The process of aging has many highs and many lows. One difficult aspect of aging for many is losing their loved ones, especially a spouse. Frequently, as couples age together, one spouse will end up providing care for the other, which can add complexity to grief and loss. Grief looks different for everyone. Many times, feelings of loss begin before the actual death of a loved one.
Other times, death can invoke feelings of calm and peace. When one spouse loses the other, they may experience a range of losses, including the loss of memories, independence, and financial security. Adult children often play a role in the grieving process, providing care and filling in for their deceased parent as much as possible. While there is no easy way to grieve, there are ways to support your parent and ease the transition into a new way of life.
Types of Loss and Grief
Not all loss feels the same. As you prepare to support your parent after the loss of their spouse, it may be helpful to become familiar with the different types of loss and how they may impact the grieving process. Here are a few of the most common types of loss and grief:
- Ambiguous loss. This loss is common for those who have lost a spouse due to brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia. As these illnesses and diseases progress, your loved one may become someone you don’t recognize or remember. Ambiguous loss refers to loss without closure. Those dealing with this may experience a lack of resolution, making it difficult to accept a loved one’s passing.
- Anticipatory grief. This refers to a loss that happens even before a loved one physically dies. In cases of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, your parent and other family members may be dealing with loss and grief as the disease progresses, lessening the feeling of loss after physical death.
- Sudden loss. This is a death that happens suddenly and without warning. Spouses who lose their loved ones may experience this in cases of death after a fall, aneurysm, heart attack, or stroke. The remaining spouse may feel various emotions and the consequences of unresolved issues.
Stages of Grief
While we each experience loss and grief in our way, there are five stages that define the grieving process. These stages do not happen linearly - individuals may experience more than one stage at a time. However, as you continue to help your aging parent cope with the death of their spouse, it can be beneficial to understand the stages of grief to better understand and empathize with your parent.
The acclaimed Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, says there are five stages of grief that include: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Denial can refer to refusing to believe that the loss has occurred, but it can also include the feelings of overwhelm and numbness that often accompanies the death of a loved one. These feelings are our body’s way of protecting us from the reality of our loss. As denial begins to fade, stronger emotions may arise. Many individuals experience undirected anger after loss. This anger may stem from lost time with a loved one or the circumstances of the death. Bargaining often focuses on the past and may surface through statements such as, “If I only I could go back in time” or “What if I could have done something differently.” Depression focuses on the present. Feelings of anxiety and grief may be stronger during this time. While depression may feel like it could last forever, it is an essential part of the grieving process. And finally, the last stage of the process is acceptance. Acceptance refers to acknowledging that your loved one is now gone. At this stage, individuals may begin to accept and move forward with their new reality.
Supporting a Loved One Through Grief
As you support your remaining parent through stages of grief, recognize you may be grieving yourself. Loss is not linear and does not look the same for every individual. Remember to give yourself the time and space to process your grief while caring for your parent. Here are a few ways you can support your loved one through this time:
- Provide physical support. The best way to offer support to your grieving parent is to show up physically. Your parent will probably need additional assistance with everyday activities, such as household tasks, scheduling appointments, and transportation. Your loved one may also need help coordinating funeral arrangements and communicating plans to friends and family.
- Show emotional support. During this time, it’s important to remember that grief can manifest in ways that may not always be rational. If you cannot physically be present, checking in more consistently with phone calls or video conferences. Remember, the best thing you can do during this time is to be patient, kind, and lend a listening ear.
- Honor your loved one’s memory. Ignoring your grief will not make it disappear. Instead, sharing your favorite stories about your deceased loved one and doing things they enjoyed will help you and your remaining parent process grief while building new memories together.
- Prioritize health. Grief and loss often have an impact on overall wellness. You may notice your parent acting more confused, having trouble concentrating, and feeling more physically unwell than usual. These are common with grief but consider scheduling a doctor’s appointment for your remaining parent.
Additional Resources for Loved Ones
After you support your loved one in the short term, make space for yourself to process the loss. If you are tired or stressed in your supporting role, step back and remind yourself that you are only one person. Here are a few other resources to consider as you work with your parent through this grief journey.
- Therapy for Seniors. There are times in life when it is helpful to get a neutral perspective on life’s problems, and the death of a loved one is one of them. Seniors have benefitted from talk therapy to cope with death, physical and mental decline, and other elderly issues.
- Single Senior Living Communities. The death of a spouse can cause the widow to feel extremely lonely, and there will come a time after mourning when they want to foster a sense of community. Single senior living communities offer a welcoming community to form meaningful social connections in one’s later years.
Support Through Grief at Inspīr
Living in a community helps ease the pain of losing a spouse. At Inspīr we have a wide range of support groups, and a wide range of experiences to help our residents walk through their grief and start a new chapter in their lives.