Loneliness gives us the opportunity to reflect, to heal, and to grow. And since we’re bound to feel lonely at one time or another at anytime throughout our lives, it’s best to stare it down, to meet it head on. Here’s a lesson I learned about passing through loneliness while taking care of my husband as he struggled through dementia. Please share with anyone you think it might help.
Published in the January/February 2016 issue of Isis Scrolls. Read it here. Or right here:
Loneliness: Three Practices
To Help You Pass Through It
by Karenna Wright
I lost my husband, the love of my lifetimes, three years before I moved to Humboldt in late 2014. Our bond was stronger than any I’d experienced before, and we both sensed it immediately. He proposed the day after we met — the day after we met! — and even then I remember wondering what took him so long to pop the question!
We married three months later. I have never known a more blissful life than the one we created together. That is, until his memory began to fail. After numerous visits to neurologists and after extensive testing, my sweet husband was diagnosed with dementia, a chronic condition of the mental processes that involves memory disorders, personality changes, and impaired reasoning. The diagnosis came nine months after our wedding.
Although they found no evidence of Alzheimer’s disease, the end result would be the same. My husband’s mental faculties would deteriorate. He would lose his ability to remember routine processes, including his memory for controlling bodily functions like how to swallow, and finally he would lose his life. We had been married less than six years when he made his transition into what he called Existence.
Since his death, I’ve been working on a book and writing about my caregiving experiences and the transformational, spiritual, and mystical insights I gained during that time. During his lifetime, my unwritten and subconscious goal was to remain as present and as open as possible to whatever came up during in our harrowing journey with the disease.
I have since come to realize that what I learned would be helpful not only to others who are in a similar situation but also to just about anyone living life. In reflecting back to that time with my husband and wondering what got me through it, three guiding truths rose gradually from the ashes of my smoldering memories. I’d like to share with you my experience with loneliness and those three things I learned about feeling lonely and, then, what to do about it.
Between the time my husband was diagnosed with dementia in 2007 and the time he died in 2011, I watched him change from the wisest, kindest, and most caring man I’d ever met into someone I didn’t recognize much of the time. Throughout his illness, and sometimes in escalating frequency, he had been tortured by such horrors as night sweats, terrors, angry outbursts, bouts of weeping and carrying on, hallucinations, and delusions. This was not the man I knew, not the man who had earned a master’s degree in mathematics and worked as a computer programmer, not the man I married. Often, I felt enraged, confused, puzzled, frustrated, isolated, and lonely.
When his physical and mental limitations deteriorated to where it required a team to take care of him, he was admitted to a nursing home, and I found myself living much of my life without him, going places and doing things without him by my side, our usual inseparability no longer a thing. Our “together” life no longer existed. We had been torn apart by the progressing symptoms of his disease, cut off from the life we had chosen to live together, frequently isolated from each other. My best friend had left me, through no choice of our own, and losing him upset me to the core. The internal loneliness that sometimes possessed me was daunting, seemingly never ending.
But I found hope, and there is hope for anyone sitting in loneliness and grief. Although there are many ways to face loneliness and isolation at any stage in life, I stumbled on three that suited my internal guidance system. You may be aware of others.
I’ve been told by a number of people that they’ve found comfort in putting these particular three techniques into practice. So when you feel the emptiness and hollowness of being lonely, keep these three things in mind:
1. Corral the love and marinate in it. Do you know there’s healing power in love? You can use it, the superpower of the love that resides within you, whether it’s love for another person, yourself, a pet, an idea, a place. Whenever you feel alone, when you’re unstable, drifting like an untethered balloon bobbing in the wind, being thrown high into the sky, then being thrown to the ground, tossed about from all sides, remember that love. Call forth that love and simmer in it. Feel its energy, its power, its joy, and you’ll soon find that love is a mighty antidepressant. Call up the love. Ultimately, it’s all there is, and it’s plentiful.
2. Play and have fun. During one of the roughest times in my caregiving experience, my naturopathic doctor pulled out her prescription pad and jotted down this prescription for me: PLAY A LOT. Do anything and everything to nurture yourself and have fun!
Playtime is about refueling your imagination, being free, being social in an unstructured way. It’s time set aside for grins and laughter. In play, we focus not on an end goal but on the process itself. The benefits of play are hidden within the process of doing it. Play relieves stress, calms us, and challenges us in a relaxing way.
After my husband started attending an adult day program, I began taking classes and learned to play the djembe drum. Not only was this loads of fun, but I also became immersed in a new tribe and the loving support they offered. I also got pretty good at the djembe (it felt great to take out my frustrations on the drum) and have played in several drumming performance groups, including one I lead. I have facilitated rhythm playshops for healing and therapy. I still play today and probably always will. At the time, I never dreamed my delightful passion for the djembe would have been born from the passion of my grief and loneliness.
In play we create, learn, and feel joy. It’s crucial to our well-being. Go. Step out. Find your fun, and have as much of it as you can handle. Falling down laughing is optional.
3. Feel your emotions. This is the difficult part. You’re sad and hurt, you’re grieving, and of course you’re lonely. And it’s more than okay. It’s normal.
As my husband approached the end of his life, I confided to a close friend that nothing I did anymore eliminated the stress and sadness I felt over losing him. I complained about my lengthy bouts of crying, my depression, and the agony of my loneliness. His response startled me.
“What?” he said. “You expect to feel good during the grieving process?” I paused, taken aback. That’s exactly what I’d been trying to do; to feel better. How silly of me! Of course you won’t be happy and carefree. It’s perfectly normal to be a wreck.
It’s also normal and necessary to express those emotions safely.
The most common way to do that is to cry. Cry! Sob, weep, carry on until you’re dry. You may think that if you start crying, you’ll never stop. This isn’t true. Set a timer for 10 minutes, then cry until the timer sounds. My guess is you’ll stop crying after three or four minutes. If you don’t, keep going until the timer goes off. If you need to cry more, set the timer for another 10, and another 10 until you’re cried out. Don’t rush it. Just cry. Then repeat as often as necessary. Crying releases toxins and stress hormones from the body. A good crying session will give you relief.
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The only way out of your grief and loneliness is to pass through it. It’s true. Winston Churchill said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” He knew that you’ll eventually come out the other side, and you’ll be stronger from the experience. The boon here is that your new strength will then become the updated baseline from which you operate. You’ll be more solid, more resilient, able to help others as you help yourself.
Connecting with and being connected to others is a natural aspect of our lives. But loneliness gives us the opportunity to reflect, to heal, and to grow. It’s the hero’s path and the warrior’s stance. Corral the love, play and have fun, feel your emotions. You can do it. This is life, and you’ll get the most out of it by being fully present, even in the darkest of times.