Loneliness on Board
By Donna Rothert, PhD
Grief seems at first to destroy not just all patterns, but also to destroy a belief that a pattern exists.
– Martha Beck
The gift of loneliness is sometimes a radical vision of society or one’s people that has not previously been taken into account. – Alice Walker
At the Monterey Bay Aquarium there is an exhibit called the Kelp Forest. Standing 28 feet tall and spanning an enormous room, it’s a glass tank that houses an underwater ecosystem. The diffused light from above reveals a somewhat out of focus background of variegated blues and greens with streaks of yellow and brown plant life. Sharks, octopuses, sardines, bright orange garibaldi and a host of other bay creatures swim past giant strands of swaying kelp that reach up from the bottom of the tank. The exhibit provides a close up view of another world held steadfast behind the glass.
Sometimes life after loss reminds me of visiting the kelp forest. Our missing someone is on the other side of the glass. We can catch glimpses of them through the lens of memory, dreams or other ways we may find to connect. We can consider their beauty and mystery, but there is an ongoing separation that is unmistakeable and unchangeable.
It can feel pretty damn lonely.
After the fire trucks that responded to our baby losses have turned off their lights and driven away, a painful silence may follow. The previous relationship we had been feeling with our child or child to be has been drastically altered or stilled. And instead of our baby, an absence has come to live with us.
Loneliness in general can be described in many ways– sadness and longing for company, feeling cut off from others, feeling remote, unseen, unwanted or unneeded. The loneliness of baby loss can be all of the above with an added physical emptiness and yearning since, either in our bodies when pregnant or in our arms after birth, the baby was so a part of us. There is an intense wish for reconnection. There can be echoes of all the different versions of our life we wish were happening instead of this one. Loneliness can be acute or chronic, pretty bearable or an intense middle of the night kind of agony.
It can also be useful.
In the loneliness of missing our babies, it may feel like we are the ones who are lost. Like other experiences of being lost, though, loneliness gives us a different point of view. We may feel more raw, more open. We may feel all of our edges, acutely aware of what is left of ourselves when everything else falls away.
I’m not saying an extended stay in this place is recommended, rather that short visits don’t have to be feared. Noticing your loneliness without jumping up to change your experience allows you to practice tolerating discomfort. You get to practice being aware of your feelings and bearing them as they arrive and pass without the interruption of the energy of others. This may occur just in short moments alone, but it is empowering to know that you can do it.
Being lonely also gives you the opportunity to show up for yourself. This means breaking out the self-care in the form of self-talk ( e.g. “I’m hurting and missing my baby and I will get through this moment”), reviewing and addressing your basic needs (eating, sleeping, being safe) or hitting your list of comforting activities (meditating, reading, exercise, taking a bath, etc).
When you’re lonely, you’re likely to seek relief by looking outside yourself. Although there is much to be said about reaching out and getting support during this time, it may not be the first thing you need and it won’t be the only thing you need. Just as your relationship to your baby was unique, so is your loss. That doesn’t mean that others can’t empathize and connect with you in lots of important ways– they can and you will need them to do so. But there is a part that is always ours alone to carry.
Relationships viewed from a distance may look differently. Not getting what you want from others in a given time can help clarify what those needs and wants are in this moment. Your needs may fit well with those in your life now or you might notice that some of your current priorities for a relationship mean that you want to expand your world. You might also notice a greater need for boundaries or other changes that you may wish to make to your existing support system.
Sitting with our loneliness can lead to different experiences. Feeling lonely and not rushing to change the feeling may lead you to tolerating other feelings and practicing how to sit with them as they come and go. Noticing your loneliness can also inspire you to increase your self-care, something that most of us need to keep practicing. It may also give you the space to reflect on what is most important to you in your changed life, including any shifting priorities regarding what you want from your relationships. Sometimes we need to come from a place of separation to best understand what we’re seeking from ourselves and others.
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Seeing Thestrals: living and growing after baby loss