Feelings of loneliness have skyrocketed during the coronavirus lockdowns. This two part article explores how one Amsterdammer equipped herself with tools to heal loneliness and help others do so as well. 

Searching on the Internet how to help neighbours during the pandemic, I stumbled on the Burennetwerk. Founded in 2012, this non-profit organisation aims to connect people with neighbours in need of help, such as taking them on walks around the block, keeping company, or helping with grocery shopping. 

I signed up for walks and within a few weeks, was matched with an elderly lady only 10 minutes away by bike from me. We made an appointment to meet and on the day of our first meeting, per the instructions from Burennetwerk, I waited for her outside, wearing a mask and keeping my distance… but I was invited to come inside and sit down for a chat! Mrs B, an energetic and strong-willed elderly lady from Bonnaire, was keen to get to know me. It only took a few minutes for us to understand each other, despite my mask and French accent and her Bonnaire tinged Dutch accent. She was visibly delighted to have company. 

“There are so many old people who are alone in the Netherlands… Life is hard and evenings are so lonely!”, she sighs. 

This remarkable woman came to the Netherlands 30 years ago with her husband, following their 6 sons, who were already studying here. She worked as a cleaner and really liked her job. Tragedy has hit her life multiple times: losing a son to cancer and then later her husband to a disease (both of their portraits are in the living room, close to her television, which she watches all day long). She was living in the Bijlmer in 1992 and witnessed the Netherlands’ worst air disaster there  – the crash of a Boeing 747 into an apartment building that killed 43 people. Traumatised by what she saw, Mrs. B was relocated by the Municipality of Amsterdam to her present home. Although she feels well looked after in the Netherlands, the older she gets, and especially since the coronavirus pandemic, the lonelier she feels. “There are so many old people who are alone in the Netherlands…. Life is hard and evenings are so lonely!”, she sighs. 

Her sons try to come during weekends, however they all have families and live far away. She is on a waiting list to move to an elderly home, in the hope of having more company. “Please pray for me that I get a place, in the name of Jesus!”, she says while looking at her ceiling, in search of a divine intervention.

I walked with her for a few weeks. Then she fell in her shower and can’t go outside anymore and has a difficult time pushing her walker. Most of the time, she doesn’t feel like eating. She feels too lonely. I’ve brought some cookies and try to cheer her up. Next week, we’ll try to walk again. And a few weeks later, we’ll try to cross the road to the Aldi and get chocolates together. She likes that idea. It makes her smile. 

If you are interested in volunteering to help out people in your neighbourhood in some way, please contact the Burrennetwerk. Volunteers can specify in their profile how far they want to travel and in which language they want to help. For social help, it’s easier if one can speak a few Dutch words. For practical help, English is totally fine.

Collective Loneliness : The Disaster of the 21st century?

Fresh from her experience with Mrs. B, Annick Noirfalisse participated in an online Brainwash festival, “Collective Loneliness”  to learn about loneliness in modern society and ways to combat it.

We are continuously connected to each other, yet we are lonelier than ever. Why is that so? 

According to Paul Verhaeghe, psychologist and Professor at the University of Ghent in Belgium, interviewed during the online Brainwash festival on “Collective Loneliness” in Amsterdam, loneliness has arisen from the way our society is organised, as well as increased social distrust. 

 “[Our competitive] system makes us sick. And that’s not an ideological argument, it’s evolutionary biology.” ~ Professor Paul Verhaeghe

“Competition with others begins at school, with the culture of tests and performance. Kids in Belgium and in the Netherlands are tested very early on, on their capacities and talents.  That’s how the rat race is installed.” 

Professor Verhaeghe reminds us we are social animals and we live in groups, “…[Our competitive] system makes us sick. And that’s not an ideological argument, it’s evolutionary biology”. 

Competition also can create  an unhealthy relationship with our bodies. “Our bodies have to be perfect; we have to be young and sexy. It’s not a good intimate relationship; it’s a competitive relationship. We always have to do better. It’s never good enough.” 

The psychologist faults how we use social media for our collective loneliness, and not only social media itself.  He also points out that we are in a historical transition, as evidenced by the breakdown of the nuclear family. We are in a gradual transition towards new forms of coexistence and as of now there are no clear answers. This also contributes to loneliness.

“Now, when people reach out to me for therapy, they openly say “I feel lonely” and that, for me, is a win. As long as we are not in denial, things will start feeling better soon.” ~ Vassia Sarantopoulou

So what can one do to fight loneliness? Here are a few tips:

1. Get to know your body. Listen to it, be kind towards it, and enjoy it. “If you feel good about yourself, it will be easier to make the step towards others and build relationships. The risk of solitude will then be a bit less” says Professor Verhaeghe. 

2. Join a helpful social project with a few people at the local level, to regain a sense of purpose. Volunteering can start as locally as…with your next-door neighbour. “A big problem is that people are not seen by their neighbours”, says Jasmijn van Katwijk, Communications Manager of Burennetwerk. 

3. Give it time. advises Vassia Sarantopoulou, head psychologist and founder of AntiLoneliness. No acquaintance becomes a friend within a day. “We all come from relationships where we have been hurt and rejected, so we all need some time in order to trust again. Be creative – think out of the box. Everything is possible. We just need to stop the negative, demotivating, self-sabotaging thoughts that get in the way.”

4. Normalise loneliness. “It’s a normal feeling”, says Vassia. It’s meant to be felt by us, human beings, and it signals the absence of something important: connection. The feeling of loneliness bears a healthy message: we need to bring connection back to our lives. 

5. Recognise the negative thinking behind loneliness and reverse it. “One should understand that thoughts such as ‘Nobody likes me’, ‘I am not important’, etc., will lead to more isolation, and we need to question and dispute these thoughts. A therapist may help a lot with this”, Vassia says. Sometimes people are ashamed of loneliness. This stigma has been changing recently as it affects everyone: teenagers, young adults, single parents, divorcees, grieving people, expats…Loneliness is everywhere. “Now, when people reach out to me for therapy, they openly say “I feel lonely” and that, for me, is a win. As long as we are not in denial, things will start feeling better soon.” 

Annick Noirfalisse

Annick Noirfalisse is a Belgian mum of three, who has worked for more than ten years as a journalist in Switzerland, London, and Amsterdam, covering economics, finance, societal, environmental, and health issues. She's also a French language teacher and translator, who loves Japanese food, doing sports, and nature walks in her spare time.