The loss that means you no longer belong

Grief has a way of pushing everyone away, writes Angela Williams Gorrell. But it’s when you are grieving that you need belonging the most.

A cozy mental health break with an open journal, pen and coffee cup.

  1. I have realized belonging is not something I just receive — I actively cultivate belonging through the way I see and know others.
  2. Along with truly seeing people comes truly knowing people.

You are in a crowded room. You just had to move out of the way so someone could get by. It is so loud that you cannot hear the person trying to talk to you, even though they are standing right next to you.

Yet there it is.

Maybe a troubled feeling is stirring in the pit of your stomach. Or maybe, this time, the overwhelming feeling is weighing down the center of your chest, as if a truck of concrete has parked on your lungs.

It is the ache of profound loneliness.

Though you are surrounded by people, no one can seem to reach you. Loneliness has created a canyon around your body. People look at you, but they do not see you. People talk to you, but they do not connect with you. People hear words come out of your mouth, but they do not catch what you are truly saying.

And it all began with loss.

You lost something precious — that person, that pet, that companion, that dream, that aspect of your physical health, that job, that status, that significance, that thing that made the world seem right and good, that thing that made you feel connected. And ever since that loss, the grief has overwhelmed you and caused you to feel like you no longer belong — to that person, that group, that story, that life that was yours … maybe you feel like you do not even belong to yourself.

Grief has a way of pushing everyone away, so that you do not just lose someone or something, but you lose your way of fitting into the world.

Grief has a way of pushing everyone away, so that you do not just lose someone or something, but you lose your way of fitting into the world.

Because sometimes that someone or something was what made you feel like you belonged.

Because sometimes people think you would rather not talk about your loss — so they say nothing or anything else and their silence about your grieving makes you feel like a stranger in what used to be most familiar, like a foreigner in your own land.

Because sometimes your grieving makes the people closest to you so uncomfortable that they literally stop coming around.

When you are grieving, you need belonging the most. Yet grieving often steals not only our connection to what we lost but most, if not all, our connection to the world.

I cannot provide a linear process for finding belonging during grieving. I wish I could. I also wish I could promise that if you pay me $19.99, I could instantly make you feel belonging again.

I wish these things because I have felt everything I have just written.

What I can do is offer a few insights from my own journey and perhaps, by God’s grace, some hope.

Invitations to hope, from me to you.

Sometimes grief allows us to belong in surprising new ways. After three of my family members died in the span of four weeks, I needed a community of people who understood similar loss. I became a volunteer at a women’s maximum-security prison, working specifically with women on suicide watch (I tell the full story in my 2021 book, The Gravity of Joy: A Story of Being Lost and Found). It was there – in that circle of vulnerability, storytelling and honesty (plus zero shame) – that I connected with others who knew similar pain. Note that I have never been to prison myself, and I got to leave after I visited, so the women knew a suffering I do not.

Sometimes grief allows us to belong in surprising new ways.

We had things in common, though, pain that linked us. We had a desire to love one another and a commitment to come together weekly, both of which united us. In a room with blue plastic chairs and dingy carpet covered in dead bugs, I sang and danced and talked my way through grieving with other women, who in turn helped get me on the road toward healing, too. You can do this as well. You can find groups to belong to online and in podcasts these days. My sister Stef and I created “The Grief Sisters” book club and podcast to bring people together around grief. We perform an act of resistance of sorts, allowing the particular yet similar griefs we have experienced to guide us toward one another.

Rituals also help me to rekindle belonging.

Sacred rituals of the church – guided meditation, lighting candles, silence, historic prayers – remind me that I belong to a story that began long before I took my first breath. I engage in these rituals in person, online and through other digital media, such as Richard Rohr’s daily meditation emails, apps like Insight Timer and an online Tuesday-night contemplative prayer service hosted by the Center for Spiritual Imagination. The rituals give me concrete actions that link me to others. In the 2022 book Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted, Suleika Jaouad describes a healing ceremony called “Sun Dance,” in which men on the Pine Ridge reservation attach themselves to a massive tree trunk with ropes. They dance, sing and pray for four days; they do not eat any food and drink very little water. Jaouad writes, “Pain, heat, dehydration, and hunger aren’t unfortunate perils: They are part of the process. The dancers believe by simulating death, they alleviate the pain and sorrows of both their community and their ancestors.” Something about performing a very old ritual with others can make us aware that our life is caught up in so many other lives — so our belonging is there, somewhere in the great story and in the wide vastness of the universe, even if it feels quite thin for a time.

Boldly asking for help has reconnected me with others.

During my grief, I once texted seven people asking them to tell me the truth about myself. I was having one of those terribly off days where my mind was shouting the saddest thoughts, and I knew I needed someone to say something different. I texted those seven people hoping at least one would reply with a helpful comment that I could cling to. Mine was a desperate text, one that I just copied and pasted seven times — something like, “I am having a terrible day. I need to hear something good. What is one thing you know to be true about me?” And what happened was incredible. All seven people texted back within minutes, and they flooded my heart with beautiful notions. I simply could not continue to hear the sad things in my head over the lovely things they wrote. So sometimes we need to just tell and just ask and just listen. Tell what is happening. Ask someone to speak into your life. Listen to their words. The words of those people held me that day. They helped me belong to myself again and gave me the sense that I did mysteriously belong to others, as lonely as I felt.

Sometimes we need to just tell and just ask and just listen. Tell what is happening. Ask someone to speak into your life. Listen to their words.

I have begun to talk about belonging more.

I think belonging is a lot like sleep. We do not usually ask one another how well we are sleeping, yet sleep is essential for well-being. We just assume everyone is getting enough sleep. But most of us need more sleep and, perhaps more importantly, better-quality sleep. I find the same to be true about belonging. Therefore, we need communities and individuals who intentionally say things out loud, like, “I want you to feel a sense of belonging in this place” and “I hope you feel like you belong in this group.” We need people who ask regularly about our belonging, too. We can ask meaningful questions: Do you feel like you belong here? What do you think belonging is? How can we nurture belonging more? What can I do to help you feel like you belong here?

I have realized belonging is not something I just receive — I actively cultivate belonging through the way I see and know others. Belonging requires truly being present to other people. In workshops and lectures, Greg Ellison, an author and a professor of pastoral care and counseling, talks about truly seeing others. Before he starts speaking, he walks around the room, looks people into their eyes and says, “It is good to see you today.” We undervalue seeing, really seeing, the people we encounter. Sometimes we literally need the eyes and mouths of others to tell us that we are actually still here. We need people to look at us and say to us, sincerely, “I am so glad to see you. Your presence in this place is a gift.” This reaching-out means starting your group meetings, coffee dates, lunch conversations and classes, whatever you are doing, by truly seeing the people in front of you. Take a few moments and notice who is present. Really look at people. Recognize people’s aliveness. When you do, the fantastic thing is that you will feel seen and alive too.

Along with truly seeing people comes truly knowing people.

True knowing requires curiosity. Learning what people value and appreciating those values go a long way in creating connections. To try it, start with a values inventory (lots can be found online). Perhaps create a survey, and invite the people in your life to take it. Go to lunch or coffee with someone and ask, “What matters to you? What are your deepest held values?” Go on a retreat, sit in a small group and ask people to share stories that demonstrate what matters most to them. Use a prompt like “Tell about a time when you did something that meant the world to you. What happened?”

Easier said than done.

My invitations may seem far easier to read than to attempt. I get it. I do not know what you are carrying as
you read these words. But I imagine it is heavy. It is wild how heavy empty space can be. But as you sit there, I invite you to let the following words wash over you:

The Spirit of God is your comforter and encourager.
The Spirit literally prays for you when you cannot pray.
The Spirit is within you and with you.
The Spirit makes possible what seems impossible.
The Spirit will help you.

One small act, one move toward others, can be life-changing.

With the Spirit as your companion, you can find your people, people with a similar grief. You can engage in an old ritual. You can text and ask for one good thought. You can bring up belonging in your conversations. You can ask meaningful questions. You can look others in their eyes and honor their aliveness. You can be passionately curious about the people you regularly encounter.

You get to help create the belonging you long for, the belonging all of us desperately desire.

Recently, I was speaking to a crowd of college students about grief, joy and belonging. Several lined up afterward to talk with me. They shared their own experiences of grief, their own desires for belonging, and I cried with them and hugged them. One student told me how she felt seen by God that evening and sensed God telling her that she mattered — something she had been questioning.

The ache of loneliness that was present in me for so long has lessened its grip on my soul. With the Spirit’s help, I felt connected to those students, to myself, to God and to the great story that envelopes us all.