Sharing stories of loneliness can help connect people — perhaps now more than ever

Three years after starting a project that collected personal stories about loneliness, Marissa Korda has seen the COVID-19 pandemic thrust the issue into the spotlight.

Marissa Korda collected stories, submitted anonymously, on her website The Loneliness Project

Home page of The Loneliness Project, a site by Marissa Korda. Readers can submit their personal stories of loneliness. Korda posted 300 of them to the page, with each apartment linking to one person's story. (The Loneliness Project)

Three years after starting a project that collected personal stories about loneliness, Marissa Korda has seen the COVID-19 pandemic thrust the issue into the spotlight.

"It's unfortunately still extremely topical, if not more so than ever," she said.

Korda, a graphic designer based in Toronto, started the project to help people connect with each other by anonymously sharing their stories about loneliness.

Some of the stories are posted on The Loneliness Project website, visualized as taking place in an apartment building filled with people living alone.

"When I thought about loneliness, I thought about an apartment building — a tower of rooms with everyone alone in their unit — unable to see their neighbours who were all feeling and doing the same things that they were," Korda explained.

Korda is a graphic designer based in Toronto and creator of The Loneliness Project. (The Loneliness Project)

Over the course of the project, Korda collected more than 2,000 stories from people living in over 75 countries, ranging in age from four to 85 years old.

Korda put The Loneliness Project on indefinite pause in January 2019 to focus on other work. But the form to submit stories remains open, and she still receives a trickle of submissions — with the understanding that while they won't be posted on her site, she will still read them.

That trickle gradually ramped up throughout the pandemic, she said, amid the second wave of cases, coupled with newly-implemented lockdown measures and the holiday season.

Korda said many of the stories she received have similar themes at their core, which haven't changed since she sunsetted the project, or with the pandemic putting loneliness in sharper focus.

"Unfortunately, there is so much loneliness because of the pandemic. But in terms of the stories that I actually get, they're very similar to the stories that I got before," Korda said.

Example of one story posted on The Loneliness Project. Korda sunsetted the project in January 2019, but says she still occasionally receives submissions. (The Loneliness Project)

Korda and audio producer Ellen Payne Smith reached out to some of the people who submitted their stories, and also gathered new stories for the radio version of The Loneliness Project. 

Here are some of those stories.

Jeanette: Alone in a crowd

Jeanette remembers feeling socially ostracized as many teenagers do in the later elementary years.

Because of a local district change, she moved schools between Grade 7 and 8. "But for some programming, I had to go back to the school where a bunch of my friends were still going," she explained.

Jeanette remembers her share of social rejection and ostracization from her days in elementary and high school. What she didn't expect was those frayed social connections to return in her adulthood. (Warren Kay/CBC)

"I can just remember what it felt like to walk down the hall of where I used to go to school with these people and seeing them not acknowledge me and just feeling — yeah, just rejected and alone," she said.

"Now, it's far enough away. I don't know that it matters anymore, but it felt like the end of my world at the time."

Some of those feelings returned years later, however, after her father died. Several former classmates sent her messages of condolences by phone and social media.

She expressed gratitude that they were reaching out, but felt a creeping sense of obligation to reciprocate those greetings to people who she felt had rejected her when they were young.

"[I was] feeling like I need to offer a kindness back that at some point wasn't offered to me," she said.

"That's the way it felt in my head ... that it takes my dad dying for you to want to be my friend?"

Brenda: Loneliness and fear during The Blitz

Brenda Payne traces her feelings about loneliness to her childhood during the Second World War.

At age two, she was separated from her mother to live in the U.K. countryside with her grandparents, where bombings from German fighters were less common.

"I was all on my own there. And they were in their 60s and had no friends who had young children," said Payne, who is producer Ellen Payne Smith's grandmother.

Few noises rang throughout the house, because everyone was listening for the signature whirr of a German plane flying overhead, or the whistle of a bomb dropping nearby.

A policeman and a soldier of the U.K. Home Guard militia walk past vehicles wrecked during a German bombing raid near Marble Arch, London, circa 1940. (Central Press/Getty Images)

"We always ate a meal silently, and we always had the same thing to eat. So loneliness, for me, became associated with simple foods and fear," she said.

If an attack sounded too close, they would hide in a large iron cage in the home that they hoped would protect them. Because of this, Payne says she still feels safe in smaller, enclosed spaces.

More than anything, Payne remembers the loneliness of growing up as a young child without any siblings or friends her age. 

"I would have loved a brother or sister to talk to them and to share that time," she said.

The lonely chapter of her early life ended at the war's end, when she was reunited with her mother.

"My mother was a very neat person, and when she opened the front door, we walked down the little hallway to the kitchen, and she opened it and the sunshine was pouring into my mother's kitchen, neat and tidy and polished and so on," she recalled.

"And I felt so happy. I never felt such happiness as that."

Bernardo: Caught between two worlds

Growing up in Peru, Bernardo was constantly surrounded by family and community.

"My dad was a bishop in the Mormon Church when we were in Peru … [he was] the person who takes care of the whole congregation," he said.

When his family moved to Utah, the Mormon community there likewise embraced them. Before long though, they moved again, to Canada.

Bernardo grew up surrounded by community, including the Mormon Church. But when he learned more about his sexuality, he found himself at a crossroads. (REUTERS/Dylan Martinez)

At age eight, Bernardo was the only Mormon at his school in Vancouver.

"I was the ethnic kid, and the Mormon."

Eventually, he settled into a comfortable rhythm in his new home country: weekly mass at the local Mormon Church, Scouts Canada, and dedicated family time every week.

At age 13, however, Bernardo started to realize he had romantic feelings for boys. The Mormon Church opposes same-sex relationships and marriages. Despite some reversals in policy last year, it remains a contentious topic within the community.

Suddenly, he reached a crossroads in his life.

Having experimented with drugs in high school, he thought it was God's way of punishing him.

"I would pray to God and be like, 'If I promise to stop doing drugs, will you stop making me gay? I don't want to be gay,'" he recalled.

The loneliness and "torment" of second-guessing himself forced him to make a difficult choice: deny his sexuality, or turn his back on the religion and community that he was a part of all his life.

"It's really a heavy feeling to feel like you can't share because you won't be accepted. So that's a very lonely place for yourself. It's like you're on an island with no means of escape," he said.

It wasn't until Bernardo found other people who felt like he did that he felt ready to step away from the Mormon Church, even if it meant creating a rift in his family.

"The best advice I can give to anyone is any time you feel lonely, realize it's temporary. All you have to do is find someone with some level of commonality, because they exist," he said.

Written by Jonathan Ore. CBC Radio special The Loneliness Project produced by Kent Hoffman, Ellen Payne Smith and Marissa Korda.

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