(Names changed as requested)
It is important to remember that there is only one person on this earth with whom you’ll spend the rest of your life. That person is you. Children grow up, marry, have families and often live far away from their parents. Spouses die, marriages end in divorce, and eventually most of us are alone. Loneliness can come in stages, depending on the map of your life. It may come early with a divorce or death of a spouse; even though you have the responsibility of bringing up a family by yourself, and it feels like you don’t have a minute to breathe, you still have time to feel lonely.
Or it may come to an intact marriage when all your children have gone their separate ways, and you and your spouse find yourselves alone, staring at each other across the dinning room table that used to sit 12 . And though you are married, you are terribly lonely. The only guarantee we have is that we will all get to this stage of loneliness eventually.
I received a letter from a woman who asked me to address the topic of loneliness. “What would you suggest against the loneliness of parents when children leave home?” she asks. “In the non-Jewish books, they suggest doing sports, hobbies, etc. I think this doesn’t help. Loneliness can be terrifying.”
Loneliness is terrifying, and for well spouses it is something they have learned to cope with, even when their family is still at home and their spouses are alive. When I discussed loneliness with well spouses and others, the one thing that kept coming up is preparedness. They all talked about keeping a circle of friends and keeping interests alive or developing new ones, before you are alone. And when I spoke to those who hadn’t done this, the road back from loneliness was much harder.
Janet was a well spouse whose husband was a hospital resident. Because of the physical severity of his illness he was hospitalized permanently until a long-term-care bed that would meet his needs became available. George had been in his four-bed room at the local rehab center for over two years when I met them.
Every day Janet arrived as soon as visiting hours began. She always came with a deck of cards, a book and some knitting. Janet and George played cards for hours, usually until he fell asleep. At that point she would take out her knitting or a book and sit at his bedside until he awoke. She did not leave until visiting hours were over. She did this every single day. People who saw Janet called her an amazing and dedicated wife. She never missed a day. Janet did this despite suggestions from the social workers and nurses that she take some time for herself.
She did this for years. When George died, Janet was totally lost. She did not know what to do with her empty days. She had let her friends, acquaintances and interests fall by the wayside long ago. She no longer remembered how she spent the time before George’s hospitalization. She was depressed, lost and terribly lonely.
Sarah’s husband, Marty, was in a bed in the same room as George. He too had been there long-term Marty envied George. He envied his daily, hours of visits from his wife and her total devotion to him. Sarah, when she observed Janet, saw something totally different. She saw a lost woman who rarely smiled or laughed. She saw a woman whose eyes were full of sadness; a woman who looked more miserable every time she saw her. She saw a woman who was as trapped in her situation as her husband was in his body.
Sarah knew she could not do what Janet did and survive being married to someone chronically ill. She came to visit Marty every other day. On the alternate days she made sure to schedule lunch with a friend (if possible a friend who was not married to illness), a trip to a museum, shopping or a movie. When Marty died, Sarah grieved her loss. She was lonely, terribly lonely. However, she had still maintained her life as an individual with her own interest and friends. And so, her transition from loneliness to wholeness was shorter and easier.
No one can fully prepare for loneliness. But it is important not to lose yourself completely when dealing with illness, parenthood or any other thing that fills your waking hours. It is vital to keep your individual friendships and your interests alive, no matter how hard it is to find the time or presence of mind to do this. Otherwise, when loneliness strikes and you are by yourself, the road back is much harder and more painful. You are the only one who will be with you, for the rest of your life. Prepare for loneliness now. It will enrich your present and help with your future.
Next week, I will write about how to cope with loneliness when you haven’t prepared.