Loneliness is hitting especially hard during these holidays. Here are some ways to cope.
Popular culture typically paints a picture of Christmas as a joyous time when families come together to feast and celebrate life in a convivial atmosphere. But even in the best years that is far from reality for many of us.
Exploring loneliness, sadness, and grief at Christmas from the points of view of those who need support and those who are willing and able to provide it is not a case of “us” and “them.”
We have all been both helpers and helped at one time or another. Everything comes into sharp focus at this time of year, with life’s milestone events—births, marriages, empty nesting, illnesses, recovery, deaths—gaining added poignancy, especially when something has shaken our lives since the previous Christmas.
Loneliness, sadness, and grief are universal human emotions that are neither straightforward nor predictable. Sadness comes in many forms, including a general melancholy that sweeps in with the season.
Grief may be for loved ones we have lost, for gatherings we will never attend again, for children we never had, or for relationships that have turned sour. Often the best we can do is honor the melancholy and be there when needed. Go easy on yourself . . . and on others.
There is a stoicism in our culture that has kept the lid on loneliness for far too long. Thankfully, though, people are finally starting to talk about it. According to the UK government, which has had a Minister for Loneliness since 2017, loneliness is as detrimental to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and more than three-quarters of us feel lonely at one time or another.
In the United States, rates of loneliness have more than doubled in the past 40 years: it is estimated that some 43 million US adults over the age of 45 suffer from chronic loneliness.
Loneliness is an aspect of the human experience that we all dwell in from time to time, and it is exacerbated when we measure ourselves against other people and feel inadequate. Many of us are loath to reach out due to fear of rejection, which causes us to retreat further, feel even more lonely, and deny ourselves the medicine of human connection we really need.
How to Deal With Loneliness
If you are feeling lonely, try these tips, which I have curated from my own experience, and from the experiences of those in my community.
- Take extra care of yourself in terms of nutrition and exercise.
- Make food an event by planning your menus, then use the meals themselves as opportunities to practice mindfulness in their preparation and eating.
- Reach out and talk with others about how you’re feeling. Remember, almost everyone feels lonely at some time in their life.
- Broaden your horizons by listening to podcasts, reading books, attending lectures, and exploring new music.
- Minimize your screen time and be mindful about how you are using social media.
- Meditate, do yoga, or attend a mindfulness workshop.
- Reflect on whether your sense of loneliness is telling you to pay more attention to certain aspects of your life.
- List the advantages of your current situation. If you find yourself complaining about something, add the words “so I can . . .” at the end of the sentence to flip it into an opportunity.
- Seek out an inspiring book, then settle down to read it as if there is nothing in the world you would rather be doing.
- Decorate the outside of your home with lights to raise the spirits of passersby. A lantern by the front door or fairy lights around the window can be your gift to strangers. This simple act can forge strong connections with neighbors and the rest of the local community as it sends a message of friendliness and approachability.
- If you are missing people who live far away, arrange an online video chat. You could keep the connection open while you cook dinner or decorate the tree.
- If being in the house feels oppressive, get outside. Seek out nature wherever you are.
- Be kind to others, and to yourself.
We cannot know the precise nature of someone else’s emotional experience at this time of year—the shadow of loss, the beating heart of sorrow, the searing pain of loneliness, the dull ache of wishing things were different—but we can be mindful of what it might feel like, based on our own experience, careful observation, and empathy.
How to Help Others Cope
There are a number of ways in which you might help other people to cope with their loneliness at this time of year:
- Remember, loneliness is often invisible. Most people will not tell you that they are suffering, so you might have to pay close attention. If you detect something is wrong, let them know you are available to listen. Then, if they choose to open up, do just that—listen—without offering unsolicited advice. Simply say that you empathize.
- Check in regularly, remain patient, and let them know you will still be there after the holidays. Smile with your eyes at strangers, especially those who seem in need of a pick-me-up.
- Take care with social media posts and think about the message you want to convey before posting or uploading anything.
- Let people know you appreciate them. Your words could be just the boost they need.
Adapted excerpt from Calm Christmas and a Happy New Year: A Little Book of Festive Joy by Beth Kempton with the permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. © 2020 by Beth Kempton.
Keep reading: “Honoring Grief.”