Dear Dr. Neimeyer,
I lost my husband one year ago. My biggest problem is our children live so far away and only visit once a year. I feel so isolated because they are so busy with their lives and I am not included. One daughter will call weekly and the other daughter very rarely calls to check on me. I was a caregiver for my mother for 6 years, and 2 weeks after her passing my husband became ill and I cared for him for 6 years. So I became isolated from my friends and groups I belonged to, to lovingly care for my husband for he could not be left alone for very long. I am finding it very hard to stop crying and to reconnect with the friends from 6 years ago, for they have moved on without me. I do stay busy with projects by crocheting, and I donate to the homeless and nursing homes. But this is done alone and I am not sure I want to reconnect with the friends of the past. I feel safe just staying home alone. Is this normal?
It sounds like you made many sacrifices for those you loved, substantially setting aside your own friendships to provide care for your mother and then husband for a dozen years. And now, in the wake of their passing, you feel the price of that sacrifice in the loneliness that characterizes your daily life. Adult children who are busy launching or maintaining families and careers, especially when they are at geographic distance, often can’t fill the void, and perhaps they, like your friends, became accustomed to your absorption in caregiving and reorganized their lives along more independent lines. Thus your friends and family, like you, seem to have learned to adapt to greater distance, and it seems like a hard pattern to unlearn, despite its cost.
As you mention your altruistic activities on behalf of the needy, it seems that you have found several creative ways of continuing your caregiving, but have redirected it to the homeless and elderly, in this way preserving a strand of consistency with a major source of meaning over the past 12 years. But as you imply, crocheting and donation do not necessarily offer human contact as a compensation. As you further suggest, there might even be a part of you that has come to prefer the distance, despite the loneliness, as reflected in your comments that you are not sure you want to reconnect with old friends, and that you feel “safe” at home alone.
So, what is to be done? At a practical level, of course, there are steps you could take toward a world that again includes deeper forms of companionship: participation in a support group for widows, “meet ups” with people who share your interests that can be found in every community on the internet, crocheting circles, volunteering time, as well as material donations, to needy groups. But a first step is to have a heart-to-heart conversation with the part of yourself that resists taking these steps, the part that feels “safer” not doing so. What does isolation keep you safe from? What is the protective function of distance? Might it minimize the risk of something even worse than loneliness, such as allowing yourself to care again deeply for others, only to risk losing them as well? If so, are there other ways of confronting this fear, without retreating into house arrest now and in the future? Compassionately inquiring into the meaning of your reluctance might yield the candid answers that could let you understand your fear and find helpful and hopeful ways to assuage it as you reconstruct a life shared with others.