I read an article about loneliness last week. Loneliness is a new topic of interest for me so I took notice. It was about a new role in the British Parliament, the Minister of Loneliness. The article noted a 2017 report that showed more than 9,000,000 people feel lonely often or always. That’s a lot of people! I’m not sure how a new ministry department can fix this problem (and that was the point of the article). But I do know that I believe that statistic. I believe it because I have felt lonely. And I have friends who feel lonely. Loneliness is this silent, shadowy thing that we don’t easily see or recognize. And it’s growing.
Chronic pain or chronic illness leads to loneliness. Actually, chronic anything will lead to loneliness: depression, migraines, panic attacks. Or just being alone a lot, such as a single mom, a widow, or a wife whose husband travels full time. When our circumstances force us to be alone often, we are stuck with the thoughts in our head. And that can be dangerous. Pain, physical or emotional, distorts our thinking. It can send us down desperate paths of fear and doubt. We can begin to believe lies such as, “No one cares about me.” “I must be dying or if I’m not, I want to.” “I believe God is real, but I don’t understand why He’s making me go through this. He must not love me.”
I used to think I was the only one who struggled with this illness-induced loneliness. But then, as usual, once I started talking about it, I discovered I was not alone in this struggle. This week, I read an account of Martin Luther’s struggle with this despair and loneliness. Martin Luther! The Father of the Reformation! A man of such faith that he boldly proclaimed that salvation is a free gift given by grace, against the teaching of the Catholic Church. A move that risked his life. THAT Martin Luther struggled with despair and loneliness?! Yep.
“In 1527, he [Martin Luther] wrote Melanchthon, explaining how for a full week he was terribly ill and ‘in death and hell.’ He wrote, ‘I almost lost Christ in the waves and blasts of despair and blasphemy against God, but God was moved by the prayers of saints and began to take pity on me and rescued my soul from the lowest hell.’ Luther knew that in times of physical and emotional distress saints often struggle to believe and are afflicted with confused images of God and his work in the world. During such seasons the Christian leans heavily on the faith and prayers of the saints, for by them one is sustained or even ‘rescued.’” (Kelly Kapic – “Embodied Hope”)
We are all capable of the worst thoughts when we are ill…. and alone. The answer to our loneliness and despair is community. The prayers and presence of our dearest friends will carry us through our darkest days. We must reach out to our friends. And, on the other side, as friends, we must be attuned to our vulnerable friends. To listen carefully to them. To be available for them. To pray for them. It is important that our words to them be filled with truth and hope. Those only come from scripture.
While I was sick on vacation last month, I spent three days in the cabin while our family and friends went the beach. I wasn’t being anti-social. I just couldn’t get out of bed. And it tempted me to feel a little lonely. If it wasn’t for the sweet texts I received from a few close friends, I would have easily slipped into a depression. Yes, I had my family with me. I wasn’t physically alone. But I needed my fears to be understood and truth to be spoken. I needed to be prayed for. That is what my friends did for me.
I have a sweet friend battling Lyme Disease. She’s been fighting for years. Lyme keeps her home almost completely. She admitted to me the loneliness is one of the very worst parts of her battle. A sad result of her isolation is that many friends disappeared when her sickness didn’t go away. It went on and on, for a long, long time. I don’t think their absence is a sign that they don’t care. I think it’s a sign that they don’t know how to support a person who’s suffering has no foreseeable end. It’s exhausting. It takes time and resources. Words run out. Energy runs out. And so, they quietly slip away, leaving their suffering friend still suffering from illness and now suffering from loneliness.
But it doesn’t have to be that way!
I have been blessed with a lush Garden of Friends who have not slipped away. Having friends like that is rare and I find myself wondering, “Why me?” I don’t know why I’ve been given the gift of loyal friends when others have not. All I can do is be grateful. And be a loyal friend myself.
Being on the lonely side of things, I have learned to appreciate the little gifts of friendship. It surprised me how easy it was to be encouraged by a friend during my dark days. On days when I couldn’t leave the house, or even my bedroom, a short (30 minutes or less) visit from a friend could lift my spirits for the rest of the day. A quick text of encouraging words helped me feel connected, NOT alone. Fresh flowers on a day when I couldn’t eat or go on a walk helped me feel the beautiful outdoors while I stayed indoors. One friend gave me a blank journal and a pretty teal pen. Something about a colored pen lifted my spirits. One friend came and dusted my home while I slept on the couch. It gave me warm fuzzy feelings that she didn’t need anything from me. She selflessly gave up an hour of her time and energy and I felt loved. Another friend prayed for me at 3:00pm every day. She still sends me a text on some days to remind me that she’s still praying. She’s like my personal cheerleader, and I adore her for it.
Be a Loyal Friend!
Friends, don’t let the length of your friend’s illness cause you to slip away. Find a simple thing and do it diligently.
- If your life is crazy busy, set an alarm on your phone to text your friend once a week.
- Use this awesome prayer app to remind you to pray for her.
- Drop off flowers and a note. No need to stay.
- Send a card one day a month. Buy a box of them and put a reminder on your calendar. Send a card on the same day each month.
- Plan a short visit. My friend Megan sets an alarm for one hour. When the hour is up, she ends the visit. Neither friend is worn out, only encouraged.
- Send a memory. An old picture or a note of a memory reminds your friend of the healthy past. It can be an encouragement or something to look forward to doing again when health returns.
- Bring her a cute water bottle. Sparkles always bring a smile! Toss in a note!
- Paint her toenails. Pray with her while the paint dries. (Thanks, Cindy, for that one!)
- Find her guilty pleasure and then leave one on her doorstep. (Mine are dairy-free chocolate chip cookies and Burt’s Bees Chapstick. I have received both from different friends over the past five months. Can’t you feel the love?)
The key is to always point your friend towards truth and hope. Whatever you do, be sure to add words of hope. Words matter. Make them count.
Cultivating a Friendship Garden
I read the term Cultivating a Friendship Garden in “Kind is the New Classy” and I like it for three reasons:
- Good friends make our lives more colorful. They bring a sweet aroma to our journey. They cheer us up by their very existence.
- Good friends need regular, tender care. We cannot expect to keep good friends if we don’t invest in them.
- A lush garden needs weeding and pruning. We don’t like to talk about this but at times, we need to let go of some friends. Partly because we cannot maintain an endless list of friends. Partly because some friends, by their choices, need to be given some space from our hearts. It’s so hard to do this, especially when we are choosing to be loyal friends. But I’m learning that it’s ok. I need to focus on the friends God has given me to support and lift up. I want to INVEST in them. And I simply cannot do that with everyone.
So, carefully consider your Friendship Garden. Then invest in it. Loyally nurture it. Get your hands messy and enter into their mess. Be the friend that listens. Be the friend that shows up. Be the friend that stays.
Friends don’t let friends feel lonely.
The Friendship of the Lord
Finally, acknowledge that you cannot be ALL for your friend. But you can lift them up to the One who can be and is our All in All. Life is messy… and hard… and emotional.
“I have learned that it is necessary to feel, and to be able to talk about those feelings with people, and most importantly, with God.” (Kelly Kapic, “Embodied Hope”)
When you don’t have words for your friend, pray with them. Take them to Jesus who is the very best friend.
“The friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.” (Ps 25:14, ESV)
The truth is, when we are lonely, we are never alone. It is hard to remember that when chronic illness wears us down. But it is the truth. So pray for your friend to feel God’s presence. And then BE PRESENT YOURSELF!
“You are alive, so be present with God and neighbor. Confess your limits and accept those of others; courageously move toward others that you might extend God’s love to them, and they to you.” (“Embodied Hope”)