Dilemmas: How do I cope with loneliness?

Sandra is in her fifties. Her husband died two years ago and although her life is full of friends, classes, a job and loving grown-up children, she still feels unbearably lonely and says `being alone just isn't me'. The weekends are particularly difficult. Her doctor says that she isn't depressed. But she longs for someone just to be `there' for her. What can she do?

virginia's advice

There are two ways out of the sad, lonely hole that Sandra finds herself in. One is to try to replace what she's lost; the other is to rebuild her life as a single woman. Neither of these is easy.

It's difficult to find a new partner at this age, particularly if you're a bit shy. Some dating agencies even refuse to take on women over 50, however much money they're prepared to pay, a fact that I find horrifying, being a mere chicken myself at the tender age of 54.

She could get a dog, two dogs, five dogs - or take up animal rescue. She could become a carer for couples with disabled children, allowing them to have a break for the odd week. In other words she could decide to live her life from now on as one of sacrifice.

Or she could make a commitment to discovering the secret of being able to live happily on her own. She says, "it just isn't me", but we are all basically on our own. Being on her own is exactly that, the art of "being me".

And while there are thousands of lonely men and women around the country, there are equally thousands of men and women who love being on their own for weeks, pottering around their gardens, mending and painting, reading, knitting and - well, heaven knows what.

Myself, I never understand how anyone can occupy themselves for more than a day without human contact, but I know it can be done because I've not only witnessed it but, occasionally, experienced it.

I suggest that there are several things preventing Sandra from "being me". One is that she hasn't yet found any resolution after her husband's death, and that perhaps there are depths of sorrow that she hasn't yet plumbed. Or perhaps she is basically an unhappy, unresolved person who, while she was married, distracted herself from her own problems of "being me" by preoccupation with her husband. Now the chickens have come home to roost.

Rather than looking for things outside herself to take the pain of "being me" away, she should look inside herself at that pain. In other words, at the risk of sounding like some barmy guru, the way out is in. At the risk of sounding even more crackers, I don't think there is any way to "be me" without feeling that you are or have been loved, even if it was for only a small amount of time. It could be by a child, or an animal, or God, or anything else. Perhaps Sandra could recollect how much her husband loved her, rather than dwell on how much she's lost.

These thoughts, by the way, are based on sheer, practical, personal experience, not from hours sitting cross-legged saying "Om".

Moving house might help. While Sandra is in the home that she and her husband shared, she can see the gaps in her life as clearly as the pictures on the walls. New surroundings, new furniture, different light - all of this would help to make it clear to Sandra that she is starting out on a new phase of her life. And to stop herself falling into a mire of gloom, she should keep dates and treats ahead so that she always has something to look forward to when she feels low.

It's so easy to write. But with time, Sandra may experience just the odd hour of contentment on her own. These moments can be blissful.

And once she gets the hang of it, they will, slowly, increase. She may, in the end, wonder how she was ever able to live with anyone at all.

reader's suggestions

Grieve, then move on

My heart went out to Sandra. My lovely husband died three-and-a-half years ago, when I was 54.

Sandra's mind is probably cluttered with the past, and she doesn't want to forget or let go. I got into such a state that I wrote a book about my marriage - it started out as a letter to my children, so they would know who their parents were when we'd both gone. I wrote down all my memories, good and bad. I wept buckets, but moved on after that.

My weekends were a nightmare, too, and I was desperately lonely. So I went to work in a zoo as a volunteer. There are lots of things to do at weekends in the voluntary sector. It feels very odd and "wrong" at first, but you have to persevere. The people you meet see you, not half of a pair.

JACKY JOHNSTON

Winchester, Hampshire

Self-pity will not help

For a start, stop griping; at least you have your health. I'm unable to work because I suffer the painful, disabling condition of fibromyalgia. I have been widowed for 12 years and have learnt to respect the independence.

Go out and find yourself a mate, or try an Open University course. It will stretch your mind and you won't have time to feel sorry for yourself.

MRS JACQUELINE PLEA

Burnley, Lancashire

Remember your husband's love

I'm in a similar situation, at 70, but gradually I'm finding comfort. I plot the time when I am on my own. I write letters, read, sew, watch TV, phone family and friends. But most important of all I remind myself how much my husband loved and admired me, and how he would hate me to be miserable. I know he would be proud to see how I cope with life as it is now.

ANONYMOUS

The answer is to get a dog

Sandra is suffering from unrequited love. It's not surprising that she finds her life empty.

Please suggest that she gets herself a dog - or preferably two dogs. They will give her all the love she can cope with, and fill her life with happiness.

PHIL JOHNSON

Pinner, Middlesex

Live close to others like yourself

I have had the same feelings and experiences as Sandra.

One possibility is still a pipe-dream, and that is to find some place to live in a community of like-minded people that offers scope for privacy. I know that purpose-built retirement homes plan for this, but I don't want to wait till then! Let's have more designed for people like us in our fifties, who can so often find ourselves living in reluctant isolation.

NAME AND ADDRESS SUPPLIED

Make the most of each day

Like Sandra I am in my fifties, and my husband died 18 months ago.

At the risk of sounding pompous, I would point out that we enter and depart from this life alone: the love of parents, husband, children and friends are blessings on the way. We have to adapt to change at each stage of life, and the death of a partner is one such change.

Sandra should not think long term, but simply make the most of each day as it comes, setting a goal to achieve, be it sorting out a cupboard or reading a novel.

Perhaps she would get a different perspective on her own life if she were to work voluntarily for others less fortunate, less healthy, less mobile and possibly even more lonely than she.

Sandra is in a prison of her own making; only she can find the way out.

DIANA FINCH

Suffolk

NEXT WEEK'S DILEMMA

Dear Virginia,

My son, although well qualified and with lots of short-term contract work, is unable to get himself a mortgage. We are lucky enough to be able to buy him a small flat. I want to buy it outright but my husband feels we ought to put down half and get him to pay back the rest over time. My parents say he should work his way up from nothing, as they did. What do you think would be best for my son?

Yours sincerely, Angela

Anyone who has advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from Please send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL; fax 0171- 293 2182; e-mail dilemmas @independent.co.uk - giving a postal address for the bouquet

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