Coping With Grief
“Right after her death, it
seemed as if I went into a trance. Martha was so much a part of my life.
Now it’s almost six months and I am still tortured by memories of her,
particularly when I am around the house and come across some of her
personal things. All of her clothes are still in the house, as are her
mementos. I keep them there to remind myself of how lucky I was to have
had a woman like that...Losing her has made me realize that there are
still parts of myself that I don’t understand.” (Liebermann, M. (1996)
Doors close, Doors Open, New York: C.P. Putnams’s Sons, page 184).
Death is what we usually equate with loss and grief. Grief is the term
used for the emotional response to a loss that a person has experienced.
However, there are many types of losses that one can experience that are
just as tragic and devastating to a person, young or old. These losses
include: the loss of ones home when moving to a retirement facility, the
loss of friends who move away, the loss of ones professional identity upon
retirement or even the loss of ones’ role such as mother when becoming an
‘empty nester’. People of all ages can feel the effects of grieving and
One notable point about grief, is that it can have a cumulative effect.
This is why many older adults can suffer the effects of loss and grieving
so profoundly. Older adults are particularly vulnerable to loss and the
complications of grief. When you consider the above mentioned losses in
addition to the loss of senses and physical ability, the effect on ones
mental health and well being can be staggering.
Experts including Erich Lindemann (1944) , William Worden (1991) and
Teresa Rando (1992-1993) have tried to identify and quantify various
stages and phases of grief and loss. Often called ‘task theories’, they
attempt to outline the grieving process one must go through in order to
return to a meaningful and functional life. Understanding normal stages
can help both professionals and lay persons alike assist loved ones
through the grieving process.
Generally speaking, the experts suggest that a person should:
1. Accept the loss,
2. Work through the pain,
3. Make adjustments to life without the person or loss.
While this is good advice,
the reality is when one is in emotional pain, seeing the way through is
often impossible. Although there are many good books and pamphlets,
encouraging someone who is in the grieving process to read and comprehend
the message is next to impossible.
I have worked with many families; elders and children alike in grief
support groups here in Jacksonville and in St. Augustine, and the pain and
despair that people can feel is overwhelming at times. Often family
members and friends who want to help, do not know what to do. Below are a
few tips or ideas that may assist you and your family when you go through
losses in your life.
Tips for the grieving persons family and friends
Spend time with the grieving person. Try to remind the person that
you are there if they need you. Don’t expect them to act like their ‘old
selves’ at this time. Let them just be who they feel like, without feeling
like they need to be strong for everyone else. The best of friends cannot
really change the elders situation. You cannot change history, you cannot
restore the loss. What you can do is to remind the person of your
dedication to them.
Don’t pretend to have all of the answers. You may know someone that
always feels like they have to give an answer when spoken to...you may
feel like that yourself in an uncomfortable situation. Sometimes just
allowing someone to talk through their feelings is enough. Sometimes it
has to be enough. Often there are no answers.
I remember working with a
family who was trying to help their newly widowed mother adjust to
moving into an Assisted Living facility. They seldom mentioned the
status of the mothers’ home - which was for sale, they seldom mentioned
their father, who had passed away seven months earlier, and usually
talked about trivial topics and superficial issues.
When I spent time with the elder, she said that she desperately wanted
to talk of her home and husband, even though it made her feel sad and
she usually cried. She stated her children never spoke about things that
mattered to her. When I spoke to the children, they reported avoiding
sad subjects because they did not want their mother to cry and feel sad!
They stated that she had to stay where she was, and the whole discussion
was futile and upsetting to the mother.
Talk about sad
subjects...don’t always wait for the elder to bring up the topic.
Often we feel that if we do not mention sad subjects to those in pain, we
are sparing them the pain. In actuality, we may be adding to their pain,
as they may need to talk and express their feelings. My feeling is that
widowed spouses and those grieving are thinking of their loved ones and
losses anyway. Bringing up subjects into everyday conversation only shows
people that we care for them.
Watch for undiagnosed complicated grief. Many older adults often go
without seeking any kind of emotional assistance. Having grown up in an
era that was not accepting of mental distress and therapeutic support
systems; afraid of being labeled ‘crazy’, they deny needing help. Often
elders will report to their physician ambiguous symptoms, aches, or pains,
as this physical pain is more acceptable. For this reason, diagnosis for
grief and its’ complications can be very difficult. Prolonged reactions to
grief and depression can lead to more physician maladies. Untreated, these
overwhelming feelings can lead to suicide risk. It is a fact that the
suicide rate for older adults is three times that of the general
Don’t lie or offer false hope to the grieving person. I feel that
you should be as truthful as possible to the grieving person. Even if
there is some dementia and confusion, the truth is usually the best
policy. In addition, it is not good to offer false hope about future
changes or options, if the options are not probable. For instance, if an
elder is having difficulty accepting the loss of their home and subsequent
move to a retirement home, it would not be wise to convince them that the
move is temporary, if it is not. People need to accept the loss and move
on if possible. A loss can not be accepted if it is not seen as final.
Look to the past for predicted outcomes. I am a firm believer that
people don’t change. Look to your family history to see how pain and loss
was dealt with in the past. If you are looking for a possible prediction
for grief and loss reactions, think to the elders history. Although the
past is not a perfect predictor of ones reactions, it may assist the
family in preparation. Chances are that you may gather some valuable
In spite of everything I’ve stated, sometimes avoidance is the best
policy! If you are dealing with an elder that is not reasonable
- in the true sense of the word - don’t try to confront or clarify. There
may be many reasons that someone is not able to reason or grow through
their pain. If your elder has a mental incapacity because of their health,
if they have a history of poor coping skills, or have historically dealt
with pain in unhealthy ways, now is not the time for family therapy or
confrontation. Perhaps your physician can offer help with medication. Let
your elder verbalize their feelings and offer the best support that you
Tips for the Grieving person:
Feel the Pain. I know this sounds somewhat corny, but it is easier
to move through the phases of grieving when denial is not the goal. Try
not to avoid the issue if you are able to deal with it. Many times we pass
up opportunities to experience pain and the growth that can accompany it.
Avoid grief delaying options. If you have recently experienced
losses in your life, take some time for yourself to see if there is
something you can learn. Avoid alcohol or drugs if possible. Most experts
agree that one needs to work through their pain eventually. Dulling the
senses may only delay the grief work.
Ask for and accept help from others. Often asking for help is
difficult. Look around at your friends and support systems in your life.
Try to match your needs with your friends natural gifts. Don’t expect
everyone to understand what you are going through. In fact, most will not
truly understand. This may be the time to rekindle old friendships or
reunite with your church or family.
Seek professional help. Sometimes it may be necessary to get help
from someone outside of your circle of friends. Talk with your physician.
A combination of an anti-depressant coupled with talk therapy, may be able
to help you get past your pain.
Remember that loss can be very painful and it is something that no one
chooses to go through, but as in most things that require hard work, the
benefits and growth can be great. Take time for yourself; allowing
yourself to have good days and bad days. Grieve at your own pace and
remember that time is on your side. Robert Schuller, always the eternal
optimist once said, “Never look at what you have lost, rather at what you
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Articles written by Gardner Riel, owner and founder of ElderLink.
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