Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 72(2) May 2022

Loneliness, Euthanasia, and the Wholeness of Human Personhood:
Part I of III: Loneliness to “Aloneness”

Francis Etheredge

In this first piece, a personal account of loneliness is then set in a contemporary context and differ-entiated from an aloneness with God. Subsequent parts will be published in future editions of the Catholic Medical Quarterly.

“Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses’[1].

At first sight it may seem that loneliness and euthanasia, the deliberate killing of another human being at his or her request, have nothing in com-mon; but, both because of the literature on the subject and the links between the desire to die, the problem of the meaning of human experience or its abandonment, it becomes clear that there is a common pursuit which, if neglected, leads to death: an ontological death. This ontological death of the desire to live, search and find the meaning of our lives is, literally, a dead end. What we need is to be set in motion: to set out, once again, on the path of life and, possibly, this will give us a purpose in what we both hope to receive and, to-gether with what we have discovered, we will need to share with others. What, precisely, coagulates or configures for each one of us may vary; it would be impossible to imagine that it would be otherwise – but the common element is that of going towards death, ennui, a trial of the meaninglessness of life and discovering or being discovered that the experience is so meaningful that it must be shared.

Loneliness-in-context [1]

At the beginning of secondary school, scarcely aware of what was required for the “11 plus exam”, I went to a grammar school and began to fail. It was the practice to punish failure with a public, and sometimes private caning; and, although en-during these humiliations outwardly, I resolved not to cry and thus ensued a kind of psychological suffocation of the suffering I experienced. At four-teen, a few years later, I both ran away briefly to London and really did not know why except that I was unhappy and, around the same time, I tried to commit suicide but, in front of the possibility of meeting Jesus Christ and the apostles as judges, I was afraid and started drinking water to dilute the tablets that I had taken. At the time, I never talked about the experience of humiliation, neither did I admit that I did not understand our classwork, nor could I see the point in school; and, no matter how many times I changed classes, to begin with none of my choices made sense and I frequently abandoned the courses that I had chosen to do.

What is loneliness?

In my own experience I discovered loneliness at about sixteen, although I had suffered from it for some years in a more hidden way. I discovered loneliness living in a bedsit in London. Having come home from gambling at college, having lost my bus fare, and therefore having had to walk home, my father said as I was not working – why didn’t I give up on my courses and get a job? Within a few hours, then, I had hitched up to London, some fifty years ago; and although I had had a sister who lived nearby, she had a boyfriend and I hardly ever saw her. So, in what did this loneliness consist?

In the first place, this was more or less my first time “out of my family” and, therefore, it was my first experience of being away from the presence of my parents and the coming and going of my brothers and sisters – I was the third of seven and four of my siblings were at home with me. Although I did not realize it until I was on my own, I was clearly undeveloped in many ways. While I had played football at home I had no knowledge of the game, neither did I follow it nor did I have friends with whom I talked about it; I simply played it. Not reading, either books or newspapers, not going to the cinema or to theatres, neither a part of any group or conscious of any interests, it was very clear to me that I was “friendless”; in-deed, the very basis of friendship, of having interests or an outlook or something in common with others, was simply not present. What transpired, then, was that outside of working in an office as a very junior member of staff, I either played table tennis at work or led a very solitary existence of batting a ball against a wall near where I lived, shopping and starting to read. I had taken some picture-paints to London but I never used them.

You could say that just as an octopus depends on its suckers to anchor it to objects, so a denuded person, a person without interests, was like a “sucker-less” octopus and therefore was unable to be-in -relationship to others. In essence, then, there are many facets to being faceless and unable to enter into contact with others but the primary two, as I experienced them, is the proud denial of suffering and, therefore, the “unshareable” interiorized suffering and, more generally, the undiscovered nature of who I was, what my interests were and who I was willing to share this with.

The stripped octopus grows suckers [2]

It is particularly evident that now, some fifty years later, surrounded by a wife and eight children, numerous other people, whether neighbors, members of the Church, correspondents or people I pass in the street when delivering papers with my children, that there are so many points of contact, from simply saying “good morning”, pass-ing comments on the day to being more or less immersed in so many ongoing conversations about people’s lives and interests that it is abundantly clear to me that I am no longer a smooth octopus incapable of clinging to anyone or anything. Indeed, if anything, there are now so many possi-bilities in a day for brief or more extended exchanges with people that it is a matter of making sure that I do some work while attending to the needs of those around me and simply sharing the brightness and beauty of a flecked pink sky, spotting a particularly able snail that has climbed several feet up into the bean plants or the discovery of growing cabbages from what is normally a discarded part of it [3].

It is particularly important to me to be “taxi-dad”, to talk before bedtime and prayers with our children, heeding the advice of St. Don Bosco that this is a “providential time” to converse with them as well as to be up at breakfast to joke and talk with them before school. In other words, being aware and sensitive to my wife and children is a constant and wonderfully worthwhile ingredient of every day.

The social context of the times in which we live (II)

There are two types of relationship, as it were, somewhat conflated under “loneliness”: a loneli-ness leading to “aloneness” with God and a loneliness leading to death. In positive terms, then, we are created through relationship – for relationship; and, if this is radically frustrated – a desire to die manifests how profoundly our nature is orientated to being with another or an “Other”.

Right from earliest times Aristotle recognised that man is a social animal; and, even if we wish to take exception to comparing man with an animal, ex-cept as animated by a soul, the point of the gift of relationship is nevertheless made by him. Nevertheless, the nature of man is brought out more deeply by understanding that the whole history of the modern term, person, is really derived from understanding that the being of man, based as it is on the mystery of the Blessed Trinity, is really that to be a person is to be a being-in-relationship [4]. Indeed, in Genesis we discover that God Himself addresses the social nature of man in terms of both the virtue, the strength, of the com-panionship of marriage and, by implication, the suffering of being alone: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone’ (Gn 2: 18).

However, this does not suppose that the only two relationships are marriage or the religious life; but, more widely, it does imply that relationships are of their nature of real love: self-giving love: ‘God is love’: ‘Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being’[5].

Loneliness leading to “aloneness”

If man is a ‘religious being’[6], then understanding what a person experiences will depend on his or her openness to the full range of human meaning.

There is an “aloneness” with God – even if, at times, that aloneness with God requires God to dramatically sustain the person who is “alone” with Him; and, therefore, when Elijah was fleeing for his life and was ready to die, from both exhaus-tion and a sense of being humanly alone, God sent an angel to give him food for the journey, indeed a very Eucharistic gift: ‘a cake baked on hot stones and a jar of water’ – not once but twice (1 Kings 19:1-9): a gift, ultimately, leading to an encounter with God Himself (cf. 1 Kings, 19: 9-18).

However, this “aloneness” is of its nature a relationship and indeed may well involve the communion of saints and their intercession: St. John of the Cross, although long since dead was, through his writing, a source of strength for St. Thérèse of Lisieux ‘in her deep loneliness’[7]. Indeed, even in the difficult circumstances of her life as a contemplative nun, St. Thérèse discovered that ‘her vocation was love and this embraced all vocations’[8].

At the same time, however, marriage is not exempt from this kind of loneliness or “aloneness”, which is defined by an intense inability to communicate the estrangement that is taking place in a marriage when, for a variety of reasons, a person does not feel understood by his or her spouse. One of the most helpful antidotes to this is to accept that this is a human experience, even if profoundly painful, and is encompassed by Mary, the Mother of the Lord, at the foot of the cross and indeed by the Lord Himself on the cross [9]. In other words, the principal that psychological development is facilitated by sharing our personal experience goes on being necessary throughout life, whether a person is married or not.

Finally, there is a desire to die which is not pathological but is, as it were, integral to the relationship between ourselves and God and is referred to by the saints themselves. St. Martin of Tours, apparently ready to go to God, was yet moved by the ‘pleading’ of his brothers in religion and prayed: ‘Lord, if I am still needed by your people, I will not refuse the work. Your will be done’[10]. Again, for St. Paul this desire to die was not to be rid of this life so much as to be with God (cf. Philippians, 1:19-26). To be led, then, to a death leading to the fullness of eternal life with outstretched gratitude, as it were, and a longing to meet the Lord of Life, to be in the company of those who have gone before and, indeed, to be accompanied by our guardian angel as we come into the presence of the all enflaming God – is a celebration of life and not a negation of the life lived and the people with whom it has been lived!


  1. Cf. Blessed Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi, 41, quoted on p. 28 (paragraph 22), of the preliminary document, Lineamenta: Synod of Bishops: XIII Or-dinary General Assembly: The New Evangelization for the Transmission of the Christian Faith.
  2. I did not marry until I was forty and the account of the deterioration, the wandering and searching, the suffering and the redemptive word of God and the progress of family life that this change implies is in various books: Volume I-III of a trilogy: From Truth and truth; The Human Person: A Bioethical Word; The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends; The Prayerful Kiss; Rust and Gold; Within Reach of You: A Book of Prose and Prayers, all pub-lished by En Route Books and Media over recent years etc.
  3. Cf. Francis Etheredge, Prayers of An Unlikely Gardener, forthcoming from En Route Books and Media (probably, 2022).
  4. Cf. Cardinal Ratzinger, “Concerning the notion of person in theology”:; and cf. Francis Etheredge, The Human Person: A Bioethical Word: [5]St. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 11, but also the end of 16.
  5. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, 28; here-after, CCC.
  6. John O’Brien, OFM, The Darkness Shall Be the Light, p. 198.
  7. John O’Brien, OFM, The Darkness Shall Be the Light, p. 193.
  8. One particular weekend away with the Neocatechumenal Way involved the introduction of the song, “Sola a Solo”, “Alone with the Alone”; and, as a part of it, we were invited to share this kind of experience.
  9. From “A reading from the letters of Sulpicius Severus” on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, p. 390* of Volume III of The Divine Office: The Liturgy of the Hours According to the Roman Rite, published by Collins, Glasgow, Dwyer, Sydney and Talbot, Dublin, 1974.