My friend Drew and I go back a ways — a long ways. We were in the same “graduation class” at the Tiny Tots Playhouse nursery school before going on to continue our primary education together.
Drew’s father was a funeral director, or undertaker as they were called back in the day. Drew’s family lived in his father’s place of business and, because I had sleepovers there since I was a kid, I grew up without the trepidation that some people have about the places where the dearly departed are cared for.
Having begun my own “career” in the funeral business as a kid, vacuuming up dried flower petals and dusting caskets, I have, at times, throughout the early days of my work as a writer, supplemented my income by working in every aspect of the funeral business.
Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, I assisted hundreds of people in making funeral arrangements and, like many who do this for a living, tried to avoid establishing personal relationships with the family members I served to keep from becoming emotionally involved in their loss. I say “tried” because I failed at that on numerous occasions, including once with a man named Sy.
Sy and his wife, who were in their 80s, had no children or living relatives, and all their friends had passed on. So when Sy’s wife died, he came in alone to make the arrangements. His wish was to have no service, simply because, as he told me, “There would be no one to invite.”
When we finished making the arrangements Sy asked me to join him at a nearby restaurant for lunch, which I did. As we ate, he laughed and cried as he shared stories about his wife and their life together.
The following day, he came to pick up his wife’s urn. After handing it to him, I walked him to his car.
“Do me a favor,” I said as he got ready to leave. “Call me later today just to let me know you’re OK.”
That afternoon Sy did call. I asked him how he was and he said he had a terrible pain in his ears.
“You have an earache? I asked
“Horrible pain,” he responded. “It’s due to the incessant pounding of silence.”
When he said that, I did what anyone would do: Tried to swallow the lump in my throat that made it difficult to respond. I also did what any writer would do: Wrote down those five words — “the incessant pounding of silence” — which, to me, is the most unequivocally perfect definition of the word “loneliness” I have ever heard.
With today being National Cheer Up the Lonely Day, I thought of Sy, and also of the many people I know who are currently dealing with loneliness due to the isolation of the pandemic, and the loss of a spouse, partner, pet, health or work.
To find out what some people do to overcome loneliness I called Michelle Sucillon, who deals with this issue on a regular basis in her role with the community relations department at Burbank’s Belmont Village Senior Living facility.
“The key to overcoming loneliness is socialization,” said Sucillon. “That is a part of our mission statement, and even though we have had no cases of COVID-19, the pandemic has made that challenging for us. We now institute a 10-day isolation period for new residents, and have put off our usual social programs. However, we still check on everyone and deliver something special to their room every day — chocolate-covered strawberries, Champagne — all sorts of treats, and a visit so that even in isolation they can have some socialization.”
Sucillon said that within the Belmont community she has seen socialization help so many residents overcome loneliness.
“Our residents have other people from their own generation to talk to about a variety of topics they can relate to and to share memories with. They form friendships. Some of them really become close and they lean on one another,” she said.
Terry Campbell has been a Belmont resident for four years. She lost her husband in 1997 and, after dealing with a serious illness in 2017, decided she no longer wanted to live alone.
When asked about dealing with loneliness she shrugged.
“It’s not really an issue for me,” said Campbell. “As soon as I came here I wanted to be a part of everything and get to know as many people as I could. I don’t get lonely because I stay active.
“I don’t have the time to be lonely,” she added with a laugh.
Pressed on what besides staying active helps to ward off loneliness, Campbell said having a good attitude is also important.
“I know people who are loners and don’t take part in social activities,” she said. “Those are the ones who seem to be lonely. I think a lot of overcoming loneliness is attitude and being able to adjust to the changes that come in our lives. I love living here because there is always something going on. I like feeling that I belong, and that there are other residents and staff members and PALs [personal assistance liaisons] who care about me.”
Grace Jones, also of Belmont’s community relations department, said Campbell is the perfect example of those who do well in mitigating loneliness.
“They are the ones who take advantage of the social programs we provide,” she said. “They tend to have a positive attitude and recognize the good things life has to offer even during challenging times — even during a pandemic. During this period of isolation, they still have the opportunity to engage with more people than they ever would if they lived alone.”
Belmont Executive Director Chris Schroeder said he believes that overcoming loneliness comes from a willingness to reach out to others. “At Belmont we have a community that does that. Everything we do — every service and program we provide — is designed to keep people engaged with life and with others. Every day we let people know there are other people who care about them. There’s a lot of love here.”
Today, as we observe National Cheer Up the Lonely Day, why don’t you take a few minutes to call someone you suspect may be lonely and ask if they are OK? That small act of kindness — the sound of your voice expressing care and love — may just do wonders in drowning out the incessant pounding of silence.
David Laurell may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (818) 563-1007.