I popped into a cozy eatery in Caernarfon, Wales at lunch time. I scanned the small space. Only a couple of tables sat empty.
“Would you like to sit with me?” a white-haired woman in a powder blue dress and matching sweater asked, one pearl button fastened at the neck. She beamed a smile, a cup of tea between her aged hands, hope evident in her lilting tone and bright face.
I smiled back. “Yes. I would.”
I shot off a quick message to my driver to let him know my location, and then explained to Margaret.
“I’m a tour leader, and my group is exploring the castle and town for a few hours. I need to discuss the itinerary with the driver, so after he tends a few things, he and I are going to have a little meeting here. But let’s chat until he arrives.”
And chat we did.
She told me the lovely, poignant story of how she’d met her husband of 62 years as his pen-pal during WWII. Of how she’d lost him only a year ago. She told me she lived alone outside a nearby village in the same rural stone cottage she was born in. That she’d begged her father 60 years ago to sell the then-empty house to her after an intolerable first year of marriage sharing her mother-in-law’s home in Liverpool. We laughed. We shed a tear together.
“I was so lonely after losing my husband,” Margaret admitted. “But I decided I couldn’t sit in the house by myself anymore.”
I nodded, understanding.
“So, every day,” she said, “I drive to Caernarfon. I sit on a bench in the square or eat my lunch here. I talk to people. I make friends. And it reminds me I’m not really alone after all.”
Soon my young driver arrived. Margaret added her two cents into our business meeting, offering robust Welsh advice. We all three ordered lunch and told stories and laughed together.
I wouldn’t trade that sparkling moment. It warms me every time I think of it.
And Margaret was on to something about loneliness. At this point I’ve figured out a few things, too.
- Understand that new lives can be lonely for any number of reasons. Maybe you’ve lost a partner. Maybe your choices cost you some friends–they don’t understand or actively disapprove. Maybe you voluntarily picked up and moved or followed a career change that took you out of your comfort zone. Loneliness comes in all shapes and sizes. If you’re lonely, you’re lonely.
- We don’t have to stay lonely. When I lived solo in Rome, Italy following the end of my very long marriage, I thought at first the loneliness would crush me. But I made a point to meet a friend every day for lunch, coffee, aperitivo, or dinner. And if no one could meet, then, like Margaret, I’d take a walk, sit on a bench in the piazza, sip coffee or a spritz at a sidewalk cafe. It’s surprising how easily conversations can start up in this way, but even if they don’t, you still get to be part of the life that is going on around you. It’s medicine for the soul, I tell you. And no one thinks anything about the fact that you’re alone. Really.
- Be authentic, but smart. Margaret was honest with me. She endeared me to herself in an instant with her friendly invitation. Be willing to share who you are. But please be smart. Not every friend or new companion is worth having. Don’t sacrifice your safety or sanity in order to alleviate your loneliness. Margaret didn’t hand me her credit card, her personal details, or her self worth.
- As tough as it can be to meet new people when the circumstances call for it, DO IT. Join a meetup group, a class, a gym, or a club. Travel. Paint. Write. Follow your interests, and soon you will connect with people who just might become natural friends. You don’t have to join large groups if you don’t want to. You don’t have to show up alone at a party full of strangers. I prefer small gatherings where I’m likely to find one or two people to chat with easily. And sometimes those new friendships stick. That’s how I met my small, but dear, circle of friends in Rome. There are a lot of ways to open yourself up to the world, to the people around you, to push the loneliness out and replace it with amazing people and experiences.
- Find new ways to connect. Global pandemic got you isolated? Tell me about it. I moved to a new city and state just before the world shut down and I lost my remote job as a travel company product manager. I had no local friends. But quarantines are the best excuse to reach out to long lost friends. Or to flesh out old ideas (like this site) that could use the input or participation of others. To connect with people in a new way, at a different and deeper level.
- Use the loneliness. Get centered. Be still. Process. Grieve. Dream. Plan. Forgive yourself. Whatever it is you personally need to do.
You know you need to do that thing.
So work with the loneliness. Acknowledge it, hate it if you want, but don’t let it win. Be stronger than the loneliness. Grow from it or through it. And let it help you imagine how many other lonely souls need the inspiration of your newfound grit and determination, your courage, your friendship.
You won’t be lonely forever. Not in this terrible way. It hurts. But it will not last.