Loneliness in All Seasons of Life
It felt lonely on the airplane today. My husband sat next to me, but my son didn’t. On the way over, only days before, I had sat comfortably on the plane, nestled securely between my husband and my 18-year-old son, chit-chatting along the way. Today, we left the city, on the other side of the world, where our son will study this year as a college freshman. Today, we left our son behind, to flap his wings and to fly independently on his own.
Today, our family nest feels empty—lonely.
Why can’t our son build his nest closer to ours? Why does he have to settle on the other side of the sea? He feels so far away. I dread walking into our house . . .
without his presence
without his voice
without his noise (I will miss even his loud video games!)
without his charming smile (Yes, I will miss even his occasional teenage rudeness and disrepect!)
without his needs
without his wants
I miss him already! I miss calling him to dinner.
As I sat on the plane, I realized that we were entering a new season of our family life. As I sat in silence, reflecting, these familiar words echoed in my mind, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”
Loneliness as We Journey Through Life’s Stages
Childhood / Youth
Many of our children, of all ages, make moves (some more frequent than others) from country to country and school to school. In each new place, they often walk through periods where they feel alone and “different,” as they are forced to cross new language and cultural barriers. Our children are challenged to fit in, find new friends, and adapt to their new life.
David Pollock, in his book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds, describes a “Third Culture Kid” (TCK) as a person raised in a culture other than that of his parents or the culture of the country named on his passport - where they are legally considered “native” - for a significant part of their early development years.
Some of our kids struggle with feelings of sadness when they don’t have a friend to invite over for an afternoon play date or when they can’t understand the other kids speaking a foreign language on the playground.
Perhaps some of our children have been the only ones in their class without biological grandparents sitting next to them at the school’s “Grandparent's Day Luncheon.”
These childhood experiences can lead to very real feelings of loneliness and isolation.
Young Adult / College
Many “Third Culture Kids” leave the familiarity and security of their family nest to settle on the far side of the ocean or on the other side of the world. They relocate far away from the rest of their family and their parents’ life and work.
They may feel different as they rub shoulders with people from a culture in which they have not grown up. These feelings can lead to isolation and loneliness for our young adult children—even more than for the average college student who leaves home for the first time.
Studies show that loneliness is on the rise among teens and young adults, with the 16-24 age group the most likely to report feeling lonely.
Some experts blame social media for this growing loneliness, as it may hinder the development of real-world social skills that are needed to build close relationships.
“Facebook, Snapchat, and Instagram may not be great for personal well-being. The first experimental study examining use of multiple platforms shows a causal link between time spent on these social media and increased depression and loneliness,” says Science Daily.
Other research by the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute shows that people using 7 to11 media platforms are three times as likely to develop depression and anxiety than those who use two or less.
There seem to be more and more people journeying through life alone. These “solo” travelers may experience loneliness and social isolation.
Being single can hit the young and the old, those who have never been married, as well as those who have experienced divorce or the death of a spouse.
Due to the growing number of people working at home alone, these feelings of isolation and loneliness may be multiplied, especially for those living in the season of singlehood.
Many believe that married couples are spared from loneliness. However, studies show that this is simply not true.
According to a 2012 study, which followed 1,600 adults over age 60 for six years, 43 percent of the participants reported chronic loneliness. Over half of these participants were married.
“One of the most surprising revelations is the extent to which loneliness afflicts those of us who aren’t isolated in any traditional sense of the term, including people who are married or who have relatively large networks of friends and family” (Psychology Today).
There are factors which may contribute to loneliness within the life cycle of a married couple, such as the time when children leave home and the family nest feels very empty. The couple doesn’t always know how to relate to each other in this new season of their family life. In other seasons, couples may struggle in their communication with each other and not be equipped to overcome it on their own. As a result, the couple may begin to isolate from each another.
For those of us living and working abroad, we can feel very far away from our families during holidays and important life events.
Because we live on the other side of the world, we may miss births, graduations, weddings, funerals, etc. We may not be able to be by the side of our aging parents when they are ill—or even when they die. We may not be able to help and support our adult children when they need us. Again, these experiences can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Season of Re-Entry
When it comes time for cross-cultural workers to return to their “home” country for a period of time, high re-entry stress and reverse cultural shock may be experienced. Our high, and sometimes unrealistic, expectations can leave us disillusioned. We can feel lonely, isolated, misunderstood, and irritated with people back “home” in our own passport culture.
Those growing older are especially prone to chronic loneliness as they've often lost spouses, siblings, and a growing number of friends. Poor health, hearing problems, and a loss of mobility also greatly hinder social activity. This demographic seems to be growing, because life expectancy is increasing.
The long-haul flight that would separate us further from our son in college wasn’t full. An extra, empty seat lingered between my husband and me, representing our son’s obvious absence.
On the way over, just a few days before in the plane, we had all shared a glass of champagne and shouted “Cheers!” We toasted in honor of our son’s new season of life in college. Today, my husband and I looked at each other and asked, “What should we toast to today?”
“Our new season of life! We can either resist it or embrace it, so let’s embrace it!”
Yes, we will need to take adequate time to grieve and to count the losses, as we say “goodbye” to one season of our family life and walk into a new one. But then, we can truly “toast” the beauty of the changing season! There is great hope! May we not lose sight of the new opportunities that await us in this new season.
Which season do you find yourself in today?
There are feelings of loneliness and isolation in all the seasons of life. The greatest remedy is connection. We were designed to connect deeply with others.
Where will you find connection in your season of life today? Check out these strategies to combat loneliness.