Aging adults know and recognize death. They understand, at least partly, that life doesn’t go on forever, and eventually, we all must die. But most people maintain the hope of living a long and natural lifespan. It’s when a loved one dies that coping with the pain and sorrow of their death becomes challenging to manage and grief becomes too much to bear.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Do Aging Adults Typically Deal With Grief?
- How to Help an Aging Adult Cope With Grief After Losing a Partner or Spouse
- How to Help an Aging Adult Cope With Grief After Losing Another Loved One
The reality of death for aging adults becomes even more amplified than before after a loved one dies. Older persons become painfully aware of their mortality and the limited time they have left. These realizations tend to evoke shocking emotions based on fear of death and the unknown.
For others, death is a natural progression in life, and it’s nothing to be afraid of. Wherever an aging adult stands on the spectrum of death acceptance, there are some common ways that most people cope with their grief.
How Do Aging Adults Typically Deal With Grief?
Adults of all ages suffer through grief in unique ways. Their dealing with their feelings and emotions depends on several factors, like past experiences with trauma and loss. Aging adults are no different. They feel the pain of loss after a loved one dies as everyone else does. They process their grief according to their emotional maturity, loss experiences, and their outlook in life.
An older adult will likely face some, if not all, of the stages of grief, beginning with the shock and disbelief of their loved one’s death. As the reality of their loss starts to set in, they may move on quickly to accepting that their loved one is no longer there.
Generally, men seem to advance to this stage faster than women, partly because of the differences in how men and women grieve. The emotional needs between men and women differ significantly in processing grief and how quickly they move through it.
How to Help an Aging Adult Cope With Grief After Losing a Partner or Spouse
Many people live with the fear of dying. For some, they have a terrible fear of their spouse dying before them. They don’t know what they’d do without them or how they’d survive without their continued love and support. Several are afraid of what will become of them after their spouse dies. This type of anxiety is familiar to many of us who fear the unknown or being left alone.
You can help an aging loved one alleviate some of these fears by offering your love and support in ways that are not only emotionally and spiritually meaningful but will also help them healthily get through their grief.
1. Offer to lend a hand
The initial feelings after a spouse dies can be those of overwhelm. A grieving spouse may be facing the red tape associated with end-of-life issues on top of the profound pain and sorrow that follows the death of a significant other.
They may not have the mental cognition to deal with the follow-up with the funeral home, insurances companies, lawyers, or any other medical or legal matters needing their attention. One way you can help a grieving older person is by stepping in and taking care of as many of the details associated with their spouse’s death as they’ll allow.
2. Help them organize
For a grieving widowed older adult, the loss of their spouse can mean the end of their will to go on with life. Everything they knew and cared about is now gone, and life without their partner doesn’t make sense. Their routines are forever changed, the things they lived for each day no longer exist, and their partner and companion is now gone.
All of these life changes become much too unbearable for some widowed persons. They may not know where to begin picking up the pieces. You can help someone by helping them organize their daily living.
3. Walk them through the steps
It would seem that an older adult wouldn't need reminders of how to live from one day to the next. With all of their life experience, it seems only natural that they'd be prepared for life's setbacks. But grief hits differently in older adults.
The suffering of losing a spouse who's been a life-long partner is an immense and unbearable pain to endure. Brain fog is a natural reaction to a spouse's death. Many widowed persons don't know what to do immediately after their spouse dies. Help them with a list of all the things they should do daily and weekly, including personal hygiene and household maintenance.
4. Spend time with them
As with any other person dealing with the death of a close loved one, an aging adult will need the added comfort and support of friends and family. Your loved one might take a step back from life and keep to themselves for the first few weeks after their spouse’s death. Withdrawal is a natural and normal reaction to grief.
However, withdrawal can lead to isolation, which can lead to depression. Chronic depression in aging adults is a serious health concern. Spend additional time with your loved one who’s coping with grief. Your presence is often reassuring and can get them through the initial stages of grief.
5. Offer emotional support
You are one of the most significant grief resources to an aging adult you know who's dealing with grief. When older adults experience the death of a spouse, they're confronted with many different feelings and emotions that they may need help understanding. They're dealing with everything, from fear and anxiety to what the future holds. Sometimes, they even suffer a loss in their faith and spirituality.
A way to help someone who's grieving is by being there for them. You can provide a safe space for them to talk about what they're going through without worrying about what to say. Simply listening is often enough for most bereaved people to start feeling better.
6. Introduce them to specialized counseling
Grief counseling is not always necessary, but it can help some bereaved individuals dealing with prolonged grief. Most people will work through their grief on their own, usually within the first twelve months after suffering a loss. However, some people can benefit from the help of a professional skilled in dealing with grief tied to spousal loss.
How to Help an Aging Adult Cope With Grief After Losing Another Loved One
If you’re struggling with how to help an elder cope with grief, it may help to consider their type of grief the same as it would be for any other person dealing with loss. The emotional pain and suffering that an elderly adult goes through are comparable to that of grieving at any stage of life.
However, one changed dynamic is that older adults tend to face loneliness and isolation more than other age groups, especially when they live alone. The following tips might help you find ways to support an older person struggling with grief.
1. Don’t deny their grief
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that older adults go through the same emotional setbacks as the rest of us. We often think of them as these stalwarts of stability because that’s how we see and look up to them, especially our parents and grandparents. They’re the ones we go to to help resolve our issues and give us guidance on life in general.
However, older adults aren’t supernatural, and they’re not immune to grieving the loss of a loved one. When someone they love dies, they go through the same hurt as anyone else and need love, support, and encouragement.
2. Offer spiritual comfort
Faith and spirituality often come into question after suffering the death of a loved one. Older adults may face a loss of belief as a result of losing someone they never imagined would die before them.
As is the case with the death of a child or grandchild, an older adult might need to reconnect with their higher power or spirituality to understand their loss and heal emotionally. Consider joining them for spiritual conversations at home or accompanying them to their usual place of worship. An added dose of spirituality may help ease the pain, fear, and sorrow they’re experiencing.
3. Be their transportation
We often overlook the most basic needs of older people, like their limited mobility not just because of their age but also their inability to drive. Many aging individuals don’t have the means to get around as freely as they did when they were younger.
Even if they still have a car parked in their driveway, it doesn’t mean that they can get behind the wheel. More and more older persons are confined to their homes because they don’t have a way to get around. In turn, they become isolated from their friends and loved ones. You can help by offering a ride to pay their last respects or attend a memorial or funeral service.
4. Visit with them
Older adults may find themselves feeling profoundly sad and lonely following the death of someone they love. Their grief goes much deeper than this particular loss. Each loss experienced may add to the culminating effects of their sadness and grief, exacerbated by the isolation from their friends and family.
If an older person you know has just lost their spouse, child, family member, or friend, visit them to acknowledge their loss. Check in with them from time to time so that they don’t feel alone and abandoned. You can encourage them to talk about their loss and express how they’re feeling.
Grief Among Aging Adults
The capacity of aging adults to grieve doesn’t diminish as they get older. They still undergo the same grief responses as any other adults. Bereaved adults who aren’t allowed to grieve may face added complications from stress, anxiety, and fear of what’s next.
Acknowledging and supporting bereaved older adults will help them process their losses while maintaining a sense of purpose and importance as they age.