Understanding a Senior Parent’s Grief after Loss of Spouse
We all know that death eventually takes away our loved ones, but knowing that fact doesn’t make it any easier to bear. Your parent lost a spouse, but you lost a parent, making it hard to help them while also helping yourself. People deal with grief and loss in very different ways, so it’s helpful to remember that losing a spouse isn’t the same as losing a parent. However, it is helpful to understand the basics of grief so you can ensure that your parent is headed in the right direction.
Forget the Stages
You’ve likely heard about the stages of grief: denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. While it is beneficial to know what to expect in each stage, take it with a grain of salt. There is no correct order for each stage, and some stages may not ever present themselves. Rather than get caught up with the process, focus on it as a whole. In fact, grief isn’t a process at all – it’s a natural reaction to the loss of a loved one, but for seniors, health problems, loss of independence, and other age-related issues heighten it. Grief can cause physical and mental pain, with some of the most common symptoms being:
· Difficulty sleeping
· Loss of appetite
· Anger at spouse for leaving
· Problems concentrating
· Feelings of numbness and shock
· Personality changes
· Declining health
As your parent deals with their varying emotions, encourage positive self-healing such as joining a grief/support group, creating a memorial, writing a letter to the deceased spouse, and embracing the good and bad emotions. Maintaining their health will be a helpful boost in making it through this time, as the added stress can weaken the immune system and lead to depression. Sometimes the grief may become too much to bear, and your loved one may turn to negative methods of coping such as alcohol or drugs regardless of whether or not they have a history of substance abuse. Watch for signs that they have taken a wrong turn and steer them toward healthier coping methods such as yoga, deep breathing, and exercise.
Focus on Specifics
Grief is a huge beast to tackle, so focus on specific issues or problems as they arise to offer maximum support. Start by giving your parent room to grieve properly. Encourage them to seek out the support of others who have lost a spouse, giving them a chance to talk with someone who understands what they are going through. Your parent may find it helpful to talk with you and reminisce, but keep in mind that the relationship you had with the deceased is very different, and some of the feelings and emotions you experience won’t necessarily match up. This is both expected and normal. Perhaps you could find a parent-child grief group so that the two of you can learn ways to help each other. If you find that your parent is shying away from social situations, ease them back into it by planning events the two of you can look forward to such as a pizza party with the grandkids or listening to a jazz band at the local park.
One of the common symptoms of grief and old age is forgetfulness or difficulty completing routine tasks such as cooking dinner or driving to the store. To ease this new challenge, consider hiring transportation, companionship, or home care. Caregiving is a full-time job, and with the responsibility of taking care of your own family, you might not be able to give your parent your full attention. Hiring help ensures that your parent always gets the help they need, whether it’s something simple like running errands or playing games, or something a little more hands-on such as housekeeping, meal prep, or medication reminders.
This is a hard time for both you and your parent, but there are several ways you can help your parent now that they find themselves suddenly alone and vulnerable. Help them work through their grief in positive ways, and implement strategies to make their daily life and yours a little bit easier. Don’t forget to take care of yourself too, and seek out the help and support you need to continue to be there for the ones who need you most.