Facing Grief in the Senior Years.

By Dr William G Hoy (Counsellor and Educator)

The readjustment of life after significant loss is an experience we call grief.  While it has become popular to talk about grief in terms of a handful of stages one passes through, terms like “phases”, “steps”, or “stages” do not adequately describe how the process works.  Instead, grief is about finding a new way to live again after a life-shattering loss.  Grief is really about learning to live well in a world radically changed by the death of this loved person.

So, you might be wondering, how exactly does one adapt to life after such a devastating loss?  This question is particularly poignant when relationships are measured in decades rather than months or years.  Bereavement in older life can also be more difficult because of the common challenges of decreased mobility, health concerns and the isolation of living alone.  The following ideas will help you as you make your way through this experience.

Grieve in your own way and your time.
Some people join support groups and easily express their emotions in words, while others find it better to get busy with tasks like cleaning out the garage or getting involved in a cause or hobby.  While grief always involves a “bouncing” between confronting the loss and rebuilding life, the grief process for you is greatly shaped by your personality, circumstances of the loss, your personal ways of coping with difficulty, prior experiences with loss and the nature of the relationship you had with the person who died. Because the nature of the relationship is so different, adult children, for example, have very different experiences from widowed parents, even though both face the death of the same person.

Moreover, the person who died need not be “family” to cause you distress.  Many seniors become deeply connected with a group of special friends.  Whether through a church group, a hobby club, or a “gang” at the retirement home, the loss of these people can deeply penetrate the heart.  Because their life mattered, so does their death.

Remember not everyone’s advice is sound.
Well-meaning friends and family members might be telling you to “move on” and that your loved one would “not want you carrying on like this”.  The experience of loss stays with us forever, and while the pain is not likely as intense today as it was at the beginning, it still is present.  Holidays, anniversaries and other special days often cause difficulty for many years.

Even when they are not exactly sure how, your adult children and others want to help.
Family members especially have a difficult time watching you suffer and long for you to “be your old self again”.  You may find yourself needing to teach these well-meaning people about the ways different people grieve.  Remember that even when people in your life do not know exactly how, they want to help.

Find a way to connect and serve others.
Though no one really “gets over” a loss, the pain lessens.  Gradually you will find yourself able to laugh and enjoy life again, even if that is not your experience today.  Faith groups, social service agencies and health care organisations are always looking for volunteers.  Look for ways to connect with others while volunteering for a worthwhile organisation whose mission you embrace.

Find support that is meaningful for you.
While grief is unique for each individual, do not think you must go it alone or that “no one else could understand what I’m going through”.  In fact, thousands of people have found friendship and camaraderie in bereavement support groups.  You can ask funeral service professionals, clergy or hospice workers for suggestions on finding a group that fits your needs best.  Some bereavement support groups meet for a specific number of weeks while other are more open-ended.  Groups come a variety of sizes and types, including very specific groups such as widowed men, bereaved parents and those whose loved ones have died from a specific cause, such as suicide.

Keep in mind though, that your best support might be one you already know.  A study group in your faith community, a hobby club, or simply a coffee club at the café may include people who provide supportive care and a listening ear.  Allow those who have known you the best to provide as much support as possible.

In addition to group support, some bereaved people benefit from a discussion with a specialised counsellor. 
While bereavement shares some common features with and is often confused with depression, most grieving people are not clinically depressed.  Depressed people often persistently feel completely hopeless and even sometimes contemplate taking their own life.  If you find yourself with these symptoms, or if you just want to talk to a counsellor to gain some perspective on your loss, you will find these specialised professionals to be invaluable.  Ask your doctor, clergyperson or aged care staff for a referral.

Grief is a long term process from which we do not just magically “recover”.  But grief is made much easier when accompanied by supportive companions to share the bereavement journey.  There is life after loss.