The Loneliness of Grief

loneliness of grief, sitting alone on a bench under a cloudy skyThis weekend the world was given an image of the loneliness of grief.  On April 17, 2021, many people in the world watched as the British Royal Family said goodbye to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at his funeral service in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Through media coverage, we were granted an intimate view of a family in mourning.  No matter our opinion of the monarchy, it’s important to remember that this is a family that is grieving the loss of a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather. Prince Philip would have celebrated his 100th birthday this June.

A Common Experience

a very empty funeral parlorWhile we are probably not a member of a royal family, many of us have shared this experience of losing and honouring a loved one during this pandemic.  We can relate to having to limit the number of guests who can attend the service and internment.  We know what it’s like to maintain physical distance from our friends and family members when what we need more than anything is a hug and words of comfort whispered in our ear.

Land Rover
(Steve Parsons / Associated Press)

Part of the original plan for Prince Philip’s funeral was that his coffin would be carried by a custom-built Land Rover hearse (Prince Philip designed it himself) through the streets of London in order for the public to pay their respects and say their farewells.  Understandably this didn’t happen.  We also know the pain of not being able to honour our loved one in the way that they may have pre-arranged themselves or as we would like to do for them.

A Woman Alone

Queen Elizabeth II, alone, for Prince Philip's funeralOne of the most poignant images from the service is that of Queen Elizabeth sitting alone.  Due to Covid-19 restrictions, only thirty people were able to be in the church.  Those in attendance had to sit in their household ‘bubbles’.  This wife is now alone in her bubble.

For a minute, let’s forget the famous identity of this woman and think of her as a fellow human.  Elizabeth met Philip when she was thirteen years old.   Philip was 18.  Apparently, for Elizabeth, it was “love at first sight”.  For eight years they continued their relationship through letters until they were able to marry when Elizabeth was 21.

As a married couple, they set up a household, had children and worked at their careers.  Sadly, a few years into their marriage, Elizabeth’s father died suddenly. This meant that Elizabeth had to take over the family business.  Philip, knowing how important this work was to his wife and her family, had already agreed that he would support her in this endeavour—even if it meant stepping back from his career.

Elizabeth & PhilipWhen Philip died, they had been married for almost 74 years.  Throughout those years, their relationship weathered good times and bad.  They worked together on common goals—supporting each other along the way.  Elizabeth was heard to say soon after her husband’s death, “He has, quite simply, been my strength and stay all these years…”

And now…like many other people who have lost a spouse, Elizabeth is without ‘her person’.

How Can We Help?

Unless we personally know Queen Elizabeth, there isn’t anything we can do for her.  However, I think she represents many grieving people that we do know.

One of the most common things I hear as a therapist is that people mourning the loss of a loved one (no matter the connection to them), is that they are surrounded by care and support immediately following their person’s death.  However, over time, the check-in calls dwindle away, notes and emails stop and offers to spend time together become farther and farther apart.  Others go back to their own lives, and the person in mourning is left sitting alone.  The loneliness of grief is intense.

While being busy can be the way of life for everyone, what the griever experiences is a ‘secondary’ loss.

a raindrop falling in a puddleWe can think of it this way…imagine a still pond of water.  A large rock is dropped into the pond sending large ripples away from where the rock entered.  This rock symbolizes the death of the loved one and the ripples are the major changes that happen in the griever’s life.

As the ripples move away from the initial point of contact, they become less violent—yet they still make waves—upsetting the surface of the pond.  These are the secondary losses.  The difficult thing is that they tend to happen as the bereaved is coming out of the shock phase that follows the death of a loved one, and are experiencing active grief experiences such as grief bursts (sudden crying jags), sleep issues (too much or too little), and grief brain (brain fog).

A Request…

If you know someone who is grieving, please stick around.  I know that life is busy, and it doesn’t take much.  In fact, you often don’t even need to say anything.  One client shared with me that one of the most comforting things a friend did for them was to show up for regularly scheduled walks.  This wise friend let them take the emotional lead.  Sometimes they needed to talk, other times to laugh or cry.  Often, they needed to be quiet together and not feel quite so alone.

And now…here’s a wonderful video from grief therapist, Megan Devine, on How to Help a Grieving Friend.  Enjoy!

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