Dying of loneliness?

I recently was asked to lead a memorial reflection for two members of The Well Community, a ministry housed within our church that serves people with severe mental illness. It’s not uncommon to learn of Well members passing away and for the group to grieve the loss of friends. But the circumstances of these two deaths broke my heart.

They both died alone.

We don’t know many details, but the person who I’ll call Jim was found dead behind a local laundromat where he periodically lived. Jim had been sick for a while. Due to his mental health and complications from homelessness, he was tough to help. When he took his last breath, no one was there to hold his hand or share his pain.

The other person, who I’ll call Peggy, died in an abandoned house in South Dallas. Peggy struggled with addiction, but that evening was remembered as one who served and brightened the lives of others with her smile. She had burnt out many of her family relationships, a sad but regular characteristic of those who suffer with severe mental illness.

I listened to the Buddhist teacher Thich Naht Hahn talk about how hard it is to communicate within our families. Why can’t we share with one another our true feelings, put to rest old grudges, and forgive past wrongs? Given how much we struggle to talk to one another, it’s easy to understand why governments and people groups find themselves embroiled in constant conflict. The unyielding noise within our minds — fears, anxieties, incorrect perceptions — leads to great suffering.

For those with severe mental illness, the inability to communicate can be compounded by intense anxiety and a daily struggle to manage one’s inner monologue. It can lead to isolation and heightened feelings of worthlessness, the conviction that one does not deserve or cannot experience love.

“Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the greatest poverty,” said Mother Teresa. “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love. The poverty in the West is a different kind of poverty — it is not only a poverty of loneliness but also of spirituality. There’s a hunger for love, as there is a hunger for God.”

Strangely enough, what I felt that evening at The Well was what Jim and Peggy seemed to lack: true connection, the healing found in community. I felt love and gratefulness for the people in my life. I felt a deep sadness for those who are isolated and hungered for a more expansive understanding and practice in north Oak Cliff of what it means to be “community,” so that others won’t die alone.

Maybe you share that same hunger, too.