Relationships and Reality: Isolation within Bereavement

It goes without saying that when one enters a state of bereavement another reality is unavoidably entered. Through death, a shift in our perception of our world is forced upon us without our consent. We are faced with two choices; accept what has happened or deny it. Through the difficult early period of the grieving process, we are inundated with feelings and emotions; thoughts unregulated and impossible to avoid, searching for peace that can only be temporarily found by avoiding the present reality.

Counselling signpost

Grief and Relationships

The recovery from bereavement begins when the reality of life without the deceased is accepted, though the grief process starts at the point of death. Shock and bewilderment go hand in hand from the outset. But facing a reality that we never wanted to experience in the first place has a process that starts with illusion and denial, and finally acceptance. Everyone knows that death will happen at some point in the future, to us and others, but most of us prefer to neglect dealing with it until it happens to someone we care about. Living with the idea of your own demise can greatly help when grieving for a loved one. Accepting that death is a necessary part of the continuum of life helps to bring a sharper focus on the importance of the time that is left, and make the most of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

Losing someone close to you changes the environment you live in, perhaps thrived in because of the special connection that existed between the bereaved and the deceased. Life does not feel the same and it probably never will. That is a stark and terrifying reality that has to be faced. It seems the more you loved that person the harder it feels to get through the grieving process. According to Martin Buber we are relational beings and do not exist as separate entities. We are born seeking relationships, perhaps trained in the womb when survival is so dependent on the connection with the mother. As we experience our life we form relationships with all objects that we encounter. Buber sees two possible relationships with the world: ‘I-Thou’, a relationship involving deep understanding with another being, and ‘I-It’, an uninvolved or even detached relationship with another. Who we are is dependent on which one of these relationship types we conduct with others. As Yalom explains,

“The I-Thou relationship is a wholly mutual relationship involving a full experiencing of the other…The very ‘I’ is different in the two situations. It is not the ‘I’ that has pre-eminent reality – an ‘I’ that can decide to relate to ‘Its’ or ‘Thous’ that are objects floating into one’s field of vision. No, the ‘I’ is ‘betweenness’; the ‘I’ appears and is shaped in the context of some relationship. Thus the ‘I’ is profoundly influenced by the relationship with the ‘Thou’. With each ‘Thou’ and with each moment of relationship, the ‘I’ is created anew.”

Irvin Yalom (1980)

This possibly explains the world of the bereaved when a significant loss is suffered. Enjoying an ‘I-Thou’ relationship is more meaningful than an ‘I-It’ one, heightening the severe grief than can follow. We have become (‘I’) and have been shaped by the other (‘Thou’) and have formed a mutual understanding, content at being the person the other wants us to be. This seemingly blissful arrangement has created an almost single organism, functioning and in sync with the world, living a life together, creating lasting memories that will one day feel painful, but then subside as precious incarnations of a life well lived.

Death is part of reality of which most of us find difficult to acknowledge it’s awareness. Of course, we know it exists and we encounter it’s effect a few times during our lifetime, but usually it is a taboo subject for many people. How many of us, for instance, have avoided making a will? Facing the reality of our eventual destruction is not something we want to consider every day, and we conveniently distract ourselves in order to save our delicate sanity. One way to deflect such a horrible scenario is to convince ourselves that we have plenty of time before the inevitable happens, that we will be safe from the grim reaper until we are of a certain age. At least that’s how I remember rationalising it when I was younger. When I got older I was conscious that people were dying of all ages and for different reasons. Life events such as marriage and children provide the markers in time that will bring the notion of death nearer to consciousness. In life we tend to have multiple worries to deal which, according to Yalom, replaces the underlying anxiety that is our own personal death.

“Primary death anxiety is rarely encountered in its original form in clinical work. Like nascent oxygen, it is rapidly transformed to another state. To ward off death anxiety, the young child develops protective mechanisms… which are denial-based, pass through several stages, and eventually consist of a highly complex set of mental operations that repress naked death anxiety and bury it under layers of such defensive operations as displacement, sublimation, and conversion. Occasionally some jolting experience in life tears a rent in the curtain of defenses and permits raw death anxiety to erupt into consciousness. Rapidly, however, the unconscious ego repairs the tear and conceals once again the nature of the anxiety.”

Irvin Yalom (1980)

This view may explain the concept of time as a natural healer. The shock of the reality of death is lessened as time progresses, the repairing of the tear in this new and uncomfortable reality is eventually healed by the normality of everyday engagements. We are therefore experts at deluding ourselves and for good reason. We would not survive or function efficiently if we couldn’t. For some the reality of life is sometimes as scary as that of eventual death itself. We will even believe in certain concepts in order to justify our reality, and cushion us from this harsh reality.

Religion is one effective method of relieving our anxiety about death. If we believe that there’s a beautiful place to go to when we die, and that we will meet up with family again and live an everlasting existence with God, wouldn’t that ease your worries about death a little bit? Religion and the belief in a heaven created by God can act as an effective crutch, evangelical medication if you will, that will hold the believer’s hand through the fearful transition from life to death.

I have no idea if a heaven exists, and it would be wrong of me to deny such a possibility. But I do depart from the believer’s view that heaven must have been created by a God, and I find it hard to seriously consider the sugar coating description of heaven as promoted by religions. The fact that there are many religions in the world, all of them professing to preach the true word of God, can’t all be right. There has to be some of them who making it up! If God existed, wouldn’t there be one truth, one religion to explain this truth? The competition between them is driving humanity to constant conflict, as attested by history. Religion takes a sinister path for me when the concept of Hell is introduced as a means of control and manipulation for the glory of personal greed, sin and power.

“All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

I have no objection to anyone having a belief in God, despite my own misgivings about His existence. I have seen how powerful a belief in a deity has on people. I remember talking to a man who was absolutely convinced that he was visited by Jesus who appeared to him through his hospital window. Now, as a non-believer, I could have offered a variety of explanations to him how he could have experienced such a vision, but I was prepared to believe in his experience. I could see that it had given him something to hold onto in his life. I think that is not a bad thing to have. Everyone should have something or someone to believe in. As a non-believer, I believe in myself as the creator of my world and my destiny, and if I succeed or fail in my life the responsibility rests with me, rather than it be attributed to the intervention of an external unproven power.

Tree and couple


What compounds bereavement is the isolation that usually follows, especially when the loss is a life-partner. It homes in on the realisation that life from now on may well be a lonely and isolated existence. Many are unable to connect with new interactions or with those that they had a established bond with, even those that have endured for many years. Some of my clients have experienced this detachment from others which has reduced them to experience both anger, surprise and sadness in equal measures. In itself this is a further loss to deal with. They feel relegated to a lower status in the friendship hierarchy because they are no longer a part of a couple, and potentially become a threat to other relationships. This distancing causes resentment with the bereaved, a prejudice that they had not expected from people they thought they knew and would be there for them in times of need. The problem seems to be an inability to provide an emotional need to those who have become bereaved. The lack of support is interpreted negatively and leads to a re-evaluation of the relationship. The behaviour is misunderstood as a personal slight, and inevitably the relationship is affected, sometimes abandoned.

But there are more than one types of isolation. Irvin Yalom identified three, namely interpersonal, intrapersonal and existential isolation. Obviously loneliness is a natural by-product of a loss, and I feel that this is the biggest problem when faced with a life without a loved one by your side. We all suffer from isolation at some point in our lives. We can feel aloneness when we lose the ability to interact, or are involved with incompatible people etc., and we can feel detached to a specific part of our Self, a part that we keep hidden behind sophisticated defence mechanisms, caused by some psychological trauma or event. This is especially true when individuals lose the ability to make their own decisions, or are easily swayed to behave as others wish them to. They feel that there is a part of their true Self has been disassociated from the rest of the Self, sometimes so distant that it would be almost impossible to unite to become a whole again. This description sums it up for me.

“I am fifty-six and have been divorced for years. When I was still with my husband and told someone I was lonely they responded with “but you’re married.” I have learned the difference between being alone and lonely. In a crowd, at work, even in a family setting, I always feel lonely. It can be overwhelming at times, a physical sensation. My doctors have called it depression, but there is a difference. I read once, you are born alone and you die alone. But what about all the years in between? Can you really belong to someone else? Can you ever resolve the inner feeling of being alone? Shopping won’t do it. Eating won’t do it. Random sex doesn’t make it go away. If and when you find any answers, please write back and tell me.”

John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick (2008)

But what is existential isolation? It is true that it is slightly different to the other two just described, but it is possible that in some cases they can be interlinked. It refers to being alone even when you are encompassed by other people; it is a feeling of being not in tune with others, not on the same page as other people who exist around you.

“Existential isolation refers to an unbridgeable gulf between oneself and any other being. It refers, too, to an isolation even more fundamental – a separation between the individual and the world”.

Irvin Yalom (1980)

Drowning in grief, the bereaved individual has lost a sense of self as well as the physical loss. Who is left to give a meaning for existence now that the one person who truly understood has gone forever? The need to avoid isolation drives some to other relationships, but ones that are vulnerable because they are designed for needful functionality, a ‘I-It’ relationship, rather than one that has the foundation for growth.

Counselling session

Perhaps people innately need to have something or someone in their journey through life. Perhaps the ultimate goal of existing harmoniously is to seek companionship of some form or other, be it human or another form of relationship. Those who genuinely seek solace have accepted that being alone is what works best for them. They are quite happy to detach themselves from others. But some are led by circumstance to a life of isolation through no desire nor preference. Many unfortunate souls seek it through substance addiction, when they realise that human interaction is beyond their control, and their only alternative is to create a substitute shoulder to cry on.

If we truly are a species that relies heavily on the need to relate to others, then one can understand to some extent the pain of bereavement. If we become reliant on how others perceive us, as Cooley demonstrated in ‘Human Nature and the Social Order (1902) then our very identity is intertwined with the deceased, making the loss a deep and personal one. In effect we lose a major segment of our very own self-concept, and relying on our own true self can be a very daunting experience. For a majority of the time in grief we are still bonded to the deceased. We still feel the need to be connected to them to avoid any possible feelings, such as guilt. Here begins the real battle between the true self and the self-concept, contesting for the right to experience the necessary feelings that would appease both the memory of the deceased and the future actions of the survivor.

The grieving that occurs is for the bereaved as much as it is for the deceased, a self-concept fragmented and never to be re-attached to form the comfortable wholeness that existed previously. How life used to be can never be reclaimed and being alone, possibly for the remaining years, without the deceased is a prospect that is different to any other type of loneliness. One must accept the reality of this particular loneliness before moving on to another significant relationship.

“Individuals who are terrified of isolation generally attempt to assuage that terror an interpersonal mode: they need the presence of others to affirm their existence; they long to be swallowed by others greater than they, or they seek to alleviate their sense of lonely helplessness by swallowing others; they attempt to elevate themselves through others; they search for multiple sexual bondings – a caricature of authentic relating. In short, the individual who is flooded with isolation anxiety reaches out desperately for help through a relationship. The individual reaches out, not because he or she wants to but because he or she has to; and the ensuing relationship is based on survival not on growth. The tragic irony is that those who so desperately need the comfort and pleasure of an authentic relationship are the very ones least able to form such a relationship.”

Irvin Yalom (1980)

Some are dependent on the attention of others, to receive the gratifying injections of affirmations on a regular basis, in order to fuel their identity. This explains why many people suffering any kind of loss avoid being alone at all costs. When death denies some a partner who was loved, the resulting feelings of isolation and abandonment can be frightening because that unique bond that was shared has gone, and the new reality is unwanted and even resented. There is safety in relationships but it takes courage to face the loneliness that is first encountered and then to accept this future reality.


Irvin D Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (1980).

John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (2008).

Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order (1902)


About Gwyn H Hughes

I am a person-centred counselor with also a passion for family history, of which I write about at I also write articles for The News Hub.
This entry was posted in Death, Death Anxiety, Isolation, Nietzsche, Reality, Yalom and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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