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FAMILY LIFE

Making Life Add Up Again When One Is the Loneliest Number

September 24, 1988|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life

She needed a change of scenery, so two years ago, her children grown with families of their own, the youngish grandmother, a divorcee, moved from Arizona to Corona del Mar, dreaming of a new life.

It didn't work out quite the way she had planned. Instead of making new friends and trying new adventures, she spends most of her spare time in shopping malls, buying gifts for the folks back home.

The woman seated on her left said she wishes that she had someone to send gifts to. But her 80-year-old father died a few months ago, and since then she has felt abandoned, alone and angry--and guilty for feeling that way.

Across the room, another woman--divorced, her children now grown--confessed that she has awakened in panic every morning because she is so terrified of beginning another day alone.

There were many different stories in this room recently, from women of all ages and backgrounds. But the underlying theme was a common one: loneliness. And for them, the feeling is all the more pronounced because it is a relatively new one.

Not so long ago, they were so busy with husbands and children that the idea of spending some time alone seemed like a luxurious fantasy. Now that fleeting wish has come true, and it seems more like a nightmare.

Mickie Shapiro, a marriage, family and child counselor who led this seminar on "Dealing With Loneliness"--sponsored by the Irvine Community Services Department--understands the feeling all too well.

She started addressing the so-called "empty nest syndrome" in lectures and her private practice six years ago, when the third of her four children left home.

"I thought I had it under control," she told the group. "Then three years later, my youngest left. On the way home from the airport, I passed the yogurt shop where she had worked and I started crying. I cried off and on for six weeks. Even with my academic preparation and professional experience, I wasn't prepared for being alone."

It's no wonder, Shapiro says, that being alone is so uncomfortable for most of us. "How many of us were raised alone?" she points out. "We're not trained for it. We're raised to be social, to be bonded to other people. But each of us will be alone at some point in our lives. We have to learn that it's OK to be alone, that it doesn't mean you're totally rejected."

And while the words "lonely" and "alone" are hardly synonymous, Shapiro says loneliness--to some degree or another--is also a natural consequence of living in families. "To avoid the loneliness, we might have to avoid the togetherness."

For those who have been taught to put themselves last on the priority list, the problem can be compounded.

"For most people, 'selfish' is a dirty word," she says. "But it can be used positively. It doesn't mean thinking only of yourself, but it does mean thinking of yourself."

The first step in tackling loneliness is to acknowledge it, Shapiro says. "We have all kinds of terms in our vocabulary--such as keeping a stiff upper lip--to deny ourselves the privilege of grieving. But when there is a loss, you have to go through the grief process. If people don't allow themselves to feel sad, it will keep coming up for a longer time."

Shapiro suggests scheduling what she calls "sadness periods. Even if you only do it for 10 minutes, you can feel that you are more in control of it, and it won't be as likely to creep in."

Even if the changes aren't necessarily unhappy ones--sending a child off to college or watching a daughter walk down the aisle--Shapiro says the process is the same. "Even if it's a good change, it upsets the equilibrium in your life style, and you have to ground yourself again."

People who aren't used to being alone tend to wait for some external stimulus to make things better, Shapiro says. Not only is that attitude unrealistic, she says, but being passive also can add to the feeling of being a victim, "a feeling of having no choice, a sense of rejection and powerlessness.

"You have to learn to change your mood without something from the outside," she says.

Those who have spent long periods focused on others may have lost touch with their own needs, likes and dislikes, she says. "I recommend getting in touch with an activity that you liked as a child, something that you may have let go of."

In addition to merely filling empty hours, such an activity might lead to "a group where you don't have to be someone other than who you are."

In any case, she says, you have to be "selfish" enough to reach out and grab opportunities as they arise, "without feeling like you're grabbing them away from someone else."

It's important to take a good hard look at what you feel is missing from your life, Shapiro says. "Then you'll really know what you need to replace. And look at what you still have, no matter what you've lost."

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