Have you ever felt lonely? I guess that might be a silly question. I am sure that through this journey of life we have all felt lonely at some point in our lives. I know I have a reputation of being somewhat relational. My list of friendships goes very deep. The gift of my family relationships – wife, kids, grandkids is hard to beat. Over the years I have been surrounded by friends at work, people that I loved to work with and do life with; but at times I have still been overcome with the emotion of feeling lonely. This sometimes can be referred to as “crowded loneliness.” From a distance there may have been no indication that my heart was crying out, but I was desperate. I was desperate to make a connection or to know someone cared.
In the year 1970, I was a senior in high school in Charlotte, NC. I had just received word that my dad had been transferred to Atlanta, Georgia. He was a salesman with Sherwin Williams paint company and we had moved on multiple occasions. But this time was different. This was my senior year, I played football, I was a part of multiple clubs, I had great friendships. Heck, I even had a girlfriend. The decision was made that I would stay in Charlotte, play football and graduate with my friends. I know this decision was hard on my mom. I was an only child and she was going to miss all the “rewards” of being a “senior mom” – homecoming dance, football games, the Sadie Hawkins dance, prom. However, because of her love for me, she let me stay in Charlotte for my senior year.
Football season started off great as we went 7-0. There was even rumor that I might get a couple of Jr. College football scholarship offers. Academics were never my strong suit and at only 165 pounds any thought of a scholarship was a bonus. Then it happened – following my best game against Hickory High School I became extremely ill. I found out I had a severe case of mono. I temporarily moved to Atlanta for a few weeks to recover. Football was a distant memory, even though I did get back for the final game for a couple plays, but I did not come back as a starter. Still, I was glad to be back in familiar surroundings.
Then came “report card” day – always one of my most hated days of the year. I had missed multiple days of classes and multiple tests because of mono. However, all of my teachers gave me passing grades, except for one. She failed me by .8 of a point. What did this mean? It meant I failed English; it meant I would not graduate with my class; it meant my life would turn in a downward spiral quickly. For many months it felt like a death spiral, like an airplane that cannot pull up before it hits the ground. The pilot has lost any visual of the horizon and is going down hard. That was me.
I walked out of my next class, following the results of my report card, got in my ‘69 Green Firebird, went to where I was living, packed up and drove to Atlanta. I said goodbye to no one and wept during the 3 ½ hour drive to Atlanta – all alone.
After a couple of weeks in Atlanta I finally had the courage to start a new high school in the middle of my senior year. Fortunately, Atlanta schools were on the quarter system and if I got at least a “B” in English I could pull my grade from an “F” to a “C”, which I did. Those were the loneliest days of my life. To this day I cannot tell you the name of one person I graduated with. I worked a couple jobs to help fill the void of no relationships and when my parents would allow me, I headed back to Charlotte on the weekends to see my friends.
Losses come to us in many different ways. Now as I work with a Grief Recovery ministry the stories I hear daily are heart-breaking. These losses seem so much more painful than my own loss. However, I have learned not to compare losses. As we say at our retreats, “A loss, is a loss, is a loss.” For a 17-year-old kid the events during my senior year were devastating. It was a huge loss to me. As I look back, the sad part is that I do not remember having any conversations with anyone about what I was going through or someone to just sit by my side.
My Jewish friends have a term called “Sitting Shiva.” It is simply sitting with someone who has experienced loss. You do not have to have an answer, you just have to be close to someone who feels lonely, who is grieving. This 17-year-old kid could have benefitted from having someone “Sitting Shiva” with him in 1970. This 66-year-old is learning the importance of “Sitting Shiva” with someone who is dealing with loss.
Do you know someone who needs a compassionate friend to sit in silence with them?
Barry Steger is the Director of Development with Spark of Life. He and Jeannie have been married 41 years. They live in Little Rock, Arkansas and have three grown children and 4 grandchildren.