Coping with Grief when an Elderly Spouse, Parent or Friend Dies
My best friend’s father (Bob) died about three weeks ago, just 10 days after his 95th birthday. He left behind three sons, two daughters and his 91-year-old wife. His memory and his ability to walk had been failing gradually for several years, but a few months ago a stroke left him wheelchair-bound and unable to carry on a coherent conversation. Because his wife and my single friend who lives with her parents could no longer care for him, he spent the remainder of his days in a VA care center. Because of their belief in a better life after death, the family considered his death a blessing, but still it is not hard to see that they are each grieving in different ways.
My friend and her mom were Bob’s primary caregivers. Judy Tatelbaum, MSW, says in an article titled After Caregiving Ends, “There is a natural sense of loss when the need for our caregiving is over. We must often face the double sorrow of losing a loved one and our purpose or role in their lives. The aftermath can be a very difficult time that leaves us feeling lost, lonely, and useless…..It is possible that we’ll feel relief that we don’t have to work so hard any longer, and then feel a sense of guilt for feeling such relief…. All of these are natural reactions. It is important to express our sadness, anger, loneliness, regret, and whatever else we may feel. It is also important that we listen to ourselves and appreciate what we feel as we go through the mourning process.” (We will cover the topic of Caregiver Grief more completely in a future blog.)
Stages of Grief
In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about the “five stages of grief.”
- Denial:“This can’t be happening to me.”
- Anger:“Why is this happening? Who is to blame?”
- Bargaining:“Make this not happen, and in return I will ____.”
- Depression:“I’m too sad to do anything.”
- Acceptance:“I’m at peace with what happened.”
Authors Melinda Smith and Jeanne Segal said in an article titled, Coping with Grief and Loss, “Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to go through each stage in order to heal. And if you do go through these stages of grief, you probably won’t experience them in a neat, sequential order, so don’t worry about what you ‘should’ be feeling or which stage you’re supposed to be in…. Kübler-Ross, herself, said of the five stages of grief: ‘They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.’”
Help for Coping with Grief
Because Grief is made up of many different emotions that can be different for each individual, meaningful advice on how to cope with grief is difficult to give. If you or a loved one is grieving, you will have to pick and choose between a myriad of suggestions. The important thing is to Do Something that helps you. As my friend’s mom wisely said, “I’m trying not to wallow in it.” Here are some widely accepted ideas from a variety of sources. (See Resources below.)
- Acknowledge your pain and actively grieve and mourn. Trying to avoid feelings of sadness and loss only prolongs the grieving process and can lead to depression, anxiety and other problems.
- Look to and accept the support of loved ones and others. Now is the time to lean on the people who care about you, even if you take pride in being strong and self-sufficient.
- Don’t make major decisions while grieving. Don’t decide to do things like move, change your profession, make major purchases or give up possessions until you are more emotionally stable.
- Take care of your physical and emotional needs. If you feel good physically, you’ll also feel better emotionally. Combat stress and fatigue by getting enough sleep, eating right, and exercising.
- Draw comfort from your faith. If you’re questioning your faith in the wake of the loss, talk to a clergy member or others in your religious community.
- Write about your loss in a journal or a letter saying the things you never got to say. Make a scrapbook or photo album celebrating the person’s life.
- Your grief is your own. Don’t let anyone else tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” It’s okay to be angry, to cry or not to cry. It’s also okay to laugh and to find moments of joy.
- Plan ahead for grief “triggers.”Anniversaries, holidays, and milestones can be painful. Be prepared for an emotional wallop, and know that it’s completely normal.
- Contact a grief counselor or professional therapist if you:
- Feel like life isn’t worth living
- Wish you had died with your loved one
- Blame yourself for the loss or for failing to prevent it
- Feel numb and disconnected from others for more than a few weeks
- Are having difficulty trusting others since your loss
- Are unable to perform your normal daily activities
Many different aspects of losing a loved one can cause one to experience grief. My friend is grieving for the loss of her father and her role as his caregiver, for her mother as she struggles to cope with the loss of her husband, for the “new normal” of caregiving she and her mother have to work out together, and for the losses that are making change necessary in both of their lives. Your grief also may be coming from a variety of sources. Even though others have not experienced exactly what you are going through, now is the time to put pride aside and reach out for support and comfort from any source that is available.