Grief is a fact of life: nearly everyone has to deal with loss during their lifetime. Grief doesn't just pertain to the death of a loved one, it can occur in response to the loss of anything dear to a person -- from a family pet to a job, to divorce or the loss of a home. Unfortunately, seniors are particularly vulnerable to grief...and its complications.
While grief is natural, it's also largely individualistic: there's no right or wrong way to grieve, although some methods can help the grieving process while others can hinder it. If your aging loved one is experiencing the sadness associated with loss, here are some things you can do to help facilitate the grieving -- and healing -- process.
What Are the Stages of Grief?Elisabeth Kübler-Ross proposed that there are five stages of grief in her seminal 1969 book, "On Death and Dying." These include:
- Denial: Feelings of numbness protect people from the intensity of loss. While these can be interpreted as a lack of caring, it's a normal reaction and will diminish as the shock subsides.
- Bargaining: It's easy to become preoccupied by what you could have done different. Unfortunately, if left to persist, these feelings can lead to guilt and remorse which impede healing.
- Depression: When the extent of the loss sets in, many people experience symptoms of depression, including sleep difficulties, appetite disturbances, lack of energy, poor focus, and crying spells along with intense feelings of loneliness and isolation.
- Anger: Feelings of powerlessness can lead to anger. This emotion can be directed at anyone or anything -- from loved ones to a higher power, or even life in general.
- Acceptance: Coming to terms with all of these feelings and accepting the loss is the last stage and also represents the beginning of the healing process.
Keep in mind that not everyone will experience all of these phases or in this particular order, and that some people return to earlier stages instead of on to others. Kübler-Ross herself said of these five stages, "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."
How Can You Help Your Loved One Cope?
There's no clock on grieving: the pace is completely defined by the individual. And while the grieving process is led by the individual, caregivers can provide important help. For the most part, your job is not to mitigate your loved one's suffering, but to offer support and be present while acknowledging and accepting your loved one's feelings.
One of the most important things caregivers can do is allow aging loved ones to experience the validity of their feelings -- both positive and negative. Giving your loved one a writing journal can help with important self-expression.
Many seniors also take comfort in talking to people going through the same issues. Support groups for people undergoing similar losses can help stave off feelings of isolation. Check with local hospitals, counseling centers, hospices and funeral homes to locate a bereavement support group.
Grief isn't just emotional, but can also lead to physical problems. These symptoms -- which include lowered immunity, weight loss or gain, fatigue, insomnia, and nausea -- can interfere with your aging loved one's overall well being, so looking after your loved one's physical health is important.
Also, certain "triggers" can lead to heightened emotions. As milestone holidays, anniversaries and other special dates and events approach, check in with your aging loved one about their expectations. Some may enjoy a distraction -- such as a trip to the movies -- others may want to start a new tradition in memory of the lost loved one, or simply spend a quiet day at home. Again, there is no "normal."
How Do You Know When More Help is Needed?
Counseling can also be very useful in helping individuals work through all of the grieving emotions. If your aging loved one continues to struggle over time and/or shows no signs of improvement, talk to his/her primary care doctor about whether therapy may be in order. Unresolved grief can interfere with the ability to function day-to-day and can lead to depression and other lasting mental health problems.
In his book, "Awakening from Grief," John Welshons writes, "There is no way to apply systems, rules or emotional road maps. Our job is to be a presence, rather than a savior. A companion, rather than a leader. A friend, rather than a teacher." By keeping this in mind and by focusing your caregiving efforts on being present, you can help your aging loved one manage their loss and begin healing.
Because mmLearn.org knows that no one is immune to grief and loss they asked clinical psychologist, spiritual director and author Nancy Reeves, to record a two-part webcast on "Grief and Loss". In Part 1, Dr. Reeves covers the basic principles of grief and loss, and Part 2 answers many of the frequently asked questions pertaining to grief.
mmlearn.org offers a large library of videos for caregivers of older adults, covering topics pertaining to senior care. Whether you are a healthcare professional or a family caregiver, if you are caring for an older adult we know that you will find mmlearn.org an essential learning and guidance tool for all of your caregiver training needs.