eBooks: Looking for more eBooks?
Click here to shop our huge selection of eBooks.
Other Formats Available
Sometimes you just feel lonely ...
"Being lonely at times seems to be part of life," writes Mary Ellen Edmunds, "and even the friendliest and most outgoing of people experience those feelings. Being lonely isn't necessarily bad for you, but staying lonely is." With that idea in mind, Mary Ellen applies her trademark good cheer and careful thinking to the topic of loneliness, helping us understand that loneliness is painful but not terminal, that we don't have to be alone to be lonely, and that loneliness doesn't need to rule our lives.
This helpful little book is filled with strategies for dealing with loneliness, ideas for helping others who might be lonely, and gratitude for the blessings that can help us learn from our "alone times."
- Chapter 1: What is Loneliness?
- Chapter 2: Strategies for Dealing with Loneliness
- Chapter 3: the Gift of Friendship
- Chapter 4: Reaching Out to Those Who Are Lonely
- Chapter 5: When All Else Fails, Buck Up, Little Buckaroo
- Chapter 6: What Can We Learn from Loneliness?
- Chapter 7: The Blessing of Solitude
- Chapter 8: And There Shall Come a Day Sources
- Pages: 146
- Size: 5x7
- Published: 05/2011
About the Author
Mary Ellen Edmunds was born in Los Angeles, California, and now lives in American Fork, Utah. She happily qualifies for all senior citizen discounts. She received a bachelor’s degree in nursing from Brigham Young University and taught nursing there for several years. She has served as a missionary in Taiwan, Hong Kong, twice in the Philippines, and in Indonesia, and she directed a child health project in Nigeria, West Africa. She was a director of training at the Missionary Training Center in Provo, Utah, and served as a member of the Relief Society general board for eleven years. Mary Ellen is the author of several books and talks, including Peculiar—in a Good Way; You Can Never Get Enough of What You Don’t Need; and her most recent, MEE Speaks. She enjoys her family, teaching, writing, people, music, thinking, serving, and being a happifier.
What Is Loneliness?
One of my first experiences with loneliness that lingered was when I was seventeen years old and our family moved away from Cedar City, Utah. I’ll remember forever driving away from our home, our friends, our neighborhood, our wonderful community. I felt like life was over. I remember thinking I would never be happy again.
Whenever I read my diary from this part of my life, I feel so bad for my younger self. I really poured out my feelings. Everything was strange and unfamiliar. I felt so very lonely.
But this move from my hometown would eventually seem relatively trouble-free. I’m not discounting my previous experiences and feelings, but they were trumped by what happened to me when I was twenty-two years old and was called on a mission.
I can illustrate how much of a homebody I was by telling you that when I received this first mission call in 1962 to the “Southern Far East,” for a moment I thought I was going to Florida! It makes me smile to know that I wasn’t the only one in our family to have such an experience. When one of my younger sisters, Susan, received her mission call several years later, she saw “Central America” and asked, “Oh! Which states are those?”
Suffice it to say that I grew up in a very small world. I hadn’t been far from home and family on very many occasions for any length of time.
And then it happened. “Southern Far East” turned out to be Asia! The mission president was located in Hong Kong, and that was where I headed. I traveled as far as I could go without starting home again-halfway around the globe.
And OH! I was so LONELY! So much that was new and different hit me all at once. So THIS was culture shock: the unknown!
I stepped off the plane and felt like I’d stepped directly into a sauna. Wasn’t I supposed to be able to breathe?
I heard all these noises and realized that people were using them to communicate. Even little children! The tones of their Cantonese made it sound like some kind of a song or chant. This was a language?
People drove on the other side of the road, so steering wheels were on the other side of all the vehicles. Can you imagine the adjustment after a lifetime of looking a certain way to see if there were cars coming? More than once or twice I was scared half to death by one of the double-decker busses being in the wrong place.
The buildings were so tall, filling every little inch of space. There were very few yards that I could see. And the people . . . there were SO MANY PEOPLE! I had never in all my born days seen that many people all at once. It was so crowded! No “personal space” at all.
I remember thinking that I couldn’t have felt more alone or any more separated from my family and everything familiar if I had landed on the moon or Mars!
How did I overcome that terrible loneliness? With time. With learning slowly but surely how to communicate. With a wonderful companion named Jan Bair. With a blessing from my mission president. With the friendship of many kind people in the city of Tainan in Taiwan, where I was first assigned. And mostly with the kindness of a loving Heavenly Father.
I do have to add that when I got sick and had to be transferred to Hong Kong right after Christmas, I felt lonely for Taiwan! And after five fascinating, adventurous months in Hong Kong, I was transferred to the Philippines, and I missed Hong Kong AND Taiwan. And when it was time for me to leave the Philippines and return home, I was positive I would die. As lonely as I had been in each of those places for a time, the priceless experiences I had there soon outweighed those lonely feelings.
What is loneliness? How does it feel, and how do we describe those feelings?
Simply put, loneliness means being alone—or feeling alone—when you don’t want to be. It’s unwanted solitude. It can start small and build, or it can happen suddenly, unexpectedly, for no apparent reason. It can be very real and very painful. Even the word loneliness sounds . . . well . . . alone.
I mention both being alone and feeling alone because you don’t have to be alone to be lonely. If you’ve ever felt lonely in a crowd, you know what I mean. One person I talked to said she feels especially lonely at family reunions. Some said they feel lonely at Christmastime or on other holidays, or on their birthdays. Some feel lonely at church meetings or activities or on a plane or train or bus, at a ball game or rodeo, at the beach or a parade or a play or a concert.
I’ve asked many people what loneliness feels like to them, how they would describe it. The words and phrases they use are varied. One of the most common words was “painful.” Other expressions included “feeling lost,” “like a light’s gone out,” “a constant empty place inside,” “exclusion,” “having no sense of time,” “a feeling of nothingness,” “friendless,” “not belonging,” “having no control,” “futility,” “rejection,” “an inescapable -reality,” “feeling abandoned.”
Wow. When I read through that list, I can hardly stand to think that some people feel lonely almost all the time!
I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone (and I’ve talked to a lot of people) who has not had times of loneliness in his or her life. Please realize that almost everyone gets lonely, even if some don’t recognize that’s what they’re feeling. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with them. Being lonely at times seems to be part of life, and even the friendliest and most outgoing of people experience those feelings.
Being lonely isn’t necessarily bad for you, but staying lonely is. It’s a dangerous illness. It is a disease in the fullest sense of the word. Loneliness has been linked to heart disease and premature aging as well as emotional problems such as anxiety and depression. Loneliness can interfere with learning and memory skills. People who are extremely lonely may be unable to perform even the simplest acts of daily living. Anyone who is experiencing unmanageable loneliness needs to get some help as quickly as possible.
Some say that loneliness is more than just the feeling of wanting to feel needed, wanting company, or wanting to do something with another person. It’s a desire—a need—to feel connected, to feel that you matter to someone, that someone loves you and cares about you.
One man said that when his wife died, he was absolutely devastated. He felt like he would never again come “first” with anyone. He could hardly stand the loneliness. Some of his friends expected him to get over his loss pretty quickly, but his feeling was, “How can I respond the way they want me to when I still listen for her footsteps in the house . . . when I’m waiting to hear her voice, or her breathing coming from her chair?”
It’s as if it hurts to feel lonely in the first place, and then it hurts even more because there’s no one to share it -with.
Some say they have such mixed emotions when they’re feeling desperately alone and lonely. They say they feel like they’ve shut their door, locked it, bolted it, and put out the “Do Not Disturb” sign. And yet inside they are crying out for someone, anyone, to come ANYWAY!
Maybe loneliness is different for you from how it is for someone close to you. Please let’s not turn this into a comparison, as we tend to do with so many things. “Well, if you think YOU’RE lonely, you ought to feel how I feel! I’ll bet MY loneliness is ten times worse than yours! I’ll bet I’ve cried a million more tears than you have! I’m positive you don’t hurt as bad as I do. You can’t even begin to know how much I loved Billy Bob!”
Okay, I’ve exaggerated . . . but sometimes we may accidentally or intentionally try to discount others’ loneliness. We feel certain that our feelings are the most painful.
I’m wondering if YOU have ever felt lonely. Maybe not. What a nice blessing if you never have. But I actually feel it is unrealistic for us to expect to escape all feelings of loneliness, whether we are alone or with other people.
If you’re not sure whether you’ve ever felt lonely, maybe you could ask yourself some questions:
Do you remember the first time you were away from home, or the first time you ran away from home?
Did you ever have a best friend move away?
Do you ever feel sad and like you don’t have anyone you can talk to—no one you can pour out your heart to who will really listen and try to understand?
Were you ever a freshman at college with new roommates and a lot to adjust to?
Have you ever been through a divorce?
Can you think of any kind of transition you’ve made where you’ve needed to look for people who shared your interests and thoughts?
Did you have a new baby and there was no one around to help you, to teach and show you what to do?
Have there ever been times when you could hardly stand being alone or doing things alone (going to a movie, a party, a meeting, a parade, to church, or to some other function)?
Have you had or are you now having the experience of being a single parent?
Are there days when you wish someone would call or send an
e-mail or a text or a smoke signal or SOMETHING?
Has there ever been a time when it’s been hard for you to reach out to others, even those closest to you?
Is it ever hard for you to make friends?
Have you served in the military, or are you in that circumstance -now?
Have there been times when you’ve pulled away from the Church, from the gospel, and maybe even from your Heavenly Father, and you’ve felt a deep sense of loneliness?
Have you lost a parent? A child? Some other dear one?
Have you been on a mission and experienced homesickness?
Is there anything you’re having trouble dealing with?
Have you ever felt alone even when you were “surrounded” at a store, an airport, a state fair, any kind of activity or celebration?
Have you ever felt excluded from a group you wanted to be part of?
Have you ever picked up the phone to call someone who wasn’t there anymore? Many of us do that after our parents have gone Home.
Have you ever wondered, “Is anybody there for me?”
Loneliness is sometimes almost forced upon us. We may find ourselves in a situation where it’s almost impossible NOT to feel lonely. There are so many things that can cause loneliness. There are probably as many causes as there are people.
I’ve done a lot of thinking about what causes loneliness. Though it’s not a topic anyone would want to dwell on for too long, sometimes just recognizing what things might be contributing to our loneliness can be a catalyst to help us make some changes.
I think being separated from those you love dearly, for whatever reason, is one of the major causes. Friends and neighbors I’ve talked to through the years who have lost a spouse or other loved one, for example, describe such longing, such a sense of loss, such loneliness.
One thing that causes me to experience occasional feelings of loneliness is not having someone to talk to much of the time. It would be so nice to come home and have someone waiting to hear all about my day, my trip, my adventure, my “boring stuff.” I try to write some of it down, but that’s not the same as having someone listening—seeing their face, hearing them laugh, feeling their response to what I share, and hearing their questions and comments. I like to come home after I’ve been gone for a while and call out things like, “Why doesn’t anybody do anything around here while I’m gone?”
What about you—-can you think of some possible causes for the loneliness you may feel or have felt? Maybe you’ve experienced some of the following things, any of which could make you feel lonely:
Having the burden of a confidence that you can’t share with anyone. Grief. Being a leader. Having trouble adequately expressing your feelings, ideas, experiences, concerns. Chronic illness. Feeling shy and unable to reach out to other people (shyness and loneliness seem pretty closely associated). Changes in life patterns. Being the only single person among friends or family. Not feeling important. Sitting in a meeting where it’s once again more about families than about the Savior. Having a husband (or a wife) whose Church calling keeps them away a lot. Traveling a lot and being away from family and other loved ones. Anger. The perception but not the reality of belonging to a group—you are invited to be in a book club or attend an activity, but you don’t really feel part of the group. The loss of a significant person in your life.
Loneliness is not caused by being alone so much as by being without something that you desperately need, especially meaningful relationships.
I know mothers of young children who would love to spend more time communicating with those who are able to talk in sentences, and some who almost wish they had raised children before seat belts and car seats were invented (it used to be so easy to just “toss the kids in” and take off in the car). And I know parents of teenagers who think it must have been so much easier to be a parent before texting, Facebook, the Internet, solo bedrooms, video games, and so on. “I never see my son! I never really have a chance to talk to him! Even when I think I’m talking to him, he’s texting his friends under the table!”
There are times when people are put in a position of having to make major decisions, and that can be a lonely situation. President Ezra Taft Benson quoted a friend, Clarence Randall, as saying, “Decision making is a lonely business, and the greater the degree of responsibility, the more intense the loneliness” (God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties, 150–51).
Sin can create loneliness, and it can also bring fear. If there are things in our lives which we haven’t resolved, or we’re living and behaving contrary to our deepest beliefs, we can feel separated from God and also from others.
Loneliness can come when we are released from a calling, or when we retire from our profession, our job. When I was released in 1997 from the general board of the Relief Society after eleven years, I missed the regular association with great, wonderful women who had become dear friends. And when I retired from the Missionary Training Center in 1995 after close to twenty years, I thought I would be back often to see everyone, to keep closely in touch. I wasn’t prepared for the awful feeling of going there and not belonging anymore! For several years I still went on Sundays to teach the sister missionaries, but very seldom were there any of the friends, the colleagues, with whom I’d worked so closely for so many years. It was an “ouch” I hadn’t anticipated.
Health challenges can certainly contribute to loneliness. I’m certain that you could add some important examples from your own life as well as the lives of those you love.
One type of such health-related loneliness began annoying me around the turn of the century. (It feels quite exotic to say that—to have experienced it.) I noticed that my hearing wasn’t as great as it had been for all the years up to that point.
It’s so frustrating and discouraging not to be able to hear well. I sit in meetings, particularly when people in the group are sharing ideas and experiences, and I feel so distanced from everything and everyone. I get tired of saying “Excuse me?” “Pardon me?” “Once more, please.” Things like that. “EH???
Yes, I have hearing aids, and I have no “fashion problem” in wearing them. It’s just that for the most part they magnify all noises. It can rattle my brain to have someone shut a door, close a book, sneeze, cough, or have a baby squeal or cry.
It’s frustrating that although noises are made louder, there is not the distinguishing what is being said which came with my ears in my birth-day package so many years ago. I have learned more about the miracle of ears since losing much of my ability to hear and understand.
In recent years I entered a season of life where I have limited energy due to COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). Too many years in hot, humid climates (think Taiwan, Hong Kong, Philippines, Indonesia, and Africa).
I remember asking my doctor, “Will I be this way until Jesus comes?” He said yes. So I asked, “Well, when’s He coming?” My doctor didn’t know (or I’d have told all of you).
This is a major change for me, and a difficult adjustment. Whoever would have believed this former world-class athlete (okay, that’s a huge exaggeration, but I really WAS very active and healthy most of my life) would have a handicapped parking thingie? Not MEE!
So far I don’t have to use it very often, but when I do, I’m so thankful to have it. I still find it awkward. Maybe people looking at me are thinking, “She’s old, but she looks like she’s moving pretty well.” I want to shout, “LUNGS, not LEGS!” Snort.
It’s a “given,” I think, that there will be an increase in loneliness as our population grows older—-people are living longer and are spending long periods of time alone (like in widowhood). And old people will not go away! I’M certainly not going away!
I think the unknown can be a cause of fear and loneliness. Sometimes we “fill in the blank” of that which is unknown in our lives. I call this “coming up with the
what-ifs.” This may happen especially for those who have a vivid imagination. I’ve been blessed with one of those. My mind can have you dead and gone if you’re even a few minutes late.
Do you know what I mean? Has there ever been a time when you didn’t know where a loved one was? Maybe he or she was in a place where there had been a fire or a flood, an earthquake or a typhoon, a snowstorm or a car accident, and you couldn’t get in touch with someone very dear to you. Do you remember how that felt?
On Tuesday, September 25, 1984, and into the next morning, I had such an experience, and it was one of the longest and loneliest nights of my life.
I was in Nigeria, West Africa. My companion, Ann, and I had just arrived a few weeks earlier to begin a health project for children.
Rob from our headquarters office in Salt Lake City had come with us, and it was time for him to return home. I was too sick to go along to the airport, so Ann left with one of our wonderful missionary couple neighbors to make the journey from our home in the village of Eket to the airport in Calabar.
They would be back in the afternoon—we had a rule in the mission that we wouldn’t be out after dark. When there’s no electricity, dark is REALLY dark. I was staying with another missionary couple to wait for Ann’s return. They had some work to do outside of the home, and so I was alone. I had a lot of time to think as I waited.
As it got darker, I began to feel some concern. I sat near a window so I could see Ann and our neighbors arrive. I kept watching.
Waiting. Time passed. It was dark and quiet and I really started to worry. I knew there had been plenty of time—a whole day—for them to get to Calabar and back. I tried to keep calm, but it wasn’t working.
The couple I was staying with finally got home. We were all concerned, and yet we realized it would be unwise to try to find the others in the dark with no idea of which roads they may have taken.
I felt so helpless! I wanted to do something—to search for them, to make sure they were all right! The only option I had was to continue praying earnestly, and to wait.
We prepared our simple dinner, and I set a place for Ann. I tried to eat slowly, thinking I could have a little bit left to eat when Ann got back so she wouldn’t have to eat alone.
But eventually we finished and cleared the table. Except that I couldn’t clear Ann’s place. I couldn’t explain it, but I had to leave her place there. It was as if by doing so I was saying, “She’ll be home any minute; let’s save her a place and something to eat. She’ll be hungry.”
After a while they cleared her place.
I helped wash the dishes, but other than that I just sat by the window watching for the lights of the car. Each time some lights would approach, I would plead with them to be the lights I was looking for. Please turn into our compound. Please come over here. Please be Ann and our neighbors. Please don’t pass by. But they did. They all passed by.
It’s hard to describe adequately how I felt—helpless, frightened, frustrated, and so terribly lonely. Why didn’t we have a telephone so we could call around and ask the couples in Calabar if they’d seen our friends? I’ve never called 911 in my life, but this was a time when I desperately wanted to do just that. Oh, how I was wishing we had telephones in our village! Telephones that worked!
It got completely dark, and I decided I’d better try to get some sleep, especially since I was so sick. But I was torn—I didn’t want to “abandon” Ann. Part of me felt like it was important to keep watching and waiting.
My imagination went wild. Sometimes I would imagine that maybe Ann was hurt—that there’d been a terrible accident or something, and she was calling to me, needing my help, and I wasn’t there. The “not knowing” was the hardest thing.
I’ve never spent a night quite like that in my whole life. It was awful—one of the most awful experiences I have ever endured. I kept realizing that the only thing I could do (beyond letting my imagination run away too far to call it back) was to pray—to plead with Heavenly Father to watch over my friends and to somehow bring some peace to my heart and help me to get the sleep and rest I so much needed.
My communication with Heavenly Father was so real all during that time. There were no trite phrases or unplanned ramblings. And there was no thought of a brief prayer that would end after a few minutes. I needed Him all night, and I knew it. There was no one else to talk to. He was watching over all of us—me in my dark little room and them wherever they were, even if they were with Him at that moment. I worked hard at pouring out what I was really feeling, including my awareness of His help and kindness through the whole process of getting ready to come to Africa, arriving, and starting our work. Please, I asked, please just let them come back safely and let us continue with what we’ve begun.
The next morning I was so exhausted, both physically and emotionally, that I could hardly get up and going. I wasn’t in the mood to do much.
I went next door to the home Ann and I were supposed to be moving into soon. I wanted to be alone with my helplessness and my constant prayers. I was sick inside and out. I had decided that the best thing I could do would be to get to work—to be so busy that I’d calm down my imagination somewhat.
Then I heard the car drive in. I was afraid to look out to make sure that was who it was. I kept holding my breath and walking around, wringing my hands together and pleading aloud, “Let it be them. Let it be Ann. Let them be safe. Please let them be home finally.” On and on. And then there she was, whole and well and tired and real and alive. I hugged her and cried and cried. I couldn’t even begin to ask any questions or share my feelings. I was more grateful than I could or can put into words.
We were eventually able to tell each other about our “longest night,” when we had both been thinking of each other. She said it was so hard for her, knowing that I’d be terribly worried but not having any way in the world of communicating with me.
She reported that they got to Calabar, got Rob to the airport, ran some errands, and then headed back. The car had been heating up and stopping, and eventually it just stopped and wouldn’t start -again.
Some people came to help. One man seemed to know something about cars, so Ann asked, “Are you a mechanic?” and he responded “yes” with a tone like, “Well, of course I am—God is watching out for you, isn’t He?”
This kind man worked all afternoon—from about three o’clock until around nine in the evening. The family insisted that Ann and our neighbors stay the night with them, that it was too dangerous to be out on the roads. They pushed the car over beside their little home to keep it safe. And they all slept on the floor in their clothes.
And so the long, long night that seemed like it would never end finally did, and we were back together, more conscious than ever of our isolation and lack of ability to communicate in an earthly way, but so thankful for the blessing of protection and safety.
I share that experience because I think it teaches several important lessons about loneliness. It shows how connected loneliness and fear can be, especially fear of the unknown. Most important, though, it shows how reliant we can and must be on our Heavenly Father to see us through our times of loneliness.
Is loneliness a bad thing? If we’re not able to handle it, it certainly can be. But maybe in some sense it could be a good thing—maybe we have more love when there is loneliness to inspire it.
President Spencer W. Kimball taught: “Being human, we would expel from our lives physical pain and mental anguish and assure ourselves of continual ease and comfort, but if we were to close the doors upon sorrow and distress, we might be excluding our greatest friends and benefactors. Suffering can make saints of people as they learn patience, long-suffering, and self-mastery” (Faith Precedes the Miracle, 98).
There are times when I probably would do just that—get rid of the things in my life that have taught me the greatest blessings and left the deepest and sweetest impressions of God’s mercy and tenderness on and in my soul.
I’m aware of feelings I have sometimes of wanting “quick cures,” and wanting to get rid of all the trials and tribulations that surround me and everyone. I’ve thought at times that if I were in charge, there may not be any hospitals or funerals.
President John Taylor, who experienced a great deal of suffering, said: “I used to think, if I were the Lord, I would not suffer people to be tried as they are; but I have changed my mind on that subject. Now I think I would, if I were the Lord, because it purges out the meanness and corruption that stick around the Saints, like flies around molasses” (Journal of Discourses, 5:115).
We probably will not escape feeling lonely at some time in our lives. That seems to be part of the mortal experience, maybe even part of our refining process. We are social animals, and we need each other. We have a basic need to connect with others, to feel that we belong, to feel that others care about where we are and how we are, and that we are cherished and understood. We have need for support, for love. Our bodies get hungry, and our souls do too. And it is often our loneliness that creates our soul hunger.
Maybe we NEED this hunger in our souls. It may be what pushes us toward heaven and toward our Heavenly Father, who is always there. He and the Savior will not leave us comfortless. They will never leave us absolutely alone. Remembering that single truth may be what gets us through those times of loneliness that will likely come our way.
Join Platinum Rewards Club
Earn points on every purchase, plus get other great benefits.