Shear tells us repeatedly: In order to start healing after loss, an important step is to fortify your relationships. And yeah, maybe even start a new relationship. That’s obviously much easier said than done, though (particularly during a global pandemic!), so another perhaps more manageable piece of advice: Find a new way to express yourself, like by journaling or painting or playing music. Because when we experience the loss of a life partner, we often lose someone who makes us feel seen, heard, and secure. And finding an outlet for that communication and self-expression can potentially help you start to feel like yourself again, at least a little bit.
In the second half of the episode, I speak with Nora McInerny. McInerny is a writer who turned her grief into a career that includes two memoirs, a podcast called Terrible, Thanks for Asking, and so many meaningful conversations about death and loss that help people grieving from all kinds of things feel seen. Nora’s husband Aaron died of brain cancer in 2014. She has since remarried and is raising a blended family with a new husband.
I talked to her about how to maintain relationships with friends and family while you’re grieving. Which is definitely not easy—relationships can go haywire after loss.
“Not every relationship will survive a loss,” McInerny says. “Not every friendship survives grief. It just doesn’t.” She shares some hard-learned advice for Deanne, and everyone else who’s grieving the loss of a loved one. Namely: Learn to ask for what you need from your people. Because most people have no idea how to be there for someone who’s grieving. And beyond that, find ways to connect with others who can relate. In fact, several years ago, McInerney and her friend Mo, another widow, formed a group called the Hot Young Widows Club. It began as an in-person meeting in Minneapolis, and has since become an online space. Contrary to its name, the group includes people of all ages and genders. And you don’t have to have been married to the person you lost. They just have to have been your person. McInerney says that what’s great about the group is that it gives people a place to talk about the person they’ve lost, and to talk to others who are going through similar situations. It helps a lot of people feel less alone while they grieve.
Ultimately, losing someone so important to you can be an absolutely Earth-shattering experience, and it’s normal for it to feel deeply destabilizing for a while. Loneliness is an integral part of grief, and, according to Dr. Shear, one of the longest-lasting symptoms of grief. But it doesn’t have to last forever, and there are things you can do to start to feel better and feel less alone. If you’re dealing with loneliness after loss, hopefully some of the tips in this episode can be of solace to you.
If you’re interested in learning more about any of these topics, here are some articles you might enjoy:
Here’s When It’s Time to See Someone About Your Grief
How Do We Even Grieve Right Now?
Chrissy Teigen’s Heartbreaking Photos Reminded Me There’s No Right Way to Grieve
5 Ways I Learned to Deal With Grief During the Holidays