by Maria Sirois
“I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing light of your own being.” ~Hafiz
Two years ago, I found myself in a time of lessening connections. My daughter ensconced in college. My son, in high school, turning definitively and appropriately toward his peer group. My work travel increased making it more difficult to see my friends and my friend group shrank as some began to choose to move to new towns or return to where they had grown up. I had begun to date but that was a bare, depressing landscape. And I found myself either crazy busy with work or home alone with large pockets of empty time.
I don’t love loneliness. Okay, that is a serious understatement. I have hated that feeling. I have battled its press ever since I can remember. As a child, being alone made me feel scared and wrong — like it was somehow my fault that no one wanted to play with me. As a college student I despaired against having Friday nights with nothing to do; I remember feeling ashamed on those nights, so much so that I would turn my lights off so that no one would see that I had no plans. I would hide in my room, afraid to be known as the forlorn girl. In my twenties, I fought hard against those moments by filling every free second with something to do, some place to be. It was grueling...but the exhaustion was better than the emptiness.
I wish I knew then that we all battle with this...and we all find ways to hide this from others. We overschedule so we don’t have to face the quiet. We stay in unhealthy marriages too long so that at least we have things to do. We fill our nights with work, our days with people we don’t necessarily like to avoid the vulnerability, the raw nakedness of being without companionship. We pretend that Facebook offers community and we tweet just to know that someone is out there, that someone may be listening.
Life, too, has its way with us and can force us into empty space and empty time. We do our best to make friends, engage in good work, learn new things, yet sometimes, despite our deepest efforts, relationships fade and communities change; we become isolated, stranded. It once took me so long to find friends after I had moved to a new town that I used to cry in the Price Chopper parking lot whenever I went to buy food. Something about seeing so many others on their way through the aisles with their carts, ensconced in what I assumed to be their perfectly happy lives — buying food for family meals or friendly dinners — only made my isolation worse. It seemed as if they had all been invited to a party, and I had not, and would not ever be.
As I aged and found that loneliness continued to haunt me, I began to study what others had to say. Dag Hammarskjold, former Secretary-General of the UN, once wrote, “Pray that your loneliness may spur you into finding something to live for, great enough to die for,” which seemed lovely, so big-hearted, so right and so damn impossible when seclusion swirled like fog. Philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich encouraged a shift of perspective, “Loneliness expresses the pain of being alone and solitude expresses the glory of being alone,” and at times I attempted to reframe those long weekend nights as solitude, as an active choosing of connection with the privacy of my own being. Once in a while, that would help for a few moments — until the sound of my own breathing, suddenly loud and unmet, simply became another indicator of the cavern of my life.
As those nights increased and my awareness of the fear of loneliness sharpened I realized that I would rather be in pain than lonely. Pain, grief, worry all brought with them some experience of feeling alive in my body and somehow connected to life, whereas loneliness felt deadening, as if I were in danger of fading away and no one would know or care. And despite the fact that this simply was not true — I had children, I had colleagues, I had friends — it felt true in moments, really, deeply true and possible that I had been utterly abandoned.
Where is life, when our experience of life is isolation? Where does hope reside? Or happiness?
I knew all the advice: Keep busy. Do what you love. Join clubs. Call someone, anyone, don’t be picky. Meditate. Remember that it’s probably temporary. Face the lonely places inside and see what it has to teach you. And I did all of this. On certain occasions it worked and the evening swung toward a sense of uplift. On other nights nothing worked and the spaciousness around me felt searing.
For me, I have come to realize, it is often quite hard to be lonely...harder than any other experience I have come to know so far.
One knowing has begun to shift my experience.
A girl I worked with, a teen, had only a few days left to her life. Her friends had left her because she had been in hospital so long. Her mother was dead. Her siblings had disconnected and her father lay dying as well of a brain tumor that left him without the ability to remember that he even had a daughter. This teen would die in the presence of a hospice nurse and a distant relative who had flown in to care for her at the last moment. Essentially, she would die alone.
In her last few days of care in the hospital, she begged me for one thing: to be remembered. She knew we would medicate her pain; this did not consume her. She did not ask for some sudden cure or promise of a heaven nor did she plead to us to keep her in the hospital. She had readied herself to die. Her deepest longing was to know she had mattered to us, that she would somehow continue to be known.
I promised her I would not forget her.
Now, in the most severe moments of my lonesomeness, when all else fails to provide ease, she will come to mind. I remember that she no longer has a chance to live into this living and she is missing so much: dragonflies over a pond as winter disappears, the colors of violet phlox and poppy orange, Canadian geese heading home over the northeast and the cry of coyotes, haunting our hills. There is so much life here that she cannot and will not ever know, that sweet sticky sigh after sex and the call of a friend who starts every conversation with “hello there!” as if she has discovered you just now for the first time. She’ll not know what it is like to race to the ER with a child allergic to bees, shoving Benadryl in her mouth, nor the ache of watching your son line up for the last shot in the last moment of the big game knowing he will carry that moment with him the rest of his life, for better or worse. And she won’t hold in her heart the wrap of pain, the tableau, the slow-motion ribbon of undoing as you turn your bike onto a busy road and see a tiny chipmunk in the opposite lane, trapped by a paw smashed by a car...one paw glued to the ground... her body wrenching away, her head bowing to the tarmac, and in that one second of seeing, that one moment of recognition you come to understand that you will be the last one to see her alive as you hear the car speeding directly toward her in that lane and there is nothing to do but watch or look away — it won’t matter — her death clear whether you see it or not.
When all else fails, I remember her, this 17 year old who died alone and somehow my loneliness becomes not the mark of my unworthiness, nor a prison in my life, but a place, at last, of connection. If I can do nothing else in the presence of the empty space and unfilled time that rests heavily I can at least remember that while living I have a chance to experience so much more than she will ever have.
I have, at least, one day more to reach toward this life I have been given.
Reprinted from Maria's book, "A Short Course in Happiness After Loss (and Other, Dark Difficult Times)"