When a Spouse Dies: Helping Seniors Cope With Loss
The death of an elderly spouse is more than the loss of a husband or wife. It’s the loss of a life partner, a long-time companion, a support system and a carer. It’s no wonder that seniors grieve so deeply that their own health becomes a matter of concern — so much so that surviving spouses over the age of 50 are 66 percent more likely to die in the three months following their loved one’s passing, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.
Grief’s symptoms include both the physical and the emotional. And despite the idea that there are stages of grief, most bereaved seniors experience grief in waves, with good days interspersed with the bad. While grieving, a senior may experience:
- Trouble sleeping
- Diminished appetite
- Crying easily
- Feelings of numbness
- Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness
- Intense longing
- Mood swings
In addition to these symptoms, the health of the surviving spouse often suffers. As The Atlantic reports, grief can weaken elderly adults’ immune systems, leaving them vulnerable to illness and infection. Existing aches and pains worsen, and cooking and eating becomes difficult as this once-shared activity turns into a painful reminder of a loved one’s absence. Even the risk of heart attack spikes in the weeks following a death.
The deep pain a grieving senior feels is often evident in her surroundings. Without a partner to share the burden of household duties, it becomes harder for the surviving spouse to keep up with everyday responsibilities. After years of splitting the chores, the widow may not know how to run the lawnmower or where to send the power bill. The senior’s home may fall into disrepair or become uncharacteristically untidy.
Grief becomes even more complicated when the death was preceded by a difficult relationship. Unresolved issues can lead to lingering anger and resentment, and it’s hard for the surviving spouse to reconcile these complex emotions with their grief and longing. This is especially true when drug addiction contributed to the death. A widow may feel anger at their spouse for leaving or guilt over not doing more to help. It’s hard to resolve these conflicted feelings in the face of grief. It feels wrong to include the bad times when sharing stories of the deceased, but it’s important not to shut out emotions. When the bereaved can’t turn to family without fear of judgment, professional grief counseling and self-help resources may be able to help.
Despite the challenges, it is possible to enjoy healthy and happy years after the loss of a spouse. Here are some tips that can help a person who is grieving:
- Reminisce: The urge to withdraw into grief is a common one, but loneliness and isolation makes healthy grieving harder. Instead, seniors should process their grief with friends and family. They can share stories, talk about feelings and take solace in the knowledge that they’re not mourning alone.
- Stay active: Exercise is a natural antidepressant. Going on walks and engaging in light exercise lifts moods and provides an opportunity for socialization.
- Stay social: Isolation has serious consequences for senior health. When a senior loses a longtime companion, remaining social becomes important. Staying active in church, social clubs, volunteering and other social outlets provides widows with a strong support system.
The death of a spouse is one of life’s most difficult moments and there’s no easy path to healing. Grief takes time, and it’s important for loved ones to exhibit patience and kindness in this challenging time. However, if grief appears to be getting worse with time, rather than better, it may be a sign of something more serious. Professional guidance can help struggling seniors process their grief and move forward in a healthy manner.
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