06/03/2014 01:39 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2014

Loneliness and Legacy

At a professional meeting I attended recently, we were discussing ways to reduce loneliness experienced by seniors and people living alone.

"All the lonely people, where do they come from?" -- The Beatles, "Eleanor Rigsby"

This is not a new topic. I used Dr. James Lynch's long out-of-print 1977 bestseller, The Broken Heart, when I worked with cardiac families decades ago. Lynch suggested that loneliness was a major hidden cause of heart disease. Loneliness still exists and may reach down into all generations, exacerbated by the isolating factor of technology. Dr. Lynch's more recent book, A Cry Unheard: New Insights Into the Medical Consequences of Loneliness, stresses the importance of human dialogue.

"Dialogue is the elixir of life and chronic loneliness its lethal poison." -- Dr. James J. Lynch

I recall a woman who described maintaining a long-distance dialogue with her granddaughter by writing journal entries and mailing the journal back and forth. I raced out to buy a journal for my granddaughter and me though we lived only a few miles apart. She was 4 and could barely print her name -- she still writes in it when she visits me, though she is now away at college. What interests me most is how every time she goes to the special secret place where we keep our journal, prior to taking up her pen, she begins at page one and revels in her growth and our dialogue over the years.

Today, long-distance dialogue can be written on a computer -- on a blog -- but my personal preference for intimate dialogue is pen and paper, with a place perhaps for occasional illustrations, and no fear that one of us will mistakenly hit the delete button.

Consider some of these many reasons for loneliness:

1. Situational loneliness: If we live long enough, most -- perhaps all -- of our friends and partners may have died; our doctors, hairdressers, even financial advisors, have retired, and for many of us it feels like too much energy to begin those intimate relationships again.
2. Circumstantial loneliness: The isolation and suffering (grief) we experience with a divorce, a life-threatening diagnosis, a loss of a partner or other loved person.
3. Psychologically-induced loneliness: Just a few, though there are many. We may be naturally introverted and find it hard to initiate relationships, we may not have learned basic social skills, we may see others as content and busy and feel different, we may habitually isolate because of guilt about things we've done, or shame about who we are, we may believe we're intrinsically unlovable, we may have low vitality because we lack a passion, meaningful activity, or a sense of purpose beyond ourselves.

"Living alone poses no health risk ... so long as we have intimate ties of some kind ... [we] need relationships that provide love and intimacy and ... relationships that help us feel like [we're] participating in society in some way." -- Lisa Berkman, Harvard epidemiologist, New York Magazine 12-1-08

"Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty." -- Mother Teresa

The antidotes to loneliness include: purposeful activity (service to others), interesting dialogue, companionship, intimacy, and love. All of these can be addressed, at least partially, by writing and writing legacy letters and blessings.

Writing can help us heal by providing us insight and clarity, building our courage to share our thoughts and feelings. Writing can help us forgive ourselves, develop more positive personal and spiritual relationships. This writing does not change the physical circumstance of being alone, but being alone is not the same as loneliness.

Finally let's differentiate personal writing from legacy writing -- its specific purpose is to communicate and preserve what means most to us in our lives. This implies dialogue, relationship, intimacy with loved ones. Each time we write a blessing to someone, we feel our hearts opening, our chilled bones warming, and we experience being blessed ourselves.

Principles of Practice:

1. Reflect and write about the different kinds of loneliness you've experienced throughout your life, and assess how lonely or not you are at this stage of your life.
2. Then reflect and write about the antidotes and skills you presently possess and want to develop to diminish your loneliness now and for the future.
3. Write a legacy letter to someone you trust enough -- or love -- to hear your thoughts and feelings about loneliness. Conclude with a blessing.
4. Commit to yourself to stay alert to the dangers of loneliness and persistent about strengthening yourself and your relationships.

May you be blessed with the
skills and practices to reduce your loneliness,
using your pen
(mightier than any sword)
to build connection with those you love.

NEW: Webinar Workshop August 5, "Writing Love Letters to our Children." Contact Rachael for more information and registration

Your Legacy Matters is now available everywhere. 2012 editions also available of Women's Lives, Women's Legacies, Passing Your Beliefs and Blessings to Future Generations, The Legacy Workbook for the Busy Woman, Heartmates: A Guide for the Partner and Family of the Heart Patient, and The Heartmates Journal. (All legacy books are also available as pdf's on

Senior Fellow at the University of Minnesota's Center for Spirituality and Healing, Rachael is a clinical social worker and adult educator. She provides programs, workshops, and training for financial, health, and religious organizations focused on legacy principles and practices. She has seven grandchildren. Her home is Minneapolis, Minn.