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Grieving the Death of a Spouse

Posted by Mary Van Orman

A elderly couple kissing outside on a bench

As an adult child who loses an elderly parent, the initial shock and sadness will slowly lessen in time. But the grieving process for your surviving parent can be profoundly different than your experience. An elderly parent may be facing many challenges that might be harder to bounce back from at their age.   Grief can be powerful and overwhelming at any age, but the elderly face unique obstacles during this time. How can you help your grieving parent through this difficult transition? And how do you assist your parent when you are in the midst of your own pain?

First and foremost, you cannot help someone else if you are not mentally strong enough and prepared yourself.   You need to take care of yourself with plenty of sleep, exercise, and eating well.   You may need to rely on family members and friends to assist your parent while you also process the grief of your loss. But once you overcome the initial shock and are feeling more accepting of their death, then you can be a source of extreme comfort and support for your parent.

Here are a few unique challenges that can face an elderly loved one, who loses a spouse:

The power of grief. The death of a soul mate, daily companion, and caregiver can impact their lives in many ways and take a physical toll on their bodies. Grief untreated, can have fatal consequences, sometimes called “broken heart syndrome” – the result of sudden or extreme stress.   The surviving spouse may lose their appetite, have trouble sleeping, experience muscle tension, fatigue, and headaches.   Over time, the result may be a deficient diet, decrease in physical activity, and overuse of medications. Closely monitor your parent’s health. Take them to the doctor if you are concerned that the stress and grief are negatively affecting their health. Bring groceries, make nutritious meals, take them for a walk, and arrange for friends and family to check in when you cannot. Keeping your parent physically healthy can help them mentally deal better with the grief.

Loss of independence. Together, many couples can live independently. They can split tasks and rely on each other for help. But if one spouse passes away, this may threaten the independence of the surviving spouse to live alone. The parent who passed may have been the primary caregiver to the surviving parent. Not only is your parent facing the loss of a partner, but they may have to face losing their independence as well. Assess how your parent is living when you visit.   Are tasks falling behind? Can they keep up with the maintenance of the house? Is there food spoiling in the refrigerator? Is the house orderly, laundry done, garbage taken out, and have they groomed themselves? Perhaps you should consider moving them into assisted living? You may not have been aware of how much they relied on each other until one is gone.

Steep learning curve. Many older couples have been dividing household tasks for years. A surviving parent may not know the state of their finances or what bills need to be paid. They may never have learned how to cook a meal, drive a car, access their computer, or when to take out the trash.   This can be a harmful source of anxiety for an elderly individual.   They may be facing something in their life that they are unprepared for, and this can cause additional stress during an already tense time.   They may feel very isolated and ashamed to ask for help. The best thing you can do is offer your support. They might benefit from having prepared meals or groceries delivered directly to their house. To ease their burden, hire assistance for home tasks like a house cleaner, gardener, or handyman. Family members may need to assist with paying bills or evaluating their finances.

Mourning takes time. There is no roadmap or timeline for grief. Some spouses can experience painful signs of grief for up to two years after the loss of a spouse. Take your cues from your parent and go at their pace. Most will experience good days and bad days.   And remember, even if all seems to be going well, grief can resurface at holidays, anniversaries, and family occasions.   Acknowledge their sorrow and share how you feel. Encourage them to talk, cry, and express their sadness. Sometimes grief can continue much longer than anticipated and longer than it is healthy for your parent. Signs of continued severe grief can include forgetfulness, disorganization, unable to concentrate, lack of interest in activities, and a fascination with death. If your loved one’s intense grief does not lessen and it is affecting their daily lives, we suggest that you seek psychological help.

Vulnerable to depression. Losing a spouse is life altering and can easily lead to depression, especially among the elderly. Once a spouse has passed away, many people don’t want to intrude which can lead to isolation and ultimately, depression.   Include your loved one in group activities, take them on informal outings or to run errands, find them a new activity to participate in, take them to church, or if appropriate, get them a pet as a companion.   Encourage them to find a support group or to consult with a mental health professional if they are showing signs of depression.

The sorrow of losing a spouse is not the same as losing a parent. You will need to be extra patient and understanding with your parent as they process their grief, however long that might take. Be aware of the unique challenges that your aging parent may now face alone and offer your support.