Solitude or Social Support in Grief? Why We Need Both
Author: Alan Wolfelt
In many ways, grief is an experience replete with contradictions.
We feel like time stops, yet time goes on. We can’t stop thinking about the death, yet we distract ourselves so we won’t think about it. We’re strong, yet we’re weak. We’re resilient, yet we’re vulnerable.
Acknowledging and embracing these necessary contradictions (and others) is part of our work of mourning. It’s a question of balance and back-and-forth. While there’s no set formula that applies to everyone, you’ll find that working each day on creating a balance that’s right for you will help you achieve momentum in the journey.
Another one of the contradictions in grief that is essential for you to explore is the need for solitude versus social support. Which is better? The answer is both.
The Need for Solitude in Grief
For many of us, solitude in grief comes naturally. When we are emotionally and spiritually torn apart, we often turn inward. The numbness of early grief settles in like fog. Later, we may often find ourselves mired in the thoughts and feelings inside us. This is normal.
I sometimes call this helpful inner experience of being mired in your grief “sitting in your wound.” When you sit in the wound of your grief, you surrender to it. You acquiesce to the instinct to slow down and turn inward. You allow yourself to appropriately wallow in the pain. You shut the world out for a time so that, eventually, you have created space to let the world back in.
In grief, we need the stillness of alone time to feel our feelings and think our thoughts. To slow down and turn inward, we must sometimes actively cultivate solitude. Being alone is not the curse we may have been making it out to be. It is actually a blessing. After all, we are born alone, and will die alone. We are each by ourselves a unique child of the universe.
Solitude in grief is both necessary and healing. If you are someone who avoids solitude, however, through constant distraction, busyness, or attachment to others, you may be avoiding your normal, necessary pain. You may be plugging your ears to the still, small voice inside you that asks you to slow down, turn inward, and pay attention to it. You may be ignoring your spirit and your soul. When this happens, your grief journey stalls. You get stuck in avoidance and denial.
Note that too little solitude is harmful in grief, but so is too much solitude. The griever who shuts the world out completely and does not receive and accept the support of others will also get stuck.
The Need for social support in Grief
One of our key needs of mourning is to receive and accept support from friends, family members, neighbors, and colleagues. The empathy of others allows us to express our natural and necessary grief outside of ourselves. Whenever we talk about our grief and share our stories of love and loss, we are taking a step toward healing.
Another reason social support in grief is necessary is that human beings need companionship. We are social creatures, and our relationships give life meaning. In fact, our very grief is testament to that truth. The relationship we had with the person who died gave our life meaning. The same is true of other relationships in our continued lives.
When we lack companionship, we are lonely. Loneliness can be challenging after the death of someone special, especially someone who had been a part of our daily lives. Loneliness hurts. To counteract our loneliness, we must find ways to reach out to others.
We have the capacity to establish new routines of spending time with friends, family members, neighbors, fellow volunteers, work colleagues, likeminded hobbyists, and other people with whom we have things in common. Not only does working on connection quell our loneliness, it also provides us with listening ears for the expression of our grief.
The social support we ask for and receive during our time of grief helps build a bridge of meaning that carries us toward our future. While a special relationship has been ended by death, we can form and strengthen other relationships. These people will never replace the person who died, but they can and will make our lives worth living again.
If you’re an introvert or someone who tends to self-isolate, you may find reaching out for and accepting social support in grief challenging. Yet I promise you that developing or strengthening a relationship with even one other person will enrich your life in myriad ways and help you through your time of grief. As the poet John Donne famously wrote, “No man is an island.” Never is this truer than in grief.
Finding a balance
I hope you will work to find the balance between solitude and social support in grief that is right for you. One indication to look for is momentum. Are you feeling like you are experiencing movement in your journey? (Sometimes the movement may be backward, and that’s OK.) Are you feeling the hope that comes with motion?
If you are feeling stuck, on the other hand, or hopeless, you may need to consciously work on your solitude / social support balance. If you’re tipping too much to one side or the other, or if you’re not really engaging in either but are instead spending most of your time on non-meaningful distractions, try carving out some time for true solitude or genuine social interaction (or both). They will transform your present as well as your future.
A longtime TAPS supporter, Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. serves as Director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition and is a member of the TAPS Advisory Board. He has written many books that help people mourn, including Healing Your Grieving Heart After a Military Death (coauthored with TAPS President Bonnie Carroll). Visit www.centerforloss.com to learn more about grief and to order Dr. Wolfelt’s books.