What do you do when WE becomes just ME? Loneliness can be a serious challenge for the widower, especially soon after the loss of their wife, with many reporting feeling isolated from friends and family in their grief, suffering alone in isolation with their sadness and anxiety.
In this episode, we tackle the loneliness challenge with mental health expert and widow Helen Keeling-Neal. In our conversation we discuss how loneliness manifests and provide some tools and strategies to help reduce the impacts and overcome the loneliness challenge for healing and growth.
Helen 2:28 Yeah, it’s very common. It’s almost as if when you’ve lost a loved one in that way and the energy changes in your house. That warmth of a presence… that loving presence is just gone. And it’s like being in an emotional vacuum for a little bit of time. The person who you were used to being with, who you were used to feeling in your home, is gone. And it has an echoing sense of loneliness to it. That’s really deeply connected with grief and there are many kinds of loneliness. Brene Brown talks about three different kinds of loneliness but the loneliness that comes with grief is really big at first.
Helen 3:48 So we have all these attachment styles, which play a part into how we connect in our relationships anyway. And when you lose someone, you may have a reaction that’s based on those kinds of attachment styles.
When there’s a big fractured attachment, like in a loss. What you want is your primary attachment figure, which is your spouse or your partner in the current to help you navigate through the painful feelings. And yet, the paradox is that the person who would help you navigate through the difficulties and the painful feelings is the one who’s gone. So it’s quite profound. It really is.
Helen 12:29 And in fact, when you’re out with your couple friends, if anything, it shines a light on the absence, and makes the loneliness even bigger.. Yet here you are with people. Because it makes the loss more felt in that moment in time, it’s really tough.
Helen 16:05 And loneliness leads to depression. It does. We are designed as human beings to need human contact.
Helen 18:48 I think that our homes have changed so much when you’ve had a loss, that it can be very difficult to even be at home, because it is 100% a reminder of who’s not there.
Tom 20:04 Yeah. And I do think what you’re saying is that you’ve got to take, first of all, gaining an understanding of your attachment style, definitely good, starting to categorize some of your loneliness, and then going and taking some steps to maybe overcome some of that loneliness is important.
Helen 24:03 You know, sometimes it’s okay to be alone. I like to be alone. There are times when I crave being alone. But not at first, that wasn’t how I felt. So being around people when you have an empty house can be really important. So it’s a great strategy, taking work to the coffee shop reading a book at the coffee shop. I would go out to eat with my book. I just wanted to be around people, because it gave me a sense of connection, but I wasn’t necessarily talking to someone. So I love that. That’s a great strategy.
Helen 26:22 We have to talk a little bit about creating loneliness for ourselves by self-isolating. Self esteem can take a hit with this kind of loss. You are feeling not wanted. Feeling left out. Feeling on the outside of the groups and not belonging anymore. Being the different one, dealing with the pity eyes. Wanting to be just a person versus the one whose wife died, or whose husband died, So this can lead people to self isolate, and feel lonely as a result, because they don’t want to go out there and they don’t want to be asked “How they’re doing” and then have tears come up and be flooded with tears, which happens, it really does happen. So they start to avoid being around people as a way to avoid feelings. And that can really enhance that loneliness.
Helen 42:26 Very much. Pets are so really great. They can really give somebody a reason to get up in the morning. And you know, getting those snuggles. Having the routine of needing to care for someone or a pet, outside of yourself, can help motivate you to take care of yourself. If it’s a dog getting out for a walk, going to the dog park and meeting people.
Helen 43:46 I think the cure to loneliness lies in taking action to be around others. And being willing to override the “I don’t have it in me”. You want to feed the interaction, don’t feed the loneliness.
Tom 44:10 And loneliness can be a reinforcing loop. So it does take effort to break it. We’ve all been there. I know that you’ve been there. I’ve been there. There were days where it’s like, I just don’t want to face the world. I just don’t want to go outside. I don’t want to go to the coffee shop. I don’t want to go to the gym and see anybody. I just want to be here by myself, and there are going to be days like that. And sometimes that’ll happen. But if every day is like that, the loneliness will just keep building and building and then as you said, it leads to depression. And we don’t want to see any of our widowers succumb to that. So if you’re in that mode, the way to break it is to get out there and take a couple of steps forwards. This could be with social online groups as the beginning. It could be the coffee shop.
Thomas Pisello 0:02
Today, we’ve got a returning guest, she is by far my favorite guest, Helen, welcome back.
Helen Keeling Neal 0:44
Hi, good to be back.
Helen is a licensed mental health counselor. She’s a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. She’s a nationally certified counselor with a private practice in my hometown of Winter Park, Florida, as well. Helen is on the board for us here at growth through grief. And she helps guide our practices on all things concerning the mind and mental health. Helen also unfortunately has a personal experience with grief and loss as a widow herself. Her husband passed away when her children were only four and six years old. Helen, welcome back.
Thomas Pisello 1:24
And today we’re here to talk about a topic that every was brought up at our last virtual meeting of widowers, and a common theme that came up there and also in our in-person meet up that we do here in Winter Park, Helen, and it is the topic of loneliness that came up in both of those.
And this came up a couple of times in both of these different settings with different widowers bringing it up. And I really wanted to address it, because I think it’s something that’s important. I know I faced this issue, and I know, you certainly faced it after the loss of your husband.
When I first lost Judy, I remember experiencing it pretty quickly. I remember waking up, really, I think that first morning, and all of a sudden, I felt a sense of loneliness immediately. And a sense of, “Alright, what do I do now” kind of thing. Talk about how common that is to feel that loneliness even though it may only be like a day or two or three and why you feel it right away?
Yeah, it’s very common. It’s almost as if when you’ve lost a loved one in that way, the energy changes in your house. That warmth of a presence… that loving presence is just gone. And it’s like being in an emotional vacuum for a little bit of time.
The person who you were used to being with, who you were used to feeling in your home, is gone. And it has an echoing sense of loneliness to it. That’s really deeply connected with grief and there are many kinds of loneliness. Brene Brown talks about three different kinds of loneliness but the loneliness that comes with grief is really big at first.
Yeah, and I’ve heard the term attachment bonding, which is what happens with our spouse, right? We’re used to them being there, in our lives. And we’re attached to them with a big set of habits that are formed, the emotional connection that is totally wired into our brain. What is attachment bonding and how does this loss break that important bond and actually break those neural connections or at least disrupt them?
Yeah, well Attachment Bonding is about the attachment style we developed as an infant with our caregivers. There’s Secure Attachment which means that your caregiver was there and and met your emotional and physical needs consistently, and so you grow up to be someone who has healthy self-esteem and and you’re able to connect with people. You’re resilient. You’re able to navigate through conflict.
And then there is Anxious Attachment and Avoidant Attachment. You might grow up where you didn’t have your needs met or it would be inconsistent. When this manifests as anxious attachment, you are more ambivalent, where you feel like you can’t get your needs met and you might be someone who might be clinging on tightly or not be able to trust that somebody’s going to be there and meet their needs.
Then the Avoidant Attachment can be dismissive, and they’re more you loners, and that’s when a caregiver might have not met the needs and might have been neglectful. And the Avoidant Attachment types tend to dismiss other people’s feelings, and they’re a bit more autonomous.
And then we have Disorganized Attachment that comes from trauma. So if you’ve grown up in a lot of trauma and extreme neglect, you’re going to have disorganized attachment, from a center of fear, because there was no secure base and there are feelings of not deserving love.
So we have all these attachment styles, which play a part into how we connect in our relationships anyway. And when you lose someone, you may have a reaction that’s based on those kinds of attachment styles.
But also, there’s the loneliness in connection with grief and loss, which is different, because it’s like, losing the “WE”, and returning to just being an “I”. So you’ve been navigating through life with a “WE” in every situation: “What are WE having for dinner? , What are WE going to watch on television today? What are WE going to do for the holidays? Where are WE going to? What color are WE going to paint the house? What are WE going to do tomorrow? What are WE going to do on the weekend.. Do WE want to mow the lawn or are WE gonna go to the market?” You know, everything’s done as WE. And now it’s simply an I. So you don’t have your breakfast buddy, your adventure outside of the house buddy, your home repair person to do all of that with you. So you’re doing everything by yourself, absolutely everything by yourself, and everything by yourself emotionally.
When there’s a big fractured attachment, like in a loss. What you want is your primary attachment figure, which is your spouse or your partner in the current to help you navigate through the painful feelings. And yet the paradox is that the person who would help you navigate through the difficulties and the painful feelings is the one who’s gone. So it’s quite profound. It really is.
There are assessments that you can take online, I’ve taken it to learn about your attachment styles. So I highly recommend those. And I’ll post a link to that in our speaker notes. So folks can look that up, because I do think that those elements of how you attach can manifest themselves as you now look to heal and to grow post fractured attachment. And now, going Helen from WE to ME, is how I look at it. ME can be really lonely.
So, what exactly is loneliness? Is there like a definition that you as a mental health professional use to define what it is?
I looked it up, because I was thinking about “what exactly is loneliness” ands the definition talks about social isolation.
But Brene Brown actually talks about the three types of loneliness which I think is a better way to look at it. There’s the emotional, relational, and collective dimensions to loneliness. And I really like this, because when you lose a spouse, you’re losing all three.
You’re losing the emotional attachment, the person that you can talk about your feelings with, if you’re in that kind of relationship. Not everybody has that kind of relationship, right? But though at least some sharing on an emotional level there. And they’re your primary relationship on the emotional side and that’s where Emotional Loneliness comes into play..
And if you have children, you’re bonded in a way as parents in that way too. And then collectively as a family. So this Collective Loneliness in that you’re no longer a family in maybe that more traditional sense, or a couple in in the sense of being a couple ship.
And the loss changes your social standing and status. And that’s a big change in our culture. Coupleship is viewed one way, being single is actually viewed sometimes in a marginalizing way, as if being single is not the right way to be. As if to be a successful person in this culture you have to be in a couple. It’s set up really in that way.
It’s not true, of course, this has no bearing on success at all. But, you know, people are seen differently if they’re single, or if they’re in a coupleship, which is unfortunate. So when that rapid dissolution of a coupleship is a rapid change of a social position. You’re now being seen differently and the groups that you used to be in, you won’t feel connected in the same way because you’re not a couple anymore. And that can feel lonely because there’s no ability to identify in the same way with your social group.
And so, in the dictionary Loneliness talks about social connection, that loneliness is an absence of social connection. But again, we know that you can be lonely within a group, you can be lonely within a family, you can be lonely within a relationship or a marriage, because you don’t have maybe the emotional connection that’s going on there. And there’s a different kind of loneliness when your person is gone.
Yeah, I think Brene Browns’ multi dimensional aspects of Loneliness is a lot better than just the social aspects. Because Helen, it brought up a great point for me. Celebrating our kids graduation with family, friends, dear family, friends, absolutely, were there through all of the messiness of the disease, and after that, and provided support to me and provided support to the family. So I wouldn’t trade these friends for anything. These friends were there for big family trips that we took together up to Michigan, and we were always with them as a couple and as a family.
And so when I go to hang out with this group…there’s one friend couple, there’s another friend couple… and then there’s me sitting at the table. And you talk about being in a social situation and feeling lonely. You know, Judy used to be the star at these gatherings. She had all the fun stories of the kids growing up and would share it with the women at the table.
And I feel this amazing loneliness, not from them, causing it, my friends, but from me inside that, “Oh, my, my partner’s not here, and I’m here alone”. And you’re there as couples and so you start to feel awkward in some of those friend groups.
And many of us as men don’t have those individual guy friends. Most of us, as we raised our kids and everything else, it became all about couple friends. And so I found myself, not only in situations like with the old “couple” friend groups, but then I look to the side and say, “Okay, well, what about my single or widowed or divorced guy friends?” And I didn’t really have very many of those. And I think that’s not an uncommon situation for many widowers?
And in fact, when you’re out with your couple friends, if anything, it shines a light on the absence, and makes the loneliness even bigger.. Yet here you are with people. Because it makes the loss more felt in that moment in time, it’s really tough.
Helen, how did it manifest itself for you? Did you have any similar experiences?
You know, I missed so much of the warmth of David’s presence, and having someone with whom to joke with. In our marriage, we had all these stupid funny things we’d do. Impressions we would do with each other. Just those little things are the love maps of your partner that you’re aware of, the silly dances, like the bear dance, and all these little intimate things that we had years of connection with and doing. And to have an absence of that was just like living in an echo chamber.
And so what I did was I just turned to my kids a lot, and I focused on my kids, which is not always the healthiest thing to do. And, because that can turn you into a helicopter parent. If you’re taking your loneliness and now making it all about your children, then there’s a chance that you’re going to be over involved in your children.
I think for a period of time, I was over involved in their feelings and what they were going through. And I got some help with that. So I was able to back off a bit which was good. But when you have young children in particular, it’s not easy to leave them after that kind of loss and go out and socialize, and I certainly wasn’t going to be easy to bring someone home to the house. I was very reluctant to do that because of safety and so I spent a lot of time being single
I think there are particular times and events where loneliness is more than at other times. It’s the holidays. It’s family get together times. It’s special occasions. It’s doughnuts with Dads and muffins with Moms at school. It’s every Mother’s Day, every Father’s Day. It’s those times that really can ratchet up the loneliness. And we need to acknowledge that those times are difficult for a lot of people, even if you’re not feeling lonely through loss in general.
And then I have a particular heart for people who have lost family members and spouses through COVID. Because it has accentuated loneliness to a level that is just way beyond and so excruciatingly painful, because people weren’t able to be out and around others at all. And were restricted. It’s just an exceedingly difficult time because I know you talk with Chris Ice about the lost his wife during that time. Right?
Absolutely. And he had to go on lockdown. They had that experience where it was a double, compound loss, where they lost their spouse, some of them to COVID, and then found themselves isolated, without any physical connection, less emotional connection, and all of that.
And loneliness leads to depression. It does. We are designed as human beings to need human contact. And even if you’re an introvert, and it’s one person every so often versus an extrovert, which is a little more, I’m more extroverted and I think you are to Tom, then, we are designed that way.
One thing I did want to point out with loneliness, we talked about attachment and attachment styles. And so the fractured attachment after losing a spouse, what you can see is somebody who has maybe an Anxious Attachment style, they may go out and find a relationship and get very involved in that relationship as a way to regain that attachment. And that doesn’t always work out in a way to negate loneliness.
And then with our Avoidant Attachment crowd there, I can be a bit like that, where I don’t need a relationship, I’m fine by myself. I’m on Helen Island over here. I’m autonomous, and I am independent. But that’s basically because I’m scared shitless to get into a relationship, right? Because I don’t want to lose it again. I finally attached to someone, and now I’m not gonna go through that loss again, kind of point of view. So we can see with loneliness, how the attachment styles, playi out pretty significantly.
And Helen, that’s where I think understanding your attachment style and doing some homework on this is good. So I took the test to understand your attachment style. And sure enough, and I don’t think this is a surprise to you from some of our personal conversations. I am an Anxious Attachment style. And so sure enough, what did I do when I was lonely? I sought out a relationship pretty darn quick. Too quick.
And I think there’s a lot of widowers that do fall into that mindset. They’re feeling helpless, they feel lonely right away. And they want that nurturing, they want that attachment. And unfortunately, they get into relationships, and so many are moving in within eight, nine months, and married within the first year. And unfortunately, the failure rates for those relationships are extremely high. You’re not all the person you need to be, and who you’re with may not be ready for who you are at that point, and then ultimately, the healed person on the other side.
And so definitely, not understanding that attachment style and understanding that you’re attaching out of anxiousness and not out of a secure attachment could be really helpful.
I think that our homes have changed so much when you’ve had a loss, that it can be very difficult to even be at home, because it is 100% a reminder of who’s not there.
I know people who’ve had losses who couldn’t even bear to be at home or couldn’t sleep in their own bed anymore and had to sleep on the couch or just couldn’t even go and sit in in certain parts of the house or outside because it’s just so incredibly painful, and so incredibly lonely for them.
And time is helpful. But getting a group and a connection with a group like the group of men that you have is so important. Having those similar experiences to talk about with people who’ve been through it and who understand, maybe not completely the same way that you’re experiencing it, but can understand, that helps alleviate the loneliness in the experience. There’s loneliness around not having the person anymore and the emotional loneliness. An experience of a loss that is so profound. It is so super important to get connected.
Yeah. And I do think what you’re saying is that you’ve got to take, first of all, gaining an understanding of your attachment style, definitely good, starting to categorize some of your loneliness, and then going and taking some steps to maybe overcome some of that loneliness is important.
So let’s talk about that. Because I know that many of the listeners, they don’t want to be in this lonely state forever. They don’t want to go out and have an unhealthy relationship. They want to do this the right way. So Helen, what is the right way?
And I know everyone is so different. But let’s talk about some techniques to overcome the loneliness. One of them you mentioned is peer support. Right? Getting together with the widower brother or widow sister, and talking it out. Talk about that first…
And so that’s great, because these are the people, these are the tribe, right? They really get what loss and loneliness is like, and they’re the ones that you can talk with about how you’re feeling over and over and over again, and you don’t have to worry about whether you’re becoming annoying or a downer. So often I hear, I just don’t want to talk to my friends about it anymore. I’m sure they’re sick of hearing. And I don’t want to be a downer at the party.
But most of the time, we’re not a downer for other people. People have a lot of empathy. But we do know with each other, we can talk about as much as we want, cry about as much as we want, get angry about as much as we want. And, we’ll have an attentive ear, and an understanding here. So that’s really important.
And then there’s trying things that you may have wanted to try. Getting that courage to go and take a pottery class or go rowing or find a meetup group that’s going to go hiking. That takes a lot of courage. And not everybody is able to do that, especially those who may have social anxiety and may have a difficult time. They’re more introverted, and don’t have the same confidence in socially connecting. So that can be difficult. So get into an online D&D group or find a way to connect that works for you. And it can be online at first, that’s okay, do need in person connection, that’s going to be very important. But you can take it slowly. You can kind of put a toe in the water out there and go to a meet up, or go to church, go to a singles event, go to some kind of group, any kind of social activity. Go to something at the library that they have going on.
An important thing for introverts, and I talk about this a little bit because I’m a little bit more introverted than extroverted, all the same I don’t completely understand the introvert mindset… maybe just getting out to a coffee shop, even if you’re just talking to the barista, and then just sitting at the table and doing your work or go out to the gym, even if you’ve got your earbuds in and you’re on the elliptical. It’s just getting out, now that we can, into those social environments, you don’t have to necessarily interact.
But I did find that some of my more lonely days, where I didn’t feel like talking to anyone and I wanted to just be inside my own head and work some things out for myself. But I still felt that getting out to the coffee shop and getting out to the gym and getting out and socializing, not interacting. But still getting out into social situations was really helpful. Is that true? Is that a good recommendation?
That’s a great recommendation. And it is so true, because then you don’t feel alone, which helps with the loneliness.
You know, sometimes it’s okay to be alone. I like to be alone. There are times when I crave being alone. But not at first, that wasn’t how I felt. So being around people when you have an empty house can be really important. So it’s a great strategy, taking work to the coffee shop reading a book at the coffee shop. I would go out to eat with my book. I just wanted to be around people, because it gave me a sense of connection, but I wasn’t necessarily talking to someone. So I love that. That’s a great strategy.
A table for one, though, can sometimes feel lonely, right? So a strategy that I use is to sit at the bar (even though I don’t drink). Many restaurants have a bar you can sit at, and the bar could be the fun place to be anyway. And you still don’t have to interact, but the bartender is there. And they’ll be attentive to you. And it is a social environment. And then if you do like to interact, what better place with people coming and going a little bit?
Yeah, yeah, it’s a great suggestion. I’m not a sit at the bar kind of person. So I always, as long as I have something else to do, I was okay. So that’s the way to go for me in that,
And then you spoke about the groups and clubs, which I absolutely love, you know, finding a group of people that have a common interest and going to do that. Here in town, there’s a local paddle board group that I went out to a couple of times to meet people. And then for me, one of the big things that I continue to do to this day, and I love this fact, I’m probably gonna have some other people from my group on for an interview here, I go to Cyclebar, and do a spinning group exercise class. And they’re like a second family to me. And they were open pretty quick after COVID. And were slow to shut down in the beginning. And so I missed that family when it was shut down. And now that it’s back, I mean, they’re friends that I’ve had for now a long time. And we only see each other at cycle. But I feel like they’re a part of my family. Yoga works the same way. The same people I see at the Y when working out every morning. And you start to become friendly with those people. Not long interactions, but it’s social.
Yeah, exactly. It’s great. You’ve got your pods, right, your cycle pod, the yoga pod, the coffee shop pod …this is wonderful, it’s great. So putting yourself in proximity, helps with loneliness, and gives you the opportunity to create new and more friendships.
I was very, very blessed, because my neighborhood was a fantastic community. So I had a lot of friends and I had a lot of friends that leaned in. And I got invited to a lot of social events, a lot of dinners, a lot of game nights, a lot of those kinds of things, which was really great. But it kind of went away after six months. And I think after six months, when it’s sort of calmed down a little bit as in I call it the Business of Death, of having to get through everything and get the logistics done and now you’ve turned the ship into the wind. You’re getting into your routine by yourself and then a lot of that support drifts away.
And now you’re really left to deal with being alone. Because everybody has lives, everybody’s getting on with everything. And that can feel even more lonely than the initial loneliness of that initial loss. And that’s when it’s really important to take some action and really start saying yes to invitations, even though you want to stay in.
We have to talk a little bit about creating loneliness for ourselves by self-isolating. Self esteem can take a hit with this kind of loss. You are feeling not wanted. Feeling left out. Feeling on the outside of the groups and not belonging anymore. Being the different one, dealing with the pity eyes. Wanting to be just a person versus the one whose wife died, or whose husband died,
So this can lead people to self isolate, and feel lonely as a result, because they don’t want to go out there and they don’t want to be asked “How they’re doing” and then have tears come up and be flooded with tears, which happens, it really does happen. So they start to avoid being around people as a way to avoid feelings. And that can really enhance that loneliness.
I completely agree with that. And really just trying to get the courage up and stop the negative thoughts around that. Your automatic negative thoughts, your ANTS, that come to mind when it comes to socialization and feeling bad for yourself? You know, just try to suck it up and get out there.
I mean, you know, if anybody just comes to CFS (our coffee shop in Winter Park FL), either you or I or anybody, you’re going to be talking to them, right. So the introverts need to go to CFS. Somebody there is going to talk to you.
The community coffee shop. I completely agree with that. And, you know, there’s a lot of people that have experienced loss and experienced different things that all of a sudden, you’ll find out about. “Wow, I didn’t realize,Russ, that you lost your two parents together”. You know, or Helen, I didn’t know in the beginning, until after several conversations, that you were a widow.
And so all of a sudden you have these empathetic conversations with folks that you wouldn’t normally meet and I know for those with social anxiety. It can be really, really tough to get out there. One of the the challenges that came up in one of the widowers meetings a gentleman was having issues, where he was inflicting loneliness on himself. And I know I’m not going to word this, right. But he doesn’t feel like he should be out having fun or experiencing life, because why should he, when his wife doesn’t have that opportunity anymore. And, why should he go on and having the fun, and going out and socializing or joining a club or doing this or doing that, especially when she can’t because she is gone, or they would have normally done it together. Talk about that loop a little bit that sometimes we get ourselves into, because this is not uncommon.
It seems like you’re talking about Survivor’s Guilt, is the term for it, so that I shouldn’t be here because they’re not here.
And it is a cognitive dissonance, right? Sometimes asking someone, “Would your wife want that for you?” can be helpful. Or “What would she say?”. Well, she wanted me to go down to the coffee shop, and have a good time. She would want me to grab a buddy and go and play golf.
So knowing that she would want good for you. And you should give yourself a little bit of what she might want for you, can you give that to yourself, and that can help someone shift a little. I don’t know how long. How much time has gone by with that loss. But sometimes it takes some time for someone to start choosing to live again. Because there is that piece that when the spouse dies, I feel like part of us has died. And many people have felt like they’ve wanted to die too, because it’s so painful, and they can’t contemplate living life without this person.
And there are some stages in this because,, they can’t contemplate living a life without this person. And they say to themselves “So here I am, I have to stay because I’m not going to choose to leave this life. But I can’t contemplate living life and experiencing any kind of happiness or joy without that person… that feels wrong, it seems wrong. It’s not okay”.
And this is particularly in connection with people who don’t have children in the home or don’t have children at all, because the loss took away the main person. And there’s nobody left. And so there can be a correlation there.
So to get out of it, there can be a shift into ”Well, maybe I can take my dog for a walk, or I’m going to get together with my cousin”. But it really can take a long time for someone to feel like, number one, they have the capacity to feel joy, and number two, they can feel joy without feeling guilty that this person is not here to feel it with them.
Yeah. So one of the things, Helen that I purposely went and did, and it took me quite a while to do this, was I really realized that look, the “couple friends” were still important in my life, and I’m still connected to them. But I still did get those feelings of loneliness when I was with them, and it wasn’t quite as deep as I needed. And so one of the things that I did was I created some guy groups. And I actually went and sought that out.
And I think as men, we’ve kind of lost those “guy groups” in a lot of ways. You’ve seen our group, the group where we go out and just do Cars and Chai on the weekends, as one of the groups This is in addition to the widowers group. And it kind of gives me that guy connection that I think we so desperately need nowadays. Statistics show women have that friend that they can confide in for health issues, for sadness, for financial issues for whatever the challenges might be. Percentage wise 70% or more of women will indicate they have one or two friends that they can confide in with all of these different elements in their life. And as guys, I can tell you that up until probably a year ago, I had very few that I could confide in, in any of those areas. Statistically for guys its less than 1 in five that have that guy friend. Talk about the importance of maybe getting out there and finding those guy friends..
I think “guy time” comes in a couple of different forms. You’ve got your Clean Cars and Dirty Chai car group, which is one kind of guy time. And then you’ve got your widowers group with similar men acculturated into it.
The challenge, feelings or emotions can be seen as womanly, and therefore, you know, not good. Men were raised to not feel like they were associated with women because women can be seen as not ideal or weaker, right? Any kinds of emotions or feelings, outside of anger, is considered vulnerable.
And so what I love about what you’re doing with your group is that you are normalizing the truth of the situation, which is, all feelings are normal .. Let’s get some support and and have some conversations about what it’s really like. And to do it without shaming or putting these narrow gender based cultural standards onto people.
And you’re pioneering that, which I love that you’re doing that, it is so important that we are seeing a shift collectively, and culturally in more of a swing towards men being able to just be fully human, instead of having to be locked into this little tiny box of non-emotional, don’t cry, don’t do this, don’t do that, make money. That’s your job. That’s your role. You’re not a man, you’re not a real man. And unless you’re this way, women have their own box, too.
But I’m so glad that you’re pioneering breaking out of that, and being able to be authentic and congruent. Because there’s nothing worse than feeling loneliness, going to a group of people and acting like everything’s okay, when it isn’t. And then going home and now you not only half your loneliness that you left with, but this like, this satisfaction of that realm, the experience. And the feeling like you just having to pretend to be Mr. Sunshine.
It’s like sometimes you’ve got this mask on. And so my friend and business performance coach Jon Thurman and I had that in a session on Masks for just that reason. Because as men, a lot of times we’ve got to put those masks on.
So many men, when you ask them, they’ll admit “I’m tired”. And this was me for a while through the illness and through everything else. And it wasn’t Judy’s fault that I was tired. And it wasn’t even the illnesses’ fault. It was the frickin masks I had to have on. Yes, these stoic masks, to be non emotional, and that was my fault. I was not letting myself feel what I needed to feel and to be vulnerable. And so I wasn’t true to myself. And that inauthenticity that caused dissonance, that in-congruency that you mentioned was why I was exhausted all the time. Sure, there were the sleepless nights through the care and everything else. But it was really around the incongruence to between who I was inside and what I was really feeling and then what I was portraying outside.
One of the other things, too, with the male groups is, it’s not about he toxic masculinity and being over the top masculine, like “we’re a car group”. But when we gather, we’re not just talking about cars and manly things … we are talking about our emotions, a lot of times we’re talking about our relationships, and we’re trying to have these frank discussions that many of us, it’s been a long time since we’ve had those with other guys.
And as widowers, now that we don’t have our partner, I didn’t have Judy to go back to to talk to anymore, it was really important for me to replace that, not with another woman in my life, who I can still have discussions with, but with guy friends that I could build relationships with so that it now have these healthy attachments across all the different dimensions.
And I hope everyone’s hearing that, this, it didn’t occur overnight, all of these things, you know, It’s a process, and I didn’t really work on these male connections until maybe a year ago if that. But that when I did so, it was purposeful in that I looked for these gaps in my life and said, in order to grow, I need to have not just one dimension of relationships and get involved with a woman so deeply that she was the only one in the center of my life. I needed to have these multiple dimensions of relationships. And that’s actually created healthier relationships for when, when and if I am in a relationship with a woman.
Yes, because you have this good diversity in your connections. I think one of the things is leaning into the social structures that we have in place, which for me, were around my kids, you know, school, PTA, those kinds of things. So if there’s something in your life that supports that, leaning into it, whether it’s work and social events in connection with work, or you know, I think church was one you got back to right And then your girls were a bit older, but you still would have been very present with what was going on with them. So those are already there.
Try not to avoid those groups, just lean into getting those connections as you can. What I love about the Clean Cars and Dirty Chai group Tom is the diversity in emotions in the group. You have a group of men where someone may be brand new at expressing emotions in there, and maybe a new kind of experience for them to come and chat with a group of guys and talk about feelings. And then you have a couple of others who are very much emotionally in tune and now comfortable with expressing their feelings, in your role modeling and creating this safe space for other men to express their feelings to, which is great.
If you want other guys to share, I found the best way to do that, and I learned this from my friend Chris Wasman who I’ve also interviewed, as he did it and shared some things that, gosh, I wouldn’t share unless I knew them for years. He was sharing it openly and quickly. And he taught me just how powerful that sharing could be. Because after he shared, I wasn’t afraid to share anymore myself.
And so a lot of times I think we’re afraid to share because we don’t want to appear weak, but it’s like people are wanting these kinds of deep connections. And I found that every time I do openly share, it surprises me just what I get back. And I get much more from a sharing perspective and such openness and it takes the relationship to that next level.
So be vulnerable. I know it’s tough, to just put yourself out there. And I think you’d be surprised. As long as it’s in that safe environment, you’ll be surprised how much other people will open up with you and how deep those connections can get pretty quickly.
Because none of these groups I am in have been together very long. But I really feel like we’re old dear friends even though we haven’t. We’re just getting to know each other in a lot of ways, but know each other so deeply in more meaningful areas of our lives.
Let’s lighten it up a little bit. Helen. Loneliness, one of the best ways to cure that is with our pets. You’ve met my Ruby at Clean Cars and Dirty Chai as I bring her sometimes. I don’t know where I’d be without her, when my girls left to go away to college, the house was really lonely. But Ruby was always to encourage me to take a walk and get the heck out of the house. Pets, do they help with loneliness?
Very much. Pets are so really great. They can really give somebody a reason to get up in the morning. And you know, getting those snuggles. Having the routine of needing to care for someone or a pet, outside of yourself, can help motivate you to take care of yourself. If it’s a dog getting out for a walk, going to the dog park and meeting people. I go to the dog park every Sunday morning. There’s this whole group of people that get together in the small dog park on Lake Baldwin in Baldwin Park.
I know all these people now, these really cool, different people that I wouldn’t normally have met. I’m now Facebook friends with them, as we’ve got our own Facebook group for the small dogs.
And yeah, it’s really cool to have a Pet to help with loneliness. So that’s a great connector right there. A connector for one’s heart and for feeling loved, a connector for responsibility and a connector to connect with other people as well. So super important.
Excellent. And then you mentioned Facebook groups and some other groups. If you’ve got social anxiety and worried about meeting people in person, do those virtual groups help?
Yes, very much so, and that’s a really good place to start, especially if someone’s not ready to go out and connect in person. Really great.
Helen, what’s the one piece of advice you’d like to leave our widowers group, our growth warriors with today about loneliness?
I think the cure to loneliness lies in taking action to be around others. And being willing to override the “I don’t have it in me”. You want to feed the interaction, don’t feed the loneliness.
And loneliness can be a reinforcing loop. So it does take effort to break it.
We’ve all been there. I know that you’ve been there. I’ve been there. There were days where it’s like, I just don’t want to face the world. I just don’t want to go outside. I don’t want to go to the coffee shop. I don’t want to go to the gym and see anybody. I just want to be here by myself, and there are going to be days like that. And sometimes that’ll happen.
But if every day is like that, the loneliness will just keep building and building and then as you said, it leads to depression. And we don’t want to see any of our widowers succumb to that. So if you’re in that mode, the way to break it is to get out there and take a couple of steps forwards. This could be with social online groups as the beginning. It could be the coffee shop…
Passive interaction at the coffee shop, with your book, your computer, The key, you’re around people, even if you don’t want to talk with them.
And then certainly, if you’re an extrovert, get out there and join the groups, do the hobbies, do those things that you’ve wanted to do.
And I think the big thing for me was diligently, particularly these last 12 months was I flat out set a goal to get outside of my comfort zone, in as many things as possible. So for me, doing yoga, doing Pilates, joining a rock band, which is another group of guys that I hang out with now. It’s the things where I probably wouldn’t have done those things a couple of years ago.
You can set up these goals to get out there and break the loneliness, and it is in your control to do that. There are plenty of people who are looking for social interaction, really wanting that and, and they’re looking for connections.
And you’ve got so much to offer because of your life experiences. The other thing I think that I realized through this is that my brokenness is now one of my biggest gifts, I am Kintsugi gold joined. It is my beauty, not my ugliness. And I used to hold my loss as, “Well, I’m broken”. When I would socialize in the past after my loss, I would feel like the broken one in the group. But that’s not the case at all any more. I’m actually better off now because I can share openly, because I have these emotions, this transparency. I actually feel like I’ve got more to give, not less.
Helen, thank you so much. This has been great and I know it’s going to be really helpful for all of the winners out there. Thank you again.
You’re welcome Tom.
Attachment Style Information and Assessment – https://www.npr.org/2022/02/09/1079587715/whats-your-attachment-style-quiz
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About The Host
Growth Evangelist / Growth through Grief Founder
Tom Pisello is a widower and the father of two daughters. Tom lost his wife Judy in 2017 after her ten year battle with cancer.
Tom founded the Growth through Grief site, resources and ministry to help share his personal experiences to grow through the grieving process, and to share with others to help in his own and other’s healing process. Through this process, Tom gained his sobriety, lost 60 pounds, gained a growth mindset and rekindled lost faith, now sharing these hard-earned lessons and the lessons of other widowers and experts with you.
Prior to creating Growth through Grief, Tom was a successful serial-entrepreneur, analyst, speaker, and author of the business books Evolved Selling and The Frugalnomics Survival Guide. He was well known as “The ROI Guy”, founder of Alinean and Interpose, a Managing VP of analyst firm Gartner, Chief Evangelist for Mediafly and founder of the Evolved Selling Institute and host to the popular sales and marketing podcast – Evolved Selling
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