On August 30th, the country observes National Grief Awareness Day, a momentous event bringing attention to a complex subject. Grief is different for everyone, and there are many ways to cope with the inevitable losses we experience as we grow older.
For seniors, grief is a leading cause of depression. As they age, seniors experience grief on different levels, including the loss of loved ones and the loss of independence.
To fully care for their mental health, we must realize that coping with difficult emotions, like grief, is just as important as generating positive ones. It’s essential to understand how grief can impact seniors and what risks may be associated with traumatic life events.
You might be familiar with the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While this is the most widespread emotion model, grief is much less linear and far more complex.
It is best to describe grief as an experience rather than an emotion. Grief can include sorrow, despair, anguish, and loss, but it can also produce feelings of acceptance, relief, and gratefulness for time spent with a loved one.
Grief is a culmination of a life shared with someone else; it is the process of adapting to a new life and establishing new norms after losing a person we deeply love or care for.
Grief can also be unrelated to losing someone and tied to the real or perceived loss of control or normalcy. Seniors who experience sudden injuries, for example, often lose independence and go through a period of grief as they struggle to adjust to their new limitations.
It is important to remember that healing from grief does not mean forgetting someone. Instead, it is learning to see the full scale of that person’s life and appreciate their influence on our own.
While our focus is on senior health, National Grief Awareness Day matters for everyone who has ever lost something or someone. Grief can be incredibly isolating, often driving people into depression and depriving them of support when they need it the most.
This day reminds us not to hide our pain but instead to use it to reach out and connect with others. It encourages us to be there for people who may be suffering, however quietly, and remember that grief does not always look or feel like we expect.
Grief creates a domino effect. Watching a loved one mourn can be equally as painful in a different way. Grief impacts the entire family by altering norms, changing roles, and redefining perceptions.
While people grieve, they are often unable to behave as they usually do. People around them may feel hurt or confused by their behavior, leading to conflict, sadness, and regret.
Many family members watching a loved one go through grief often experience guilt for not being able to alleviate their pain.
Seniors face unique challenges when they mourn, and traumatic events that cause grief can jeopardize their physical health just as much as their emotional well-being.
Many seniors who experience grief have changes in their sleep, appetite, and blood pressure and are generally less physically active. These effects can lead to health complications for those with underlying health conditions.
The Center for Grief Therapy explains that grief can lead to further cognitive impacts among older adults, as the typical confusion of grief can result in more severe disorganization. Adults with dementia or Alzheimer’s may become even more traumatized by grief as they cannot fully comprehend the loss or process their emotions like they used to.
The compounded isolation of grief can also be particularly damaging to senior health. While we all experience varying degrees of loneliness after loss, seniors are especially prone to find themselves without any support after losing someone they love.
Losing a spouse of decades completely alters a person’s sense of self and feeling of belonging in the world. Outliving family and friends can leave someone feeling lost and fearful.
By recognizing these unique challenges seniors face, we can better support and guide them through grief, so they can heal and ultimately find meaning in their pain.
These strategies can help you or a loved one cope with the different types of grief we experience through aging.
After losing a lifetime partner, seniors will likely need more company and support. Allow them to process the loss on their terms — some may wish to talk about their spouse frequently, while others may not speak much of them at all. Let them set the guidelines for how they want to remember their partner.
Usually, seniors grieving a spouse’s loss will need time to become comfortable speaking about them again. This is normal, and the best thing you can do is stand by them. However, don’t shy away from talking about their loved one. This person’s life was more than just its end; sharing memories can help people recognize that.
Losing your parent or grandparent is never something you’re ready for, no matter how long they were in poor health or how old they became. While it may be a blessing to have spent so many years beside them, losing them can change your entire perspective on life itself.
Give yourself time to process the loss, and recognize that it’s okay if you aren’t feeling everything you think you should.
Caregivers may even feel a sense of relief after looking after a sick loved one for a long time; this naturally makes them feel guilty as well, which is a normal feeling. Just know that this relief does not mean you did not love them or are happy that they’re gone.
Spend time with family and friends, and talk about your parent or grandparent. You may also consider attending grief counseling with a licensed therapist to help you process the loss and move forward with support and guidance.
As seniors age, they lose long-time friends, siblings, and other relatives. These losses can make them fearful of their age, and it’s important to help them gradually overcome this fear. Be present, and do activities together that allow them to live fully in the moment.
In addition to fondly recalling memories of loved ones, you can memorialize them in different ways. You might invite your loved ones to plant flowers in honor of their loved ones or create a scrapbook together.
We also suggest contacting a therapist if your loved one is not coping with the losses well or moving through their grief. Mental health support can be invaluable for anyone, especially older adults who feel alone and are perhaps unsure how to reach out for help.
Reflections Management and Care is here to support you and your loved ones however you may need, including coping with grief. Please get in touch with us today to learn more about our senior healthcare and management services.