I’ve been reading a book by the U.S. Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, called Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. Murthy sees connection as vital to human life, impacting many aspects of health and wellness and he believes its absence leads to poor physical and mental health.
I’ve written many times about my experiences reaching out to others as I grieve my late husband’s death (see this, this, and this ). Murthy gives me some other ways to understand my experience.
Murthy explains that evolutionarily, if an early human got separated from their group, their likelihood of survival was slim. Early humans depended on the group for security and safety as well as gathering food. A human on their own needed to be on high alert 24 hours a day. That’s why being alone can trigger a stress response. Our brains think we are in danger even if our physical needs are being met because early in human history, being separated from the group was a physical threat to survival. In this way, extreme loneliness can feel like anxiety.
Murthy helped me understand a phenomenon I hear about regularly in the widow support groups I belong to. Many widowed people say that after an initial outpouring of support, everyone disappears and they are left completely alone. I think this happens for a number of reasons: people don’t know how to offer help effectively (read my pointers on this!), they don’t realize that grief never ends and that grievers need continued support, or their attention is diverted to another situation.
I’ve been that person in every one of these situations. Before my husband died, I offered help by saying “let me know how I can help” and assuming if I didn’t hear anything, the person was doing fine. I thought grief lasted from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the loss, but it didn’t occur to me that it went on indefinitely—even though I lost my own mother when I was 12, I didn’t realize how long grief lasts. I thought there was something wrong with me for feeling grief over her loss years after her death.
More recently, I’ve been the person whose attention is diverted to something else. A good friend lost both her parents within a few months and although I meant to be more of a presence in her life in the aftermath, I’ve had my own problems to deal with.
So it’s definitely not personal when the help fades away. And this is why I think that when we are in need, we need to let others know we are in need. But it’s hard. And here’s where Murthy helped me better understand what’s going on when someone won’t reach out for help. Besides it being just difficult to be vulnerable, as I’ve talked about before, the way humans have evolved has made the effects of loneliness negatively impact our abilities to reach out.
Murthy discusses how loneliness makes us less likely to trust others. He calls this the paradox of loneliness: “When we become chronically lonely,” he explains, “our threat perception changes . . . so we push people away and we see risk and threat in benign social opportunities.” So when we are most lonely, we are also most likely to avoid others and feel alienated.
I’ve definitely felt this. The more alone I am, the more being alone feels like the only safe and comfortable option. I think of it like muscle memory—the ways I automatically respond to other people when I am not lonely stop being automatic when I am lonely and require concerted effort. That effort makes it feel like too much work sometimes or even dangerous.
I’ve seen other widowed and grieving people pull away from others and then feel like they were abandoned even though they themselves pulled away. I now can understand that as the loneliness paradox Murthy describes. (If you’re curious about this phenomenon, I highly recommend chapter 2 of Murthy’s book.)
What this means is that if you know someone who is grieving and you haven’t heard from them in a while, don’t assume that’s because they don’t want to hear from you. So many people tell me they have held back on contacting me because they don’t want to be a bother, but not one single person who has reached out to me has been a bother. Not one, and I say this as an extremely introverted person who loves being alone.
People love being thought of. All you have to do is send a text that says, “Hey, I’m thinking about you. Interested in getting coffee?” You may not get an answer, and if you don’t, don’t take it personally. And then two or three months later, send another text. You may not get an answer to that one, and if you don’t, don’t take it personally. Continue this practice, never taking it personally if you don’t get an answer.
If you’ve been like me and gotten distracted from supporting a friend who is grieving, stop feeling bad and embarrassed to reach out. Just reach out. Send the text. It doesn’t matter how much time has gone by.