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Later-Life Loss and Existential Loneliness

A relationship with nature can help us rebuild self and identity.

Key points

  • In difficult times of existential loneliness the social, spiritual, and natural world can provide solace.
  • Individual and collective loss and trauma in later life can lead to existentail isolation and loneliness.
  • How can we rebuild our sense of self and include the realization that even in the shadow of loss, how can one continue to live fully?
  • Loss and trauma are an invevitable part of later life, it is possible to move forward, live fully carrying our losses and empty spaces with us.

“Do not feel lonely, the entire universe is inside you.” Rumi

Loss is inevitable in life, particularly as we age. We may lose loved ones, we may lose our health and stamina, we may lose a sense of purpose in life, we may lose an image of self-developed and shaped in early life. Later life losses take many forms. These losses often lead to feelings of anxiety, isolation and isolation. Isolation and loneliness have been a cause for human suffering throughout history, however studies indicate that they are at an all-time high, especially in later adulthood. Studies tell us that for 15 to 30 % of the population loneliness is a chronic state; for those over 65 years 40 % state that they are lonely on a regular basis.

Acute pain, chronic illness, loss of social and professional roles, death of loved ones, are all too common later life experiences. Attempts to cope with these traumas can lead to feelings of being alone in the world, a sense of isolation, meaninglessness, a loss of a sense of self, feelings of self-alienation, and an increased awareness of and anxiety about mortality. The impact of multiple loss and trauma can lead to existential loneliness (EL). Existential loneliness is related to social and emotional isolation and loneliness but is, in fact, a deeper more subjective state that undermines the fundamental meaning and purpose in life. EL threatens the most fundamental part of the psyche.

The results of my ongoing work on loneliness and isolation suggest that existential loneliness can result from the accumulation of multiple losses, particularly those over which one has no control, losses that can lead to helplessness and despair. Such losses can lead one to feel disconnected from life as we know it-- from our family and friends, from our passions, and from our personal and professional interests, even from our sense of self. If we experience such existential loneliness, it can be accompanied by an overwhelming feeling of being cut off from others, from society, and from the natural world. EL also leads to a lack of purpose and meaning in life.

Existential loneliness is not restricted to later life. Earlier in life, it may be experienced, but is often more transient, later life existential loneliness, on the other hand, is contoured by questions about “time,” time left to pursue our goals, time left to contribute, to be with loved ones. If this loneliness persists, it reduces the perception of a meaning and significance in life, it can challenge feelings of generativity. Generativity, introduced by Erik Erikson more than 50 years ago, addresses meaningful contributions made in middle and later life. Satisfaction with generativity plays an important role in end of life feelings of integrity versus feelings of despair (Erikson, 1993).

Later-life losses and traumas not only lead to existential loneliness, but they can also result in fear and anxiety about mortality and death, particularly when we face the death of those we love. Feeling connected to something greater than one’s own life can provide sustenance and support during such a time. Such connections are derived from many sources: spirituality and religion, relationships, communities, art, literature, music, and the natural world.

I have spent many years developing community programs that increase connections, combat loneliness, promote well-being, and life satisfaction. These programs are also designed to increase cultural connections, meaning, and purpose. Activities have included discussion and support groups, listening sessions, inter-generational mentoring programs, connectivity through technology, inter-generational gardening projects, and programs designed to connect participants with natural spaces. By far two of the most successful of these programs are two related programs, projects focused on building inter-generational connections and communication as a way of highlighting generative activities; and listening and walking program focused on building connections with the natural world.

During the spring of 2020, when the Covid-19 pandemic led to a worldwide pause, we were able to continue to build connections and provide support by walking and talking in nature, in safe outdoor spaces. We found that the wonders of the natural world played a fundamental role in helping us to understand and cope with the collective trauma we were experiencing.

One of the important questions that has originated from this work: Does building and nurturing a relationship with nature help combat existential loneliness, isolation, and anxiety. Can such a relationship play a role in re-building a fragmented identity. Later life identity evolves from social and cultural conditions and personal circumstances, if we experience existential loneliness and isolation resulting from our life experiences, can this painful experience serve as a possibility to re-examine issues of the self and identity?

Perhaps build a reshaped identity based on an awareness of the inevitability of loss and loneliness and isolation. A sense of self that includes an acceptance that, no matter what we do, losses and trauma are a part one’s life. Accepting that the empty spaces left by others who are no longer here, by past roles, by our past selves, will accompany us moving forward. Coming to the realization that even in the shadow of loss, how can one continue to live fully? When faced with personal, interpersonal, and/or social loss, can we find meaningful ways to live with those empty spaces in our lives knowing that they will continue to be there as we move forward?

During times of despair, the relational power of nature does not fail. In difficult times of existential loneliness when life may lose its meaning, the interplay of the social, spiritual, and natural world can provide solace. Years ago, my grandmother told me that during times of war, art, particularly paintings of natural spaces, provided a sense of solace and comfort for her and many of her friends. They were able to manage the daily terror they experienced by losing themselves in artistic endeavors. In the 21st century, most people spent more than 90 % of their time indoors, we find ourselves more alienated from nature than ever before. Could the growing prevalence of anxiety, loneliness, isolation, and meaninglessness be related to our growing alienation with nature?

I have previously written about evolving therapies such as forest bathing, eco-therapy, and eco-psychology, theories and practice that focus on the embeddedness of our well-being with the natural world. Clearly nature contributes to human flourishing. How does art, literature, philosophy, creativity, music, poetry help provide comfort and loss in times of existential loneliness, isolation, and suffering? Like creativity, the natural environment can provide comfort during times of existential anxiety. Encounters with nature increase well-being, meaning, and transcendence. Our sense of self is developed and reaffirmed by interactions with others and by the natural world. Eco-psychology focuses on the ways that, even our consciousness, is shaped by the natural world. The natural world, with the cycle of birth, life, and death, and rebirth, can provide us with solace and understanding when faced with our own and others mortality.

Jasmin Tahmaseb McConatha
Jasmin Tahmaseb McConatha

Existential psychologists such as Eric Fromm, Rollo May and others have written about the human need to be linked to nature. Never have those messages been more powerful than in contemporary times. My recent encounters with multiple losses have compelled me to revisit the existential psychologists and philosophers, who in the face of personal loss and suffering, wrote compellingly of the need to find meaning in the natural world and of the need to refocus attention on nature to find meaning and purpose in life.

Yalom (1980) wrote of existential anxieties including the loss of meaning, a sense of isolation, a lack of freedom, and fear of death. Connecting to nature can allow us to transcend our own and others’ mortality. Existential loneliness makes us aware of our fragility and our separateness from others, particularly others who are no longer with us, awareness of our separateness leads to anxiety and fear. Uniting with nature, on the other hand, can allow us to transcend our aloneness and lead to feeling connected. It can serve as a powerful source of healing.

“The loss of relation to nature goes hand in hand with the loss of the sense of one’s own self.” (Rollo May, 1953)


Erikson, E. (1993) Childhood and Society. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company

May, R. (1953). Man's Search for Himself. New York: Norton.

May, R. (Ed.). (1960). Existential psychology. New York: Random House.

Yalom, I.D. (1980) Existential Psychotherapy. London, England: Basic Books

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