I’ve been [very] single for 25 years. Mostly it’s been a great time and I’ve written about the joys of single life here, here, and here. I will keep on saying that singleness is a calling worth celebrating, and I mean that from my heart as I experientially delight in the richness and freedom of single life.
But alongside all of that, I want to also talk about the hard stuff. I want to name the grief we experience in singleness, the kind of loss that might be so subtle that even we ourselves don’t see it as actual loss. For most long-term single people, the kind of grief we feel is an invisible grief.
I don’t share this stuff because I want you to pity me—or any other single person. In fact, as you keep reading you’ll see that I don’t actually feel that emotional about this at all; it’s taken me a long time to even notice I feel any sense of loss. But that’s partly why we need to talk about invisible grief: so we can see it and name it for what it actually is.
A couple of years ago I had a dull toothache in one of my molars. I ignored it for a while because I was far too busy and poor to see a dentist, and after a while I stopped noticing the pain. Eventually the pain seemed to fade away completely and I was very pleased with myself for dealing with my pain like a ‘real man’: ignoring it until it went away.
The following year in a routine dental check-up, I found out that the molar I’d forgotten about had developed such a deep cavity that the tooth had decayed right through to the nerve. Apparently the nerve was dead now and I would have to either have the tooth removed or get a root canal treatment as soon as possible. What followed was 8 more visits to the dentist over many months for a root canal procedure which still isn’t even complete yet.
Looking back, I feel stupid for not paying more attention to the pain. Pain is the body’s signal that something is not right, and ignoring it really isn’t the best strategy. But at the time it was such a dull pain that I didn’t think I had to worry about it. If it had been a sharp, agonising pain then I would have done something about it! But a mild throbbing pain that lasted for weeks could just fade to the background of my awareness until I didn’t even notice I was suffering anymore.
Sometimes grief is like that. Sometimes grief is the shooting pain of stubbing your toe. But sometimes grief is more like a dull toothache slowly decaying down to the nerve without you even noticing.
Couples who struggle with infertility have been talking about “silent grief” or “invisible grief” for years. They describe the complex emotions of never being able to conceive but not necessarily having moments of concrete loss that they can see and grieve properly. When other couples grieve a miscarriage or a stillbirth, they can name their pain and others can see it and grieve with them. But how do you grieve the loss of a child who never existed? At what point are you even allowed to grieve it as a loss instead of optimistically holding out hope that one day things might still change?
I see so many parallels between this and grieving singleness.
When one of my friends goes through a break-up, I am able to intuitively understand the emotions they are feeling and step towards them in care. We can name that loss for what it is, talk about it, and connect that experience to other similar stories we’ve and experienced. Other people can hear about the break-up and immediately know to show the person a bit of extra care.
What about a single person? At what point are they allowed to mourn the loss of a partner? Or the loss of dreams of having children of their own? Can we grieve the lack of a partner we never even had? Then even if we do, would anyone else be able to see our grief? Nothing’s changed in our circumstances… there’s no traumatic event people can see that signals our loss, no moment of loss that indicates that they might need to offer a bit of extra care. And even if we had the self-awareness and courage to articulate our feelings to a confidant… would they even know how to grieve with us?
There’s a term called “disenfranchised grief” that describes the kind of loss that is felt personally but not acknowledged or validated by society. Sometime it’s because we don’t acknowledge that it’s ‘real’ loss because nobody died… sometimes it’s because we can’t actually see the grief that someone feels.
I mean, I can barely even see my own grief sometimes. If I can ignore a toothache until the nerves are irreparably damaged, imagine how effectively I can ignore complicated emotions. And the truth is I am happily single. I am genuinely content. But I’m learning that I’m allowed to be content AND ALSO grieve my losses.
Sometimes I realise that I’ll never have kids of my own. I have these weird moments when I realise I’ve never even dreamed about the little things like what my kids would look like or what kind of dad I’d be—and then when I do allow my imagination to picture my kids’ happy little faces, I get hit by a wave of sadness to remember that picture will never exist outside of my own head.
Some days I come home after an emotionally challenging day to an empty house. It’s just life as usual for me, so I barely notice the aloneness let alone mourn it. But still I feel that throbbing ache of wanting someone to debrief my day with. Even just someone to read my facial expression and know to give me space because they can see I’ve had a hard day. Even when I want to be left alone, there is something I miss about having another human being see me and know what I’m feeling in that moment. I have close friends I know I could call any time… but the thing is, sometimes I don’t want to talk: I just want to be. I miss having a partner with whom I can just be.
All this registers as a vague feeling, but nothing particularly tangible that I can articulate to another person. Putting these feelings into words in this post is only the result of years of journaling and developing self-awareness, because these emotions are usually the kind of feelings that fade to the background and only occasionally spill over into my conscious awareness. When they do spill over, it’s hard to pin down those feelings, almost like those first stars you see at twilight where you can’t quite see the stars if you’re looking directly at them, but if you direct your focus somewhere else, you catch glimpses of the stars shimmering at the edge of your vision. Invisible grief feels like that sometimes.
It’s not the kind of grief that makes you stop and cry but the kind of grief that makes you forget how to cry. Sometimes I wish I had a tangible and dramatic loss to grieve so I could let the tears flow and cathartically process those feelings… but instead, for me grieving looks more like feeling just a little bit flat most Friday nights when I come home to a silent house again.
I often hear people talk about feeling angry at God, and I hear them exhorting each other that it’s okay and healthy to take our lament to God. We point to the Psalms and to the book of Job to say it’s okay to grieve to God and express our anger—it’s even a healthy expression of faith to take him our raw, unedited feelings.
But I can’t relate. Those exhortations just don’t resonate with me because I don’t feel angry at God. I’m not sure I ever have. I can’t relate to feeling hurt that God has inflicted pain on me. Instead, I struggle more with feeling apathetic that God feels distant from me. Again, it’s not a sharp pain but a numb indifference. I don’t rage at God in passionate anger or cry to him in heartfelt lament: I just feel vaguely distant and pretend he’s equally disinterested in me.
This is the struggle of invisible grief. I don’t really know what it looks like to suffer well with invisible grief because I can’t see anyone else modelling this. I don’t know how to express myself authentically to God when I’m not even sure what I’m feeling myself and when he feels so distant from it all. And at the end of the day, I struggle with gaslighting myself and telling myself I’m not really suffering loss because I haven’t technically lost anything.
This is the struggle of invisible grief. You think you don’t need to process your grief because you’re not suffering like other people who’ve had a break-up or lost a spouse… so you ignore the little twinges of pain. You ignore it, like an inconvenient toothache, while your suffering takes the insidious form of a dull but persistent ache that slowly decays inside you until before you know it the nerves are dead and the pain is replaced by a comfortable numbness.
I believe there is power in naming something for what it is. I believe feelings lose their grip on me when I put words to them and share those words with people and with God. Naming this loss as “invisible grief” and writing this post is a first step for me.
I don’t know what the next steps will be yet, but I’m hoping that by putting words to this experience and starting a conversation, invisible grief will morph to visible grief. I’m hoping I find the words to express my feelings to God when I pray. I’m hoping I can connect with the experiences of other people who read this and who realise there are words for what they feel too.
I’m hoping that while I wait, the God who sees everything will see my ‘invisible’ grief and teach me what to do with it.