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A Widowed Introvert and the Social/Solitude Balance

Social life is a helpful distraction from grief, but also exhausting.

Key points

  • Introverts learn to manage their need for solitude versus social life.
  • A spouse or partner provides value-added solitude, allowing introverts to recharge without loneliness.
  • While some people who have lost a spouse or partner find socializing too difficult, others use it as distraction.
  • Both grief and socializing can be exhausting for introverts, who might need to rethink their parameters.
Aiony Haust/Unsplash
Source: Aiony Haust/Unsplash

In the past decade-plus, as an early proponent of what is sometimes called the introvert-positive movement, I have written a great deal about the quiet trait, parsing its pros and cons and explaining its value in the noisy, extroverted society that is America.

“We just want to be left alone,” introverts often insist, and I respect that—although I’ve also argued that we need to always be conscious of the thin line between solitude and isolation, between deep thinking and rumination, between introversion and misanthropy.

Over the years I have come to understand my introversion and to manage it, to recognize when my energy has been depleted and I need to step away and recharge, as well as when I’ve become too isolated and need to leave the house. I know what kinds of relationships and activities nourish me and what kinds drain me. I’ve even come to terms with the telephone.

But now, in my newly widowed state, I’m having to rethink it all.

Alone with a partner vs. alone without

In the past, stepping away from the hubbub of social life usually meant retreating to my home where I would be alone with Tom, which was like value-added solitude. Recharging with Tom, who was also a quiet type, was easy. And because I wasn’t truly alone, I didn’t get lonely. (I recently stumbled on a 2021 New York Times article about the value of quiet “parallel play” for adults—being together without talking. Apparently, it’s a thing.) Being with Tom was effortless, being with others is more performative. I must be “on,” which can be tiring—even more so when doing it over the persistent hum of grief.

Socializing as distraction

I’ve heard other people who are grieving say that they have no desire to socialize or do much of anything; they simply want to hole up and nurse their pain. Despite my introversion, I’ve had the opposite reaction. Since Tom died, I’ve revved my social life into overdrive. I’m busy all the time. Seeing people, doing things, going places… I say no to nothing, grateful for every invitation. And when none come my way, I extend them.

In the before times, a weekend with nothing planned felt luxurious, but these days being home alone—truly alone now—can be difficult. At home alone, all my sadness rises to the surface. Even well into my third year of bereavement, tears still come easily and frequently when I’m alone. I still struggle to believe that Tom is really gone. I still, on occasion, ruminate on that terrible day. Among people, I am distracted, entertained. Out in public, my sadness is not evident, even to me. It is pushed to the back of my brain by everything going on.

Cherishing friends, needing solitude

There is an upside to this. In my grief, I have come to understand the importance of other people in my life and feel more deeply connected to my friends. It’s easy to get complacent in marriage—especially for an introvert. I’ve always had friends, but as long as Tom and I had each other, everyone outside our bubble was… incidental. Now, my bubble popped, I see the people who surrounded us differently, and see much more clearly the value of the people who surround me now. This is the gift in my grief, I suppose. I have learned to cherish my friends as they deserve.

Still, I find myself struggling to find the balance between the socializing I need to keep sadness at bay and the solitude I need to recharge. All the activity that keeps me from despair is exhausting. I love and am grateful for the friends who have held me up through these difficult years, but also must sometimes tamp down inappropriate irritation that arises through no fault of theirs. It’s just what happens when I push myself past my point of burnout. Come here, go away, come here, go away.

“You can’t heal what you don’t feel,” is a common expression, and I believe this to be true, so I don’t begrudge my sadness. It’s necessary to the grief ride. But the sadness, the grief, is exhausting in its own right, and so I seesaw between exhausting myself one way when I’m out and about, and another when I’m in and alone. After a night of socializing, I look forward to returning to my quiet home as much as I dread it. Or perhaps I dread returning to my quiet home as much as I look forward to it.

So now, after all these years of learning about managing my introversion, I find I must relearn it—as I’m relearning so much else in dealing with my new reality.

So please leave me alone, but also, please don’t.

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