The Loneliness of Grief

I know how you feel.

People often said those words to me in one form or another after my father died.

I knew they meant well.

I knew they were just showing empathy, trying to step into the pain with me, attempting to somehow shield me from the suffering they could see I was going through. They’d reflexively offer stories of the people they’d lost and how they processed their pain, in an effort to show our commonality.

But they didn’t know how I felt.

They couldn’t.

Yes, they had lost someone they love—but they hadn’t been me, losing my father.

He and I were the only two people sharing our relationship.

That made me the world’s singular living expert on the subject. 

They didn’t know the countless stories we’d stored up, the private jokes that only we could understand, the way I could see the shape of his hands in mine, the words between us that we regretted, the millions of memories we’d made together in car trips and phone calls and daily meals.

They didn’t know the way I felt when he was alive; the everything-will-be-okay surety that I’d lost for good; the way his voice on my answering machine or his laugh in the next room were like music to me.

They didn’t know what it was like to be my father’s oldest son, and how different I feel now that he isn’t here.

They didn’t know these things, not because they didn’t want to—but because they simply aren’t qualified to. As much as people who love me want to sit in solidarity with me and grieve alongside me—there is a place they can’t go: they can’t go all the way into the grief with me.

When I am fully feeling my father’s loss, I am alone there in that place: the Grieving Place. No one else can share that space with me.

That’s the terrible and profound isolation of loss; the absolute loneliness of being in a crowded room or a busy sidewalk or a restaurant filled with people—and finding yourself in that stark solitude. A scent in the air, a song on the radio, a date on the calendar, or something absolutely random and seemingly unrelated can pull me suddenly toward the Grieving Place.

Sometimes people I love know when I go there, but more often they have no idea. On the surface I seem to be among the living and fully in that moment. I am laughing or talking and I appear to be participating—but I am alone in the Grieving Place. Sometimes it lasts only a few seconds, other times I am there for hours, and the rest of the world is oblivious.

And as painful as that place where no one else can go is, it is sacred too. It’s the place where I feel closest to my father, the spot deep within the recesses of my heart where I have left the world behind and I get to spend a few moments with him. The space and time and the geography all fall away and he is present with me again. I get to be my father’s oldest son again. I remember the things that only I know about him and about us and about myself. The loneliness becomes comforting.

And then, after I spend the time I need to, I move slowly back in the world and take my place here among the others who have lost someone, and I do my best to love them well, knowing that they too will eventually go to a place where I cannot follow them as much as I’d like to: their Grieving Place.


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